The axiom "Buy what you like and you'll do just fine" was proven right again last month at a $2 million landmark sale of 72 lots of 18th century silver, most of it French.
The collection from the estate of Philadelphians Rodolphe and Williamina Meyer de Schauensee, sold at Christie's in New York on April 18, fetched double the estimates.
"The de Schauensees were passionate collectors," said Christopher Hartop, who heads Christie's silver department. "Their zeal was not limited to the pursuit of objects; they made an exhaustive study of the complex system of pre-Revolutionary French hallmarks, which was invaluable to me when cataloging."
When Mr. Hartop took the collection to Paris for exhibition, he said connoisseurs were stunned. "Who were the de Schauensees? Where was all this?" they asked.
Rodolphe Meyer de Schauensee, 1901-1984, had a Swiss father and an American mother. Born in Rome, he grew up in Philadelphia and became a well-known ornithologist. His wife, Williamina Wentz, had a lifelong interest in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Their silver collection was on view at the Art Museum from September 1990 to January 1991. Mrs. de Schauensee left the museum three bell-shaped silver dish covers of impressive size from the so-called Orloff service commissioned by Empress Catherine the Great from Parisian silversmiths Jacques and Jacques-Nicholas Roetthiers in 1770, as well as several Impressionist paintings.
"My parents used their silver. They simply liked things French," recalled Maude de Schauensee, a daughter, who said her parents bought most of their silver in the 1950s and 1960s in Europe and in the United States.
They concentrated on silver made in the quarter century before the French Revolution when every court in Europe from Moscow to Lisbon dined off Parisian silver. It was the time when dining had changed from being a private activity done in a bedchamber or in a sitting room on tables that were folded up and taken away to dining with convivial company at a large table, where dishes were passed and diners helped themselves.
The silver candelabra tureens, ragout dishes, oil and vinegar cruets and sauce boats made in this period are paraphernalia for the new lifestyle. Large tureens for serving oille, a rich stew of game and vegetables, gave silversmiths a chance to make some ravishing forms decorated with cast silver vegetation.
Ragout was served from deep two-handled circular dishes. The ecuelle, a covered dish with two flat handles, is a distinctive French form traditionally used for hot broth presented by a husband to his wife during her confinement. (The form has come down to us minus one handle as the porringer, once the ubiquitous baby present.) Mr. Hartop says in the 18th century the ecuelle was used for the solitary diner or traveler. They were often part of a traveling set. One of five in the de Schauensee collection has removable handles designed to fit in a case. None survive in large sets, indicating they were not used for parties.
French silver is uncommon enough to provoke strong competition when it comes to the salesroom. The main bidding battle at the de Schauensee sale was over a provincial mid-18th century silver ewer and basin by Louis Samson of Toulouse, weighing 71 ounces. The ewer, the epitome of rococo taste, is hammered out and chased with rocks and mermaids, swans, reeds and flowers. The oval basin has a scalloped rim decorated with similar motifs. With no previous auction records to go on, Mr. Hartop estimated it might sell for $60,000 to $80,000. It sold for $561,000 to a French dealer on the phone.
The previous lot, an oille pot with a large cast pomegranate finial rising from its spirally fluted domed lid and an English coat of arms centered on its bombe body between massive leafy scrolled feet, was expected to fetch between $150,000 and $250,000. It sold toward the low end of its estimate for $176,000.
Three pieces of neoclassical Louis XVI silver sold as estimated. A pair of three light candelabra by Pierre Francois Goguelye, Paris, 1783, and a set of four silver candlesticks by Henri Auguste, Paris, 1788, sold for $154,000 and $132,000 to E. and C. T. Koopman & Son Ltd., London dealers.
An American collector bought the boat-shaped tureen, with cover and stand, by Antoine Bouiller, Paris, 1787, for $121,000. An extensive condiment set by the same maker, made in Paris in 1776, comprising two double oval saltcellars with central handles, six single oval saltcellars and two circular mustard pots -- all with blue glass lines showing off openwork foliage -- sold for $60,500, four times estimates. The ecuelles doubled their estimates. The traveling example sold for $41,800; a more elaborate one brought $40,700.
French silver brought high prices at Sotheby's the following day when a French Gothic silver, gold and hardstone tower-shaped clock made in Paris in 1881 reached $330,000 and a Louis XIV baluster-shaped jug, with gadrooning around its foot, sold for $159,500; both to the London firm S. J. Phillips.