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.
"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.
The cabinet was designed for disassembly and sailed to England in five crates. The ship's captain later petitioned for losses incurred because he couldn't take on ballast and had to purchase a large amount of cork to protect the cabinet during the voyage.
The cabinet is named for Badminton House, the duke's seat in Gloucestershire. Against red-flocked walls, then green, the cabinet rested in relative obscurity until late 20th-century descendants sent it to auction to settle estate taxes.
Cator recalls that Johnson, the Polish-born widow of J. Seward Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson health care fortune, was smitten at first sight. Cator believes she intended to put the cabinet on public display -- its first -- in Warsaw. But her main contribution as an owner was to order up the first recorded cleaning since 1903. Notations inside the cabinet document one other cleaning, 90 years earlier.
The Liechtenstein Museum makes a fitting home. The Princely Collection celebrates the baroque era, which began in 16th-century Italy and flourished in 18th-century Vienna. The period was marked by an ebullient fusion of the arts to create an overwhelmingly impressive whole.
Nothing more perfectly describes the Badminton Cabinet. And judging from the museum's Web site (liechtensteinmuseum.at/en), the same can be said of its Garden Palace. The extravagant Roman baroque building boasts ceiling paintings by Andrea Pozzo. Works by Jan Bruegel, Lucas Cranach, Raphael, Rembrandt, Hals, van Dyck and more than 30 by Rubens grace the walls. There are sculptures by Mantegna, Giambologna, Sansovino and Susini. Porcelain, enamels, ivories, arms, tapestries and furniture await display.
The collection was open to the public from 1807 to 1938, in the garden palace. With Hitler's annexation of Austria, the prince fled, and the artworks were spirited out of the country. The collection came to rest in a warehouse in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, where it remained for most of the past 70 years.
In the aftermath of war, the prince's family sold some of its art, including the Leonardo da Vinci purchased in 1967 by the National Gallery of Art. But by the time Prince Hans-Adam II took up his responsibilities in 1989, the financial situation had improved. He spent $28.3 million to renovate the Vienna palace and reinstall the art in 25,000 square feet of modernized gallery space. At the opening in March, the prince acknowledged that "parts of the collection were lost, parts were destroyed," during the war years, but "it is almost a miracle that so much was saved. People courageously managed to step in and evacuate parts of the collection."
The palace has enough space to display only 180 of the family's 1,400 works, according to Kraeftner, and a second palace conversion may be in the offing. The prince, who declined to be interviewed, has been active in the art markets. The "Portrait of a Man" by Franz Hals was purchased last year.
The prince himself "never goes to auctions," Kraeftner said. "He decides if he wants something or doesn't want."
In the case of the Badminton Cabinet, an advisory board agreed to an amount, and a restorer was sent to inspect the object "without making too much noise about it," Kraeftner said. The next hurdle will be getting the crates safely to Vienna. A choice between Channel tunnel or sea has not been made. Vibrations make air transport out of the question, he said.
As an example of over-the-top extravagance, the Badminton Cabinet will be in good company at the Garden Palace. The museum Web site shows an ornate gilded coach used to transport a princely ancestor on formal visits to Versailles. It would have been part of a procession of 40 gold and silver transports, decorated with scenic panels painted in the workshop of Boucher.