Saturday, November 17, 2018

RECALLING THE ENLIGHTENED ECCENTRICITY OF LE STYLE JUAN PORTELA AND THE HISTORIC CHRISTIE'S AUCTION 25 YEARS AGO IN NEW YORK IN 1993

It is lamentable that many of the under 40-something cast of today's antiquarian, collecting and even decorating scene barely know who this erudite and daring gallery owner, Juan Portela, was and how in some ways he anticipated the 21st Century departure from the assumption that only serious collectors of antiques and period decorative arts sought out either the Georges or the Louis styles.  After a time in Paris in the 1970's as an already established gallery owner offering a discerning and no less diverse inventory of primarily 19th Century furniture, textiles and decorative appointments, Mr. Portela and his then partner, the late debonair Frenchman Christian Herbaut, resettled in New York and did not go long unnoticed for the high quality and originality of the inventory initially offered from a Madison Avenue gallery which was eventually relocated to their historic townhouse on East 71st Street.  The pair are seen below as photographed in the Madison Avenue Gallery for House & Garden in a well earned celebratory article featuring the gallery by the late Nancy Richardson. Juan Portela is seen standing.



What brought Juan Portela to mind was a haphazard encounter with a copy that had not been revisited for years on my library shelves from January 1993, of the Christie's New York sale catalog published when Mr. Portela, by this time in the early 1990's alone, had decided to close the gallery in NY and relocate back to Paris. In the end, he actually relocated for a while to Miami Beach... But today he resides mostly in Paris the better part  of the year. The sale catalog is a splendid and valuable record of the inventory. This is the catalog cover below.




Mr. Portela's superb eye hints at a taste, in part perhaps influenced by Madeleine Castaing who also celebrated 19th Century eccentricity at a time when the 18th Century was sacrosanct and the 20th  century often disdained too hastily. But his taste was also, in many ways, innovative and anticipatory of the way 21st Century collectors and decorating trends would, after over a hundred years, begin to reconsider the immutable belief that nothing beyond the Empire could be taken  seriously or considered worthy of collecting - let along bringing into an elegant home to enjoy in one's drawing room or dining room!  Now that we're on the subject of drawing rooms and dining rooms, the catalog also included illustrations of the inventory as it was presented to Juan Portela's clients and as it was presented similarly to the public coming to visit the preview for the auction which was not held at Christie's proper but in situ at the East 71st Street townhouse.








By the mid 1980's Juan Portela Antiques was a serious force with which to reckon in the New York gallery community. His clients not only included the likes of Michael Graves, Oscar de la Renta and Albert Hadley... But that formidable arbiter of taste, Mica Ertegun (wife of the recording mogul Ahmet Ertegun who founded and owned Atlantic Records) who  relied on Juan Portela for some of the cornerstone furniture and appointments to decorate her subtle but sumptuous New York townhouse that was featured in the March 1987 issue of House & Garden and was also the subject of its cover seen below.










The article cites that, it was from Juan Portela, that Mrs. Ertegun procured the unique and apparently quite inviting pair of Biedermeier  sofas and the wide multi-functional William IV table seen along the left wall under the Ellsworth Kelly which served as the bar.




Perhaps it was a good strategic gesture that Juan Portela Antiques also inserted this half page advertisement in the same issue that is seen below.




Perhaps no greater indication of the respect for Mr. Portela's knowledge, taste and discernment was evident, than when he sold this monumental secretary desk of mahogany with marble columns incorporating a clock to the Getty Museum in California! The desk was made by the Prussian cabinet maker Johann Andreas Beo who produced furniture on the same level of David Roentgen for Prussian royalty. The cabinet was commissioned from King Frederick William II of Prussia in the 1790's.. It is seen below in this photo I took during my last visit to the Getty Museum earlier this year.




