When leading French auction house Artcurial was commissioned to sell 10,000 pieces of furniture, lighting and other accoutrements from The Ritz Paris following a series of renovations, it knew the event would cause a stir. The Ritz is, after all, one of the world’s most celebrated hotels, synonymous with elegance and glamour, with a guest list that includes Coco Chanel, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn, Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few. But when, on April 21 2018, total sales soared to €7.3m, setting a new world record for a hotel auction, even Artcurial’s associate director and hotel-auction specialist Stéphane Aubert was a little taken aback.
“The total was seven times the estimate,” he says. The two top-selling lots were a Louis XV-style desk and chair set from the Coco Chanel suite, which went to a private European collector for €188,500, and the brass name plaque from the Bar Hemingway, which smashed its estimate to achieve €88,400. Even more mundane items such as a much-used late-19th-century bathtub and a bundle of 65 coat hangers exceeded expectations, selling for €7,800 and €3,100 respectively.
Seven months later, Christie’s London experienced a similar success with the contents of Annabel’s nightclub, opened in 1963 by Mark Birley, whose deep-red subterranean interior was the go-to playground for everyone famous and fabulous for the next five decades. Pre-sale estimates for the 264 lots ranged from £50 to £120,000; actual sales exceeded that fourfold, reaching a total of £4,099,250. “We had 2,000 visitors to the pre-sale exhibition and hundreds of buyers who had never been to Christie’s before,” says the auction house’s UK chairman Orlando Rock. “They were people from all over the world who had been to, or had heard about, Annabel’s and who wanted to own some part of it” – parts like the dancefloor (£15,000), the silvered oil table lamps that were such a symbol of the club that 25 bidders fought over a set of six, sending the price up to £20,000, and a complete table (main picture) for eight comprising everything from the signature red and green upholstered chairs to the salt cellar and pepper mill (£11,875). Someone even bought one of the urinals.
Aubert, who has become a specialist in this area following Artcurial’s successful sale of contents from Versailles’ Trianon Palace Hotel in 2007, puts the appeal of these items down to their unique provenance. “Collectors come to discover, or rediscover, the ambience and style of these historic places,” he says. “People used to buy paintings and furniture to adorn their homes – today they also want to buy a lifestyle, a history, a memory or simply a dream. I’ve had clients who’ve bought furniture from the suite where they spent their honeymoon; another buys pieces from every hotel auction we hold because he wants to recreate the atmosphere of each in his castle.”
The power of story and association certainly can’t be underestimated. When a 12-person bidding war broke out at a Bonhams auction over a rosewood serving counter back in 2007, it was because it came from The Savoy, and said so in very large letters across the front. The silver duck press from Parisian dining institution La Tour d’Argent fetched €40,200 at Artcurial in 2016 for the same reason. But is what Orlando Rock describes as “the cult of personality” all there is to it?
“I don’t know a single collector who would buy something only because it had come from somewhere, or belonged to someone, famous,” says Simon Hucker, senior specialist in modern British art at Sotheby’s, which is responsible for selling off much of the contents of The Ivy restaurant. “It has to be a good thing in the first place.” He cites the excitement over the sale of The Ivy’s art collection. A number of notable contemporary British artists have been commissioned to create work for the restaurant over the years, and these paintings formed a significant part of the 2015 sale. Particular highlights included Bridget Riley’s colour-popping The Ivy Restaurant, a portrait of jazz musician George Melly, George Always 1 (which sold for £23,125), by Maggi Hambling and a brooding intaglio print on paper called Ivy by Howard Hodgkin. All far exceeded pre-sale expectations: the Hodgkin achieved a record price for a work on paper by the artist (£106,250), while Riley’s piece was the top lot of the night, selling for £413,000. “All these artworks were bought by serious collectors because they function as paintings outside the context,” Hucker explains. “However, they are also unique (the Riley, for example, is a very unusual size and shape because it was made for a specific place), and full of the spirit of The Ivy. That provenance certainly added to the value.”
