Isabella Blow

Inside the Art Market: Cancelled, Withdrawn

The first thing I thought of when I heard that Isabella Blow’s personal effects—including her wardrobe—were due to go under the hammer of Christie’s London was a sonnet written by Oscar Wilde and entitled ‘On the Sale by Auction of Keats’ Love Letters,’ specifically the lines: ‘These are the letters which Endymion/Wrote to one he loved in secret, and apart/And now the brawlers of the auction mart/Bargain and bid for each tear-blotted note.’”

—Daphne Guinness, Financial Times, July 3/4, 2010

These impassioned lines about the occasional grubbiness of public auctions, specifically those offering personal artifacts from the life of someone famous, struck a chord when I read it. Isabella Blow, magazine editor and talent-spotter extraordinaire and muse to Alexander McQueen, a woman of breathtaking style and flair, committed suicide in May 2007. She had tried many times before, this time succeeding by drinking Paraquat, a weed killer. No doubt in shock, her family nonetheless had to pay off her debts and settle her estate.

This, in turn, led as it so often does to a sale at auction of Isabella Blow’s personal effects, in this case a large and glittering trove of dresses and hats by many famous designers. Christie’s envisaged a sale in the well-worn celebrity mode, one that would pay tribute to this woman of flamboyance and drama through her collection, her impeccable eye, her dazzle. Above all it would be tasteful.

But Daphne Guinness saw it otherwise:

The planned sale at Christie’s could only result in carnage, as souvenir seekers plundered the incredible body of work Issie created over her life: the hats she wore every day and had made in duplicate; the laser-cut black leather dress Alexander McQueen had made her with the fitted bodice and full skirt; the shocking pink Jun Takahashi burka she had insisted on wearing to a show in Paris . . . In many ways, the auction would not merely be a sale of clothes: it would be a sale of what was left of Issie, and the carrion crows would gather and take away her essence forever.”

And so Ms. Guinness, a dear friend of Ms. Blow and her family, did the one thing an auction house most dreads but is often powerless to prevent: she cancelled the sale, withdrew the collection.

This was not done casually. Ms. Guinness needed to gain the approval of family members to this drastic action, test the opinion of close friends, address some unpleasantness with Christie’s. Remarkably the auction house took the news in stride, perhaps heartened that Ms. Guinness was prepared to buy the entire collection in order to prevent the “carnage.”

Still, it was a messy break-up for Christie’s. After all they had the collection under contract and were already cataloguing and promoting it. They could see a triumph on the horizon: brilliant press coverage; a champagne reception for the Vogue and Dior set; a lushly-designed exhibition showing off all those fabulous dresses and hats that were Isabella Blow’s signature style; and finally a packed saleroom, soaring bids, big prices. But it was not to be.

The history of the auction houses over the past two centuries is rife with tales like this, of regretted consignments and costly withdrawals. Most of these are small and obscure and gain no attention at all. Others are more epic in scale and importance, their withdrawal causing a rumble in the art world far and wide, sometimes lawsuits and nasty publicity. An auction house will thus be stern about allowing one of these big events to get away, as it might set a bad example.

I recall a cancelled sale of recent years that, like the Blow Collection, unraveled quietly. A lovely portrait by Titian was to be offered for sale at Christie’s in London. It was to have its very own catalogue, with many pages of scholarly prose and judgments by leading authorities from Europe and America confirming its authenticity. The painting had been sold in London at Christie’s in the 19th century and then had vanished into an American collection. There it remained, all but forgotten, hidden away for decades in a large house in New York, tucked away in an upstairs closet. Its authenticity was uncertain at first, until it was cleaned and restored and its authorship became clear. Thus its appearance on the art market after more than a century made this an appealing “discovery” story for the auction house.

And yet there was a problem. The painting was being consigned by a diocese of the Catholic Church, and there was a strict protocol to follow in selling such an asset. This protocol required Vatican approval. However, this approval had neither been sought nor received at the time of the sale’s formal announcement. Hence the painting—a glorious portrait entitled Mater Dolorosa, with hopes running high for its success as part of a major evening sale of Old Master Paintings in London during the summer—had to be withdrawn. The Vatican would have to review the matter, and they were in no hurry.

How often in recent years have we seen this curious drama play out! And yet it largely goes unnoticed by the public. While the announcement of a major auction sale might entail press releases, videos, special mailings, corporate sponsorships and lavish catalogues all choreographed into a masterful global promotion, the cancellation of such a sale, by contrast, entails mostly silence. One thinks of tiny ripples vanishing on a remote pond deep in the forest. Who’s to notice amidst a blizzard of sales during the auction season?

But sometimes the cancellation story is a big one, with flashy aspects that seize the public’s attention. Two recent examples come to mind. Each involved the sale of a major collection expected to be a landmark in the annals of auction history. Preparations were well under way when the bottom fell out.

An article in Architectural Digest in 2008 bemoaned the tale of destroyed or ruined country houses in Scotland: “For a people who have a reputation for frugality, the Scots have been astonishingly wasteful of some of their greatest treasures—the grand country houses that grace both Highlands and Lowlands.”

In Ayrshire stood the magnificent 18th century Palladian villa Dumfries House, designed by John, Robert and James Adam and long owned by the Marquesses of Bute. The house had never been open to the public and remained a complete mystery even to residents of a nearby village. As the 7th Marquess of Bute had other houses and now wished to sell Dumfries and disperse its contents, plans were set in motion for a massive sale through Christie’s. Inside was one of the greatest collections anywhere still in private hands of Rococo furniture designed by Thomas Chippendale. As Christie’s proudly announced in a press release dated April 13, 2007, this massive sell-off was right up their alley:

“Christie’s have a proud tradition of offering works of art from distinguished houses and collections, and the importance of this auction ranks alongside the historic landmark sales of the past, such as Longleat, Houghton and Wentworth; we look forward to presenting this exceptional sale to the international market place in July 2007.”

