While the definition of luxury may have changed over the years, one thing is certain: For the French, one mid-17th-century country home, located on Île Saint-Louis in the middle of the Seine, remains a cut above when it comes to discerning taste. The Hôtel Lambert, designed by Louis XIV’s favorite architect, Louis Le Vau, who went on to design the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, is as decadent as it gets.
And in what has been billed as the biggest sale of luxury French decorative art ever offered, more than 1,000 objects from the country home’s sumptuous interior were sold by Sotheby’s in Paris last week, in five live auctions, 11-14 October, and one online sale, running through October 17.
The sales so far have topped $73.9 million, well above the initial presale estimate of $48.75 million, which the auction house says is a record for French decorative art.
The country home, originally built in the 1640s by the French financier Jean-Baptiste Lambert and his family, had been taken over in the intervening centuries by other aristocrats, including the Marquise du Châtelet who lived there with her lover, the author Voltaire, and the exiled Polish Prince Czartoryski. In its heyday, it had hosted cultural luminaries like Coco Chanel, Delacroix, Chopin and Balzac in its gilded salons, although it had fallen into disuse by the early 20th century.
Guy and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild, members of the French banking dynasty, bought the hotel in 1975 and restored it to its former glory. In 2007, Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani picked up the keys to the house, for a reported $90 million, and further restored it, filling it with period furniture and decorations, to the tune of around $147 million.
More recently, the property was sold to French telecom billionaire and art collector, Xavier Niel, in February 2020, for a reported $226 million. He plans to turn the building into the headquarters for his private cultural foundation.
And since the Sheikh’s family “no longer require a large part of [the house’s] contents,” they all went on the auction block. Proceeds will help support the Al Thani Collection Foundation.
Among the highlights of last week’s sales were two royal marquise chairs made in gilded wood by Jean-Baptiste II Tilliard from around 1784, which went for $3.6 million (all prices include buyer’s premium), a world record for this type of furniture. Another Louis XIV period piece, a commode with tortoiseshell and brass marquetry, and ebony wood veneer, attributed to BVRB I, sold for$2.2 million. While a 17th-century marquetry console table, attributed to the studio of André-Charles Boulle, sold for $1.7 million.
Mario Tavella, president of Sotheby’s France and chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, said that the quality of objects reflects an unwavering commitment to luxury that is rarely seen in a single sale, thanks in large part to the hotel’s lore and place within French cultural and political history.
“This evening’s exceptional sale marked the opening of the latest chapter in the almost 400-year-long history of the illustrious residence,” Tavella noted. “In a packed saleroom, private collectors and museums alike responded accordingly to the opportunity to acquire the peerless furniture and artworks that were assembled for its legendary rooms.”