By Dr. Jeffrey Lant
It is my privilege to have attended some of the great auctions of my lifetime, including those for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Jacqueline Onassis, the Grand Duke of Baden, and the Paul and Bunny Mellon sale... to name but a few. Each of these caused people worldwide to drop everything, and go through the catalogs with care and precision.
By reading these catalogs, one enters into the very most intimate life of the catalog subject. This is one of the few ways one has to actually learn how the other half lives. Let me be very clear with you: they don't just live, they flourish.
I first became aware of Robert de Balkany a couple of years ago, when the first of his magnificent collection hit the auction block for sales totaling 21.6 million dollars. Though I was present, and though I bid with more optimism than the situation warranted, I walked away with nothing. Nothing tangible, that is. For just to see the catalog and go through it lot by lot, is like a lesson in fine furniture, accouterments, candelabra, carpets, silver, dishes, decorative stones, extravagant china, goblets made for a king, and so much more.
When you are at the top of the tree, everything must be suitably matched. The more grand and glorious items you possess, the more you will search for more of these grand and glorious items, because anything else would look out of place. Thus just to open up the de Balkany sales catalogs is to gain an aperture to how one of the world's truly wealthy men, gifted with supreme good taste, actually lived.
Thus even if you buy nothing from this catalog and these sales, you have gained a leg up for the future because the more beauty and ostentation one sees and compares, the more comfortable one becomes in evaluating it, studying it, seeking it, and acquiring it. So I'm going to show it to you... my encounter with Robert de Balkany.
Robert de Balkany (1931-2015) grew up in the constantly changing world of the Balkan states. He was born in Hungary, a nation distinguished by boastful arrogance and constantly missed opportunities that resulted in the nation subjugated and in shambles. He resolved to leave such a place of uncertainty and chaos. He wanted to make money, and he knew that necessitated an environment of security and predictability.
He looked at all those assets, mind, body, and soul, and did what a man coming from nothing if he expects to conquer the market must do. First, he left Hungary, then under Soviet domination. He went to the United States to study architecture, and began his remarkable career of developing residential and commercial properties. He created them with astonishing speed. He chose as his focus the City of Light, Paris, and he became a citizen of France.
In those days, he added more and more projects to his burgeoning agenda. He believed in a thumb in every pie. As his real estate empire grew, he began to be concerned not just with what was outside the buildings, but what was inside. He was a fast study, aided by his two cultivated wives. First, the daughter of Ambassador Andre Francois-Poncet (divorced 1966), and secondly Marie-Gabrielle of Savoy (divorced 1990), daughter of the last King of Italy.
As a result of having the money and the desire for a perfect life, he began haunting the great auction houses of Europe and the United States. Like William Randolph Hearst, the famous American publisher, he bought wildly, extravagantly, teaching himself as he went. Here is where we learn a great deal about the man... how he thought and what he was trying to achieve.
He loved color... the richer and more opulent the better. He recognized, as so many still have not, that our ancient ancestors did not enjoy the blandness of white. They wanted exuberance, vitality, zest, and the elusive "Wow Factor". He was not interested in the sedate, the calm, nor the placid. Now he became a Hungarian all over again, determined to show the world what a Magyar of vision and bold audacity could do.
Here, however, he had a decision to make. He was impatient to complete his houses and his yacht. He did not want to wait another minute, and so he made a fateful decision to use decorators and decorator copies of many of his items to achieve his goal. He was rich... he didn't care if that richness was presented in copies; he simply wanted to show it off, and garner the unlimited compliments and envy of anyone privileged to see his expansive empire.
Thus, to go through the de Balkany catalog with a view towards purchase, one must be very careful to make sure the item you are interested in is not a copy, and moreover that all the parts are matched suitably. Again, de Balkany didn't care. And because the purchase of copies allowed him to acquire quickly and for lower cost, he leaned more and more in that direction to the horror of the purists, who told him how wonderful his interiors were, while inwardly scoffing at the nouveau riche.
In the event, a very sizable percentage of his collection was not composed of original pieces, but rather copies. Again, he didn't seem to care. After all, he had the effect that he wanted. And frankly, how many people can tell the difference between a First Empire chaise and its Third Empire copy?
The truth is, the hundreds and hundreds of people that attended the de Balkany auctions did not seem to care a wit about whether the piece was original or not, to the delight of his representatives at Christie's auction house in London. Virtually every item out of the over 700 items in these auctions sold, and sold not merely for the low estimate, but for prices dramatically ahead of Christie's suggested estimates. The total take for this second pair of auctions was 19.3 million dollars, for a combined total of over 40 million dollars... a record for sales of this kind.
One of my wise advisors years ago counseled me when participating in these celebrity auctions to grasp your hands and keep firm control of your bids. He would say, after a minor object was auctioned at lavish price, "Be happy you did not buy that, because if you had you'd never get your money out."
Thus the morning after the de Balkany auction, many otherwise intelligent people must have woken up saying "Oh my God I can't believe I paid that much!"
A Russian silver dressing mirror, St. Petersburg, 1876
Following my learned mentor's suggestions, I selected the number of items which I would buy only for the low estimate, not more. And so I stuck to my guns over both days of the auction watching people pay small fortunes for items which could be gained at a lesser rate from other auctions. Of course, I was disappointed... but realistic. After all, I still had my money.
At last, as one of the final lots in the second and final day of auctioning, I saw a stunning silver mirror made in 1876 in St. Petersburg. It was oval... the sides had twin beaded borders... surmounted by a double coat of arms... flanked by lions and surmounted by a royal coronet.
To my consternation, by this time in the auction, just minutes before its conclusion, I was chagrined and irked with myself for having wasted two days with zero results. Then the situation changed, as in auctions it so commonly does. In one minute everything was different. As a result, to my complete amazement, I acquired lot 690, this lovely silver mirror... and for below the low estimate. My mood changed instantly.
This proves again what cannot be stated too often. If you are patient and you are clear on what you will do with each lot you wish to acquire, you can acquire the most beautiful of objects, as I did in the Robert de Balkany sale, without breaking the bank or overriding my firm way of doing business, viz. about only bidding the low estimate. Now instead of regret because I acquired nothing, I shall purr with warm satisfaction every time I see this mirror surmounted by a royal crown.
Such an achievement demands champagne, and good cheer, don't you think?
N.B. I take this opportunity to thank Jill Waddel, head of the silver department for Christie's New York. She was my representative for two solid days when it looked like I was going to get nothing. Her voice was upbeat, her service concise and efficient, and her response to my purchase of lot 690 was almost as excited as mine was. Thank you.
To accompany this article, I have selected Cole Porter's immortal tune "I Love Paris" (1953). Robert de Balkany surely felt this way too.
"I love Paris every moment
Every moment of the year..."
Click here to hear the song.
Dr. Jeffrey Lant, Harvard educated, started writing for publication at age 5. Since then, he has published over 1,000 articles and 63 books, and counting.