‘The Rothschilds have a remarkable collecting history,’ says Christie’s Deputy Chairman Charles Cator. ‘The name Rothschild means the best of the best. They are the greatest family of non-royal collectors who have ever existed.’
Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection at Christie’s London on 4 July offered more than 50 lots with exceptional provenance collected by members of the Rothschild banking family, particularly by Baron Gustave de Rothschild (1829-1911), and housed in some of the family’s magnificent residences.
‘The Rothschild name is synonymous with collecting at the very highest level, with many of the world’s greatest works of art having a Rothschild provenance,’ Cator continues. ‘Their fabled name is added to the extraordinary roll call of illustrious owners of these masterpieces, so many of them royal, from Louis XV and Marie Antoinette to William Beckford and Prince Demidoff. This sale is a celebration of connoisseurship and passionate collecting.’
Among the treasures offered are cabinets by the celebrated Flemish master Hendrick van Soest. The cabinets were commissioned as a group of four for King Philip V of Spain, the second son of the Grand Dauphin and grandson of Louis XIV, to honour the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 that finalised the War of the Spanish Succession.
‘These are grand, regal objects,’ says Cator, ‘but they also tell an important story about our European history.’ The central panels of the cabinets show the young Philippe V sitting on a pedestal above two chained prisoners with a background of radiating military trophies. On each side, eight marquetry panels on the drawers illustrate various city sieges and battles scenes.
The sale also features a rock-crystal casket, one of a recognised group thought to have been produced in Venice in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Such caskets were traditionally used to house costly baby linen blessed by the Pope, and given by him to leading European Catholic families on the birth of a male heir.
In the early 19th century, a pair of these caskets belonged to the English connoisseur and gothic novelist William Beckford. When they were eventually sold in the celebrated Fonthill Abbey sale of 1823, they were said to have come from the collection of Pope Paul V Borghese, who may also have commissioned them.
The Rothschilds acquired things that belonged to other celebrated collectors, so there is a pattern of weaving in and out of great illustrious names’ — Charles Cator
The caskets were purchased at the Fonthill sale by an agent on behalf of the 2nd Earl Grosvenor. They remained in the collection until at least 1878, when they were loaned by the 1st Duke of Westminster to the Midland Counties Art Museum in Nottingham. They were subsequently acquired by the Rothschilds.
‘One of the most interesting aspects of the [Rothschild] family is that they acquired things that belonged to other celebrated collectors,’ Cator explains, ‘so there is this pattern of weaving in and out of these great illustrious names.’
Another highlight of the sale is ‘The Rothschild Apostles’, a set of enamel plaques that once adorned an antependium on an altar in the now lost church of Santa Maria della Celestia in Venice. They are the work of Léonard Limosin, the best-known enameller of the French Renaissance.
Limosin was from Limoges, a city in central France that thrived on the artistic production of enamel on metal. It was probably the Bishop of Limoges who put him in touch with the court of Francis I , which in 1545 commissioned Limosin to produce a suite of 12 large enamelled plaques of the Apostles, which are today at Chartres.
In 1548 Limosin was appointed Valet de Chambre and Emailleur du Roi, and in 1553 he received a commission from Henry II for two enamel altarpieces, which are now in the Louvre.
‘So many of these pieces were recognised as extraordinary when they were created’ — Charles Cator
A 1653 drawing of the antependium of Santa Maria della Celestia survives, showing the original placement of the Rothschild enamels. In 1810 the church, which formed part of a convent, was closed by Napoleon, and the antependium was moved to the Benedictine abbey church of Monastier, near Treviso.
In 1875 the enamels were sold to the antique dealer Ricchetti, and subsequently acquired by Baron Gustave de Rothschild. A number of the other plaques from the antependium, and also a liturgical lamp that hung above the altar, remained in the Rothschild family until being sold in 2000; one is now in the Correr Museum in Venice.
According to Cator, many of the treasures offered in Masterpieces from a Rothschild Collection reflect the spirit of le goût Rothschild — the celebrated aesthetic that has influenced many European and American interiors since the 19th century. The Rothschilds’ collecting follows the tradition of collecting at European Royal courts during the Renaissance, Baroque and Enlightenment periods.
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‘So many of these pieces were recognised as extraordinary when they were created,’ says Cator. ‘They were the height of human achievement at that particular time.’