With such credentials and experience, it's little wonder the Chistie's auction in New York inevitably attracted a great deal of interest in the international antiquarian and collecting community.  Among the more notable items in the auction were charming paintings. These works of art were not at all in the intoxicated 1980's category of show stopping trophy acquisitions for the kind of collector seeking to impress. On the contrary, these paintings were pregnant with historical charm and evocative power while not being by the hands of masters who command huge prices on the auction block. These were art acquisitions for the self confident collector whose appreciation of their merits is based in a love of history and an ongoing fascination and understanding of their invaluable historical documentation of the past,  its daily life and social customs as well as offering records of historical events. A good example of that would be this powerful pair of visual records on canvas depicting the fire of Moscow during the French invasion of Napoleon's armies in 1812 seen below. 






This pair of children's' portraits by the hand of the 19th Century painter J. P. Vallen is also representative.. 


                               


Seen below, in another room is a portrait of a lady at the harp along side hanging textiles and other intriguing 19th Century items...


This fetching and romantic portrait was by an unknown artist of the early 19th Century French school.




Juan Portela unabashedly delighted in textiles and offered an enviable selection of mostly 19th Century tribal and European woven bolts and fragments suggested for use as either wall hangings on their own merit, or use as upholstery.  Below is an illustration from the catalog of the variety.





The library below is demonstrative of how Mr. Portela "practiced what he preached" with regards to using woven tribal textiles as upholstery for sofas and divans




Juan Portela's appreciation for the festively eccentric and joyful extended to endless media and categories. Like Madeleine Castaing, he did not fear the operatic exuberance of the Second Empire. A fine example is this Napoleon III period French porcelain and lacquer umbrella stand seen below.




No less  exotic, but infinitely rarer was this offering at the auction of a rare Korean Imperial court screen of the Joseon Dynasty, ca 17th/18th Century depicting the various birds of Korea. 


                             


Unapologetic delight in assertive bold self assured love of the rare, the exotic, the superior and sumptuous was invariably to be expected of Le Style Juan Portela.  Objects of malachite were often seen in the gallery such as these offered at Christie's at the auction seen below.



                           


At the same time, Juan Portela never set out to epater les bourgeois for the sake of it. A man of an apparently limitless erudition and appreciation of the classical, Juan Portela loved the late 18th and early 19th Century styles of Louis XVI, Directoire, and Empire as well as the era of the Regency in England while having a long time penchant for the effortless chic of Baltic neoclassicism of Stockholm, Copenhagen and Saint Petersburg. That being established, when Juan Portela offered his privileged clients inventory of that provenance, it invariably had something unique, stylish and endearingly eccentric that set it apart from other examples of that more conventional period.  Such examples of that are seen below...

One example of a suite of 6 Painted Continental Swedish Neoclassical dining chairs, ca 1800...




An utterly reptilian George IV laburnum wood breakfast table that anticipates "Hollywood Regency" by a century!





 A suite of Biedermeier ebonized case furniture that included a pair of pedestals with storage and a commode seen below...






 
No less unique and imposing is this Italian satinwood and ebonized dressing table in a dreamlike Neo Gothic style, ca 1820's from Lucca. A detail of it is seen on the cover of the Christie's catalog. It recently also resurfaced on the retail market on 1stdibs.com not too long ago.





Some personal favourites include this utterly irresistible pagoda seen next to a more conventional Louis XVI period ormolu wall clock in the main drawing room and illustrated in the Christie's catalog.




Perhaps a good illustrative note on which to wind up this long overdue tribute to Le Style Juan Portela is this other photo from the catalog of the Christie's auction demonstrating the happy co-existence of a Dutch Rococo period side chair, flanking a mahogany and brass early 19th Century "Russian Jacob" commode under a Neoclassical late 18th century oval Italian mirror. Only a collector who self confidently knows that good design is good design is good design without concern for age or provenance could combine these seemingly disparate items with such effortless panache!








It is very much to be regretted that, in this more monochromatic age mesmerized by minimalism and modernism, no one has apparently stepped in to take the place of the irreplaceable Juan Portela in the antiques gallery scene in New York... But one may hope!

