Even before the auction catalogue arrived, curators at Hillwood Museum and Gardens were alert to a rare opportunity.
Marella Agnelli, widow of Italian industrialist Gianni Agnelli, had consigned the contents of their New York apartment to Sotheby's. With estimates of $11 million, the sale would be a highlight of the fall auction season. The Agnelli apartment held just the sort of fine, highly decorative treasures from 18th-century Europe and Russia that Hillwood's founder, Marjorie Merriweather Post, collected with passion in her day. Beyond beds and decorator sofas, there were museum pieces with links to Catherine the Great and France's ancien regime.
Curators and a conservator were swiftly dispatched to New York to assess the collection. They were astonished to find, in addition to major furniture, whole sets of 18th-century Russian imperial porcelain, such as one sees at the Hermitage. And Hillwood's Russian curator, Karen Kettering, spied a remarkable table with a spectacular painted glass top. It was, Kettering says, "an incredible piece of furniture of a sort I don't think we'll ever see again."
Without debate, a war chest was filled.
"We knew we would have to be slightly aggressive in our bidding, knowing the market," says Liana Paredes, curator of Western European art.
On the appointed day, Oct. 23, interest from European collectors, dealers and even the Spanish Ministry of Culture sent prices soaring past $14.2 million.
Gianni Agnelli's six-foot-long gilt-bronze-encrusted, leather-topped Louis XVI writing desk brought $3.8 million. The price was at the low end of a $3 million-$5 million estimate on a work stamped by Jean-Francois Leleu.
But a 17th-century bronze medallion, one of 12 made for a monument to Louis XIV, brought $2.8 million, more than four times its $600,000 estimate. Most of the roundel's companions are at the Louvre.
A Paris dealer, meanwhile, snapped up a pair of Louis XVI Japanese lacquer cabinets for $848,000, well above the high estimate of $600,000. Their intriguing connections include ownership by William Beckford, a notorious English collector who went to Paris right after the revolution to buy up royal furnishings. (During his stay, Beckford rented the Hotel d'Orsay, for which the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Salon Dore was created.)
Hillwood had more modest goals -- a few choice pieces of porcelain, for which its collection is renowned, and the table with the painted glass top, which had a high estimate of $120,000.
Paredes bid from Washington, engaging in a few "nerve-racking" minutes over the phone. Porcelain prices eclipsed expectations, and Hillwood pulled back. But for $220,800, the Washington museum snared the table.
Kettering describes a marvel of late 18th-century style and workmanship, preserved in almost perfect condition. The verre eglomise decoration has medallions painted in gold on a sky-blue round. The design is edged with green and gold meandering vines. The piece is the product of St. Petersburg craftsmen Heinrich Gambs and Jonathan Ott, who were favorites of the Grand Duchess Maria Feodorovna.
Just as important to Hillwood, Post owned a desk attributed to the same makers. But Kettering points out that it has only small glass panels. Only one other piece with a surface as large as the Agnelli table is known to exist. It belongs to the Pavlovsk Palace in St. Petersburg.
Hillwood's curators had been drawn to the Agnellis' extensive collection of porcelain, which Paredes describes as "virtually the largest holdings of the Arabesque and Yacht services" commissioned during the reign of Catherine the Great. But bidding by five parties pushed the price of 24 dinner plates from the Arabesque service to $131,200, more than four times a presale estimate of $30,000. A pair of Arabesque fruit coolers at the top of Hillwood's list had been estimated at $15,000, but sold for $120,000.
Whatever Hillwood's loss in porcelain, when the glass-topped table came up, Paredes had a full bidding fund. She listened intently as prices swiftly escalated. Hillwood finally joined in at about $160,000.
"Fortunately we had not bypassed our limit by that point," she says. "I felt confident once we were able to play."
The table is expected to debut at Hillwood in February. For now, it sits in New York, awaiting construction of a very special shipping crate.
The Agnelli sale was not the only closely watched decorative arts sale last month. On Oct. 28-29, Sotheby's auctioned the well-known private collection of American furniture and silver and equestrian art amassed over two generations by the Walter M. Jeffords family of Delaware County, Pa. Three children in the third generation consigned 742 lots of sporting paintings, Chippendale chairs, Revolutionary silver tankards and more, and recouped $18.1 million. The silver alone, including a coffee pot made by Paul Revere Jr., brought $6 million.
A rare early Philadelphia tall-case clock in the Queen Anne style was acquired for $1.6 million by Winterthur Museum in Delaware. It will go on display next weekend.
Measuring 8 feet 111/2 inches tall, the mahogany clock is one of the most sophisticated works by Peter Stretch. The catalogue image does not do justice to the description of baroque fretwork carving with dragon motifs, flame finials, fluted colonnettes with Corinthian capitals and arched door. But Winterthur Director Leslie Greene Bowman assesses the piece as "without question the most important acquisition Winterthur has made since the death of our founder, Henry Francis du Pont."
Winterthur also acquired a silver punch bowl from about 1740 for $428,000. Six coats of arms are engraved on the bowl, which was made by one of Boston's great early silversmiths, John Burt.
Still to come is the Dec. 9 auction in London of the famous Badminton Cabinet. The massive Italian piece, which dates from 1726, is lavishly decorated with semiprecious hard stones. It established an unbroken record price for a piece of furniture when it was sold for $15.2 million in 1990. Christie's hopes to make a little more this time.