The artworks also stole the show at Christie’s sale of Annabel’s contents last year, accounting for nine of the auction’s 10 bestselling lots (the iconic painted stucco figure of a Bodhisattva from the Club’s Buddha room went for £137,500). “Mark Birley collected incredibly interesting 20th-century British artists such as Augustus John, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Glyn Philpot,” says Rock. “These are works we would sell at Christie’s anyway, and we estimated exactly as we would have done without the provenance. The high prices they actually achieved, however, had a lot to do with the association with Annabel’s. It was a perfect combination of provenance and artistry.” Philpot’s oil and charcoal Portrait of Henry Thomas went for £368,750, a world record for the artist at auction.
Rock is less convinced that Christie’s would have sold the club’s furniture and furnishings had they not originated from such a famous venue, and it is certainly true that many of the items coming up for sale at these auctions – peach bathrobes from The Ritz Paris, wall-mounted ashtrays from The Savoy, that Annabel’s urinal – are pure memorabilia. However, the escalating excitement around these sales and the record prices being achieved suggest that collectors of design objects are finding that many of the items that furnished these establishments also hold that magical mix of story and inherent artistic merit.
“These grand hotels have a history of working with established names and avant-garde figures,” says Penny Sparke, professor of design history at Kingston University. Artcurial’s Stéphane Aubert agrees, pointing out that “Most of the items created for these grand palace hotels and celebrated restaurants were made by the best artisans – craftspeople from the Faubourg St Antoine for the furniture, Christofle for the silver and Limoges for the tableware – and in some cases famous artists were commissioned to work on the interiors. The bar of the Hôtel de Crillon, for example, was made by the noted French sculptor César in 1982.” The neoclassical Crillon on Paris’s Place de la Concorde is one of the most famous hotels in the world, a favourite of names from Churchill and Stravinsky to Peggy Guggenheim and Madonna. César (Baldaccini) was a leading figure of the nouveau réalisme movement. Put the two together and it’s no wonder that when the 5.2m-long bar with its shimmering mosaic-mirror front came up for sale at Artcurial in 2013, it tempted a contemporary-art collector to part with €300,000.
There was a similar buzz about a pair of The Ivy’s champagne buckets, which sold at Sotheby’s for £7,500. Instantly recognisable to anyone who ordered a bottle of bubbly at the restaurant during its 1990s heyday, they were designed to commission by architectural studio Future Systems, the Stirling Prize-winning practice behind buildings including the Lords Media Centre and Selfridges Birmingham. “These champagne buckets were very much part of The Ivy experience,” says Simon Hucker, “but they also stand on their own as design objects. Future Systems was a really important design practice and rarely made pieces like this. The organic form is very redolent of their architectural work in that period, making the buckets iconic in terms of the studio’s own practice at a particular moment in time.”
Major sales of the contents of the world’s most famous hotels and restaurants are few and far between as they rely on the establishments undergoing extensive renovations or, in some unfortunate cases, closing down. 2018 was a bumper year for collectors with significant auctions on both sides of the Channel. 2019 is looking comparatively fallow, although Artcurial has recently completed the inventory of what Aubert describes, somewhat mysteriously, as “a historical palace on the French Riviera”, so there may be another in the offing. In the meantime, the rising status of these pieces of design, art and social history is having an effect on the secondary market.
Online antiques and design marketplace 1stdibs now offers what its editorial director and director of fine arts Anthony Barzilay Freund describes as “a robust collection of hotel-related furniture and art”. This currently includes a pair of walnut headboards, complete with integrated lighting and a radio unit, designed in 1955 by the Italian architect Gio Ponti for the Hotel Royal in Naples, and an early-20th-century Venetian clear glass and gilt decorated chandelier from London’s Café Royal. The headboards are priced at $6,734 and come with the original invoice; the chandelier will set you back $49,885.
“I’m not surprised that things are now coming up for sale again,” says Harvey Cammell, deputy chairman of Bonhams UK, who worked on the Café Royal sale in 2008. “The pieces from the Café Royal are very much of the period – it was ahead of the game in embracing art deco – and, of course, there’s the famous provenance too.” Cammell won’t comment on the way prices have moved in the 11 years since then (when Bonhams auctioned the Café Royal’s chandeliers they fetched between £7,800 and £15,600 apiece), but he will admit that he believes this is a collecting area with the potential to endure – especially when provenance and quality come together. As he says: “Unique pieces with intrinsic value and a story to tell will be forever collectable.”