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A CURIOUS UNRESOLVED IDENTITY FOR MR. DEERING'S DESK AT VIZCAYA

Anyone who has had to listen to me discuss Vizcaya, a ravishing historic house museum and garden in Miami, Florida, USA, would not be amiss in perceiving it was something of a first love for me. It certainly is a significant and early contributory factor in leading me in the direction of the career I have had for over 30 years now as an appraiser, consultant and broker of European decorative arts and antiques.



Vizcaya was built for the wealthy industrialist James Deering who was of the International Harvester fortune. Commenced just as WWI was beginning in Europe, the house was officially inaugurated on Christmas Day of 1916 and the museum is, in fact, in the midst of very lively centennial celebrations. The house made the transition from private residence to publicly opened museum in the 1950's.  Ever since, generations of administrative and curatorial staff have availed themselves of the rich original archival material in the museum that includes all manner of original records that reveal much about the years during which the house was under construction as well as the vast correspondence between James Deering and his artistic director and advisor, the discerning and debonair Paul Chalfin.  Of course in the museum's early years, the identification of much of the historic period furniture and appointments in the house were based on this archival material. But, as the years evolved, as did scholarship about the decorative arts, it was found that much in the house has needed to be identified anew and correctly assigned a different age or country of origin. I personally have always wanted to delve into a very notable piece of furniture that has intrigued me from the first day I saw it as a teen in January 1973 which is in the Adam Library seen below.




I refer to a desk that requires further investigation. Traditionally it was always believed to be a Neoclassical French desk, ca 1800 and often described as Directoire.






It is unique in its blocky shape, which according to either archival or perhaps just oral tradition, was due to the fact that it was the counter for a very posh Parisian candy store or pastry shop where the doubtless elegantly dressed sales lady sold her sweet delicacies. Often cited as a feature that makes the desk exceptional - and exceptionally pretty - is the 3 painted panels in the manner of Angelica Kauffman. The one on the front of the desk is seen below.




Indeed these panels, depicting merry frolicking scantily clad children,  really are animated in their vibrant polychrome as they are charming. They make the piece distinctive in the most effective way imaginable and the bright lively painted panels create a rich and vibrant compliment to the sober mahogany case with ebonized decorated bands and gilt accents. The other two of the three panels are seen below.







There can be no doubt of the desk's assertively Neoclassical demeanor. But neither the late 18th to early 19th Century French attribution really seems sustainable. This suspicion was confirmed by a highly and widely acknowledged expert in French 18th Century furniture, the New York dealer Anthony Victoria who shared his impressions in a letter after a visit to Vizcaya to me in the mid 1980's in which he cited it's "clucky" aspect that would not be likely to hold up as a viable or credible example of French Directoire - or even Consulat design.

The more I look at the desk and consult other world renown colleagues whose opinions are crucial in helping arrive at a plausible explanation for the accurate attribution of the desk's age and origin, I am now of the opinion the desk is very likely English. The noted expert in French 18th Century furniture Thierry Millerand was kindly allowed to examine the desk by Vizcaya's current highly accomplished curator Ms. Gina Wouters in 2014. Messr. Millerand was certain the construction details revealed by examining the drawers betrayed clear English construction methods of the 19th Century.  The more I look at the desk I am more and more reminded of the work of the Regency period cabinet maker George Bullock and see his influence here is concurrent with that of his French contemporaries during the later Empire and Restauration periods. 

For instance, the assertively gilded animal capitals on the pilasters are very much in the French manner. But the assertive bands of ebonized decoration lending prominent attention to such motifs as the anthemion are pure Bullock! Here is an English cabinet in the Bullock manner of the same period in the 1st half of the 19th Century. Notice the similarities in the brass inlaid bands in this cabinet below and compare it to the ebonized decoration on Vizcaya's desk. The similarity is glaringly obvious.






In conclusion - and hopefully to be continued because much more investigation is in order - it's safe to suggest the desk is English, probably 19th Century and very likely a bit later in the Century as late as the 1820's to even 1830's. Additionally, it may be possible the delightful painted panels that give the desk so much of its charm may possibly be a later addition applied to the desk later in the 19th Century. The panels themselves may also be early and perhaps earlier than the desk itself. But they may have been later added by an antiquaire eager to "marry" the components to make something really quite decorative and unique. Of course this is only my theory. And it's a tentative one at that. What is needed is a conservator's contribution to examine the desk and it's insides to ascertain if any traces of such an addition or "marriage"  could be revealed by an intense inspection of the carcass.