And oh the treasures! The original owner of the house, Lord Dumfries, had spared no effort in finding the very finest furnishings for his villa. In 1759 a sumptuous and exotic George II parcel-gilt rosewood, padouk and sabicu breakfront bookcase was delivered to him by Chippendale and his Scottish partner Rannie for the stiff sum of 47 pounds and change. And yet in the Christie’s sale it would have an estimate of £2,000,000-4,000,000 with the expectation of shattering the record for English furniture of £1.7 million, made in 1997 for another Chippendale piece, a pair of armchairs. The glories of Dumfries House were described almost in prayer-like sentences within the official press release from Christie’s.

“Rarest of all, perhaps, and certainly unique in Chippendale’s production, is the sensational late George II giltwood overmantel mirror with a Savonnerie tapestry panel probably woven by Thomas Moore.”

A mirror with a tapestry woven into its frame? For this museum-worthy piece, which had been delivered to the Blue Bedroom at Dumfries in 1759 (just eight years before Christie’s was even founded) and had remained in the house ever since, an estimate of £500,000-800,000 was confidently proclaimed.

Imagine, if you will, the ensuing clamor if several rooms of period furniture from, say, the Victoria & Albert Museum that had come from a great private collection were suddenly announced for sale at auction. The Christie’s sale of the contents of Dumfries House sent comparable shock waves through the art market, a prospect made all the more delectable because the collection had been hidden for so long, unseen and now suddenly unearthed, like the contents of an ancient Egyptian tomb. Collectors, dealers and museum curators were thus thrilled, ecstatic. But others were alarmed, dismayed.

And they fought back.

Prince Charles has long played a role as an arbiter of taste in architecture, outspoken on matters of English heritage and often scornful of modern buildings, flashy design, vulgarity. Hence as one with time on his hands, the Prince was ready-made for the Dumfries fight, a man of stature, clout, deep-pockets and media-magnetism. Hence at the last minute of this prolonged ordeal of preparations for the estate sale—which played out over three years—he stepped in. In alliance with a group of wealthy and like-minded preservationists, he led the charge to save Dumfries House “for the nation” through a private sale.

It was a heroic gesture: the grand contents of Dumfries would remain in situ and the house would open to the public in 2008 for public view. But it was a very expensive gesture. The cost: £45 million.

The only vestige of the monumental and expensive sale that Christie’s had planned so carefully, and for so long, was the catalogue. Duly printed in two spectacular volumes, and then made redundant at the very last moment, it became an instant rarity, extremely scarce, truly a collector’s item.

If the act of halting a sale at the last minute was a sport, then the recent breed of Russian oligarchs would reign supreme as champions. The very same year that the Dumfries sale was stopped a Russian tycoon named Alisher Usmanov, recently a shareholder of the English football club Arsenal, stepped in at the last moment to acquire an entire collection slated for auction at Sotheby’s in London. As with Prince Charles, the shadowy Usmanov was also acting out of patriotism: for he was buying the collection of the late musician Mstislav Rostropovich and promising to return it to Russia. The reported price was more than £25 million.

Rostropovich, the sublime cellist and much-loved figure in the international music world, had been expelled from Russia in 1974 for aiding the dissident novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn. As reported by The Guardian in its coverage of the sale, Rostropovich left Russia “with his cello and dog, followed by his wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, with their children and two suitcases.” Over the years he and his wife, a renowned opera singer, toured the world, garnered wealth, and became collectors, with residences in Paris and London. Hence the entire contents of both houses were to be sold, featuring porcelain and glass once owned by Catherine the Great and many outstanding Russian paintings. Here was the most important Russian collection in private hands, and it was going back to Russia.

Three years earlier another Russian tycoon had acquired the entire Forbes Collection of Fabergé, which had been scheduled for public sale at Sotheby’s in New York. He apparently dialed Sotheby’s and told them he wanted to buy the entire group, thus preempting a sale that truly would have been a milestone in the field of Fabergé and Russian art generally. The price was reported to be $100 million. It, too, was headed back to Russia.

In both these cases, as with the Dumfries sale, the cost of abandoning a major auction sale would be very high, with months of preparation to account for: packing and shipping, insurance, restoration, research, photography, marketing and promotion of all sorts, endless hours of work by specialists, printing a catalogue, travel, etc. The new buyer, in addition to paying for the collection, would be expected to cover these costs as a kind of auction sale kill fee.

The enchanting Isabella Blow Collection, after being pulled from the saleroom at Christie’s in London back in 2010, has now happily resurfaced. One can visit the smartly-designed website for The Isabella Blow Foundation established by Daphne Guinness and follow its far-flung activities. Most recently the collection was viewed in Australia. As the website declared, “This exhibition is unique to Sydney.”

And how very true! The soaring, colorful and fantastic hats that Ms. Blow favored, in homage to the designers she so adored and championed throughout her career, were saved from the auction hammer in order, perhaps, to bring shock, surprise and delight to new admirers of hers the world over.

—Ronald Varney

(Image: Magazine editor Isabella Blow (1958 – 2007) at the opening of a new Christian Lacroix shop in London, 4th April 1995. Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images.)