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A Badminton Cabinet's Net Gain

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page C02

It is not enough to say, as everyone will, that the Badminton Cabinet auctioned in London this week for $36.7 million is the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold.

The 18th-century Florentine ebony chest, which is inlaid with hard and semiprecious stones, was never about function. The piece was commissioned in an era when exquisite decorative objects signified wealth and power, just as paintings and sculptures have since. But Thursday at Christie's, this rare work -- only three of its caliber are known -- entered a realm that seemed reserved for fine, mostly impressionist, art. The Badminton Cabinet became the 17th most expensive item conveyed at auction. It ranks behind nine Picassos and four van Goghs, but just ahead of Pontormo's "Portrait of Duke Cosimo I de'Medici" (it was in Medici's workshop that the chest was made). Every other entry in the art market's Top 20 is a painting.

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"The cabinet transcends the boundaries of furniture," Charles Cator, co-chairman of Christie's International UK, said Thursday by phone.

The Badminton Cabinet happens to be covered in painterly scenes rendered with amazing finesse in chunks of colored stone, a technique known as pietra dura. It measures 12 feet 8 inches tall by 7 feet 8 inches wide and includes a clock with fleurs-de-lis for numbers.

The seller, Barbara Piasecka Johnson, made auction history in 1990, paying $15.1 million -- a record price for furniture that had not been topped till this sale.

The new record-holder is Prince Hans-Adam II, head of state of tiny Liechtenstein, the principality between Switzerland and Austria. The purchase was made for the family-owned Liechtenstein Museum in Vienna, which reopened in March in a grandly restored baroque palace.

Cator, who witnessed both auctions, described Thursday's event as "pretty tense." Despite the cabinet's appeal as a work of art, the number of people who would have space to install it is limited, he noted.

"It's got that 'wow' factor; it's something that you see and say, 'my God.' But one wasn't absolutely sure how it would go," Cator said of the price.

Liechtenstein Museum Director Johan Kraeftner acted for the prince from the salesroom floor, bidding against two anonymous competitors weighing in by telephone. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has several examples of pietra dura, including the massive Farnese Table, but a spokeswoman declined to say whether the museum had participated in the auction.

Offers started at 6 million pounds ($11.5 million) and moved up in increments of 500,000. After surpassing what Johnson had paid in 1990, bidding ratcheted up by the million. Cator said that Kraeftner never faltered.

"It's a real masterpiece," Kraeftner said by phone before jetting back to Vienna. He described plans to install the cabinet with similar objects to create a Gesamtkunstwerk -- a "total work of art" -- which was the baroque ideal. When placed on view, perhaps next March, the Badminton Cabinet will be surrounded by more than a dozen important examples of pietra dura already in the prince's collection.

But the Badminton Cabinet always has been in a class of its own. It has been called the greatest work of the Grand Ducal workshops and the last great work of art made in Florence under the Medici family.

Beyond the architectural statement of gilded bronze tops and stately legs, the elaborate surface decoration almost defies description. Inlays of brilliantly colored lapis lazuli, amethyst quartz, red and green jasper and other semiprecious stones portray birds flitting among sprays of flowers and ribbons. Swags of bronze foliage are encrusted with hard-stone fruit. Lions, grotesques and satyrs appear on drawer fronts and doors. The Four Seasons are rendered in bronze, along with the coat of arms of the English aristocrat for whom the cabinet was created.

Henry Somerset, the third duke of Beaufort, was only 19 in 1726, when he passed through Florence on his grand tour of Europe. He stayed a week and ordered the piece, making a rare private commission at the Medici workshop. The cabinet required about six years and 30 expert craftspeople, according to Christie's catalogue entry. Documents record that the duke paid 500 pounds, plus 94 pounds in duty.

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