Until then, no one can argue it isn't a lovely piece of furniture! And I, for one, would never want or could imagine The Adam Library, in which the desk has been placed since 1916, without it!



HANDLING THE REMNANTS OF A LONG AGO COMMISSIONED DAVID HICKS INTERIOR

In 2010 a regular client who engages my company LFAS to advise and liquidate estates invited me to assist his client to handled the private brokerage of the contents of a ravishing Miami Beach waterfront residence en bloc to a buyer who would be willing to take the good, the not so good and even the mattress in order to have the house ready for a closing that was less than  a fortnight away. It was a daunting task!  It took 3 loading vans working all day for many days to do the job. But the result was satisfactory for all parties and the buyer, once he sorted out the good from the less desirable, had made some good acquisitions for his antiques gallery.

On the occasion of my first consulting visit, I was haunted by a nagging feeling of déjá vu.  It looked familiar from photos of smart stylish interiors of my youth in the 1970's... The carpets, the accents, the window treatments all bespoke something very elusive and a "look" that was so familiar but to which I could not attach a name... Then finally, the lawyer who engaged me was in the next room in conversation with the maid of the deceased. As a long time experienced appraiser, broker and liquidator, I learned a long time ago, getting friendly with the servants of these affluent clients is vital to get crucial information the client is not longer around to provide. This deceased resident of the house was a local personage of great distinction. But he was dead and unable to shed light on much. But the maid said the magic name which I could hear from the adjacent room... DAVID HICKS!!!! Then it all made sense!

David Hicks was THE interior designer of the Jet Set and Beautiful People in London and abroad during the "Swinging 60's" and well into the early 1980's. His English clean and crisp approach to design respected traditions and also pioneered the use of things like chrome and lacqured Parsons tables, geometric patterns on carpets and fabrics of his own design and it was always hopelessly chic and seductive.  This is my favourite photo of him which originally appeared in an article in "Town and Country" in 1980 depicting Hicks in a devastatingly smart French Empire bergère in front of a stunningly theatrical canopied bed draped in shimmering crimson glazed chintz. The photo seen below is actually the one selected for the dust jacket cover of the definitive monograph on Hicks by one of his children Ashley Hicks.




As I explored this house which had already been stripped of much by the time I got there,and from which a staggeringly important collection of old master paintings bequeathed to a major museum had already been dispatched to their new home, the place still bespoke the hand of Hicks just about everywhere one cast a glance. It was a complete time warp from 1969 when it was originally commissioned... And it was a privilege and a joy to handle!

In the foyer, one could espy the original 1969 chocolate brown linen box shaped skirted table with black braid for which Hicks had selected a pair of stylish French Neoclassical bouillotte lamps.








The dining room had a mix of Regency and Italian Furniture with Asian accents and some outstanding George III and Qianlong porcelains.














And those curtains with the Regency inspired pelmets!!!  Quel chic!!!! All intact they were too!






The living room had 4 of the most inviting Louis XV/Louis XVI transitional style bergères`a la reine with the most romantically and ever so gently worn chocolate brown velvet!









There was also an outstanding George III writing table in the manner of Bullock.

 


And the carpet.. David Hicks original design with the original label of the French weavers he used to engage to weave these deep luxurious carpets which, as with this one, were executed in white on white with raised sculpted designs.




Another ther view of the room...




The library had ravishing David Hicks wall to wall carpets and upholstery on the chairs which were surprisingly well conserved.  See some views of the room below which includes handsome and versatile antique Jacobean benches used. as well as occasional tables and a striking Louis XV lacquered Chinoiserie bureau plat with a leather upholstered fauteuil de bureau. 
















Very grateful for this unexpected and enriching opportunity to handle this memorable collection that was conceived by such a legend!