space of the week

A Trip (or Two) to the Past

Revisiting 18th and 19th century furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s.

Jayne Wrightsman. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s
Jayne Wrightsman. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

Christie’s New York has announced two upcoming sales of important 18th and 19th century furniture and decorative arts. First up, on April 2, is The Dalva Brothers, who have long been go-to dealers for decorators and collectors. Next, on April 24, is The Private Collection of Jayne Wrightsman. While few have the means and voracity to collect the way Charles and Jayne Wrightsman did (the pair bought up vast quantities of 18th century furniture and art) we are indebted to their passion and legacy, which includes, for one, The Wrightsman Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Wrightsman reinvigorated the lust for all things 18th in her time, just as Elsie de Wolfe did in hers. Wrightsman learned and collected with the best, including French decorators Stéphane Boudin, who headed up Maison Jansen, and Henri Samuel. Wrightsman’s legacy includes, among (many) other things, helping Francophile Jacqueline Kennedy spiff up the White House. So how do we understand these collections through a modern lens? We asked a handful of decorative arts pros to weigh in, including interior designer Robert Couturier. “I think Jayne Wrightsman, seen here in her New York City apartment, invented her life in reference to people who proceed her,” he said. “Wrightsman is still the reference for taste and generosity. That is the admirable thing about true American collectors, because none of them were born into understanding it. They learned it, and they educated themselves. European people were born into it, they take it for granted. She learned it, she taught herself, and she collected only the best.”

An antique French console, Dalva Brothers Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

Liz O’Brien, gallerist: “The French ’40s, which was my specialty, and 18th century pieces, play well together. I think it is really exciting to pair them with contemporary works. The enduring pinnacle of design is Henri Samuel, who mixed top quality antique furniture with contemporary pieces, creating modern interiors that are chic and still work for the way people live.”

A Louis XV ormolu-mounted Chinese-lacquer and Vernis Martin commode, circa 1745-49, The Private Collection of Jayne Wrightsman. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

William Strafford, senior international specialist of European furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s: “I think the Wrightsman’s way of collecting was an extension of America being a young country and wanting to surround itself with the beauty of the past. America had this energy, and wanted to do things quickly, whereas in England and in France you’d accumulate collections over generations.”

A Sèvres porcelain gold-ground teapot and cover, circa 1779, Dalva Brothers Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

Sheila Bridges, interior designer: “I am not a big fan of ormolu — to me, that period is a little too ornate. But of course the 18th century is a very significant period in European history, and I think about how many knock offs have been created based on Louis XVI style, so many iterations of the real deal. In the same way that people wanted to have a piece of Mario Buatta, I think younger generations of designers and collectors, who love the history of New York and society, want to have some little piece of history.”

A pair of Louis XV giltwood fauteuils, circa 1745, The Private Collection of Jayne Wrightsman. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

Joy Moyler, interior designer: “When these pieces are within contemporary environments, I think they really shine and stand out. I think it is appropriate to reupholster them if, say, the horse hair is worn through and there is no other option, but of course, I would take them to someone who has a fine understanding of their value, I wouldn’t just take them to any neighborhood upholsterer. I would use something like a wonderful Prelle or Scalamandre, or something of that magnitude to really honor them, to continue to expand the value of the piece. I would not devalue them with a lackluster textile.”

A late Louis XVI mahogany canape, c. 1785-1790, Dalva Brothers Collection. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

Leon Dalva, president of Dalva Brothers, Inc.: “ I remember getting in a nice Louis XVI sofa with original paint. A woman came in and said, “Oh I want to change the color.” I said, “Well, no, I really wouldn’t recommend it.” I have seen pieces that we’ve sold that were re-gilded — there’s not much you can do about that, of course. But it’s not American furniture, and our goal is to try to very, very gently restore the thing, and keep the original surface as much as possible.”

A Nymphenburg porcelain trompe l’oeil faux bois plate from a dinner party service, late 18th century, The Private Collection of Jayne Wrightsman. Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s

David Netto, interior designer: “People are obsessed by Jayne Wrightsman, myself included. And her stuff is fan-fucking-tastic! It is style as well as quality. You’d go to her apartment expecting it to look like the Wrightsman Rooms at the Met and it really didn’t. It was more chic than that. There were 19th century French things, there were Russian things. She had an imaginative taste, and her home was about comfort, not just formality.”

Wrightsman. Photo: Cecil Beaton/Conde Nast via Getty Images

Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree: “I was only in Jayne Wrightsman’s apartment once, many years ago. But I remember feeling that she wasn’t afraid to be grand, the way people are now. People now are way too flashy. Elegance reached its apotheosis in the 18th century. It was a time of imagination and craftsmanship and proportion. Mrs. Wrightsman lived in unabashed magnificence. Does office furniture from the 1950s really outclass everything Marie Antoinette and or the Kings George chose or would have chosen? I often feel as though people could have the sun but have opted for halogen lights instead.”

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A Trip (or Two) to the Past at Christie’s