Objects of desire
Classic furniture and sculpture are a testament to the enduring power of craftsmanship, believes sculpture specialist Milo Dickinson
ANYONE in the market for quality pieces of classic sculpture and furniture with a rich and vibrant history will be happy to know that they’re easy to find and relatively cheap to acquire. Made using extremely technical skills that aren’t practised today by artists who trained in rigorous workshop systems, they are works of art that have stood the test of time and been lovingly and purposefully passed down from generation to generation.
The most important ingredient for every purchase is love: whether you really want to live with that object for the rest of your life. These are pieces with many stories to unravel, such as the 18th-century Prussian amber chessboard Christie’s sold from the baronial Scottish castle at Blair Atholl. I discovered that the chessboard arrived at Blair Castle in secrecy, sent by the Duke of Atholl’s son, Lord George Murray, from his hideout in the Netherlands, following his unsuccessful attempt to depose George I in the Jacobite uprising of 1719. Imagine playing chess with your children or parents, knowing that the pieces you held had a role in such a crucial moment in European history.
In the European Courts of the 17th century, exotic and rare materials were highly desired and incorporated into luxurious works of art. Recently, we have seen a renewed interest in such objects from the Age of Exploration as younger generations have come to admire the extraordinary ability these craftsman had in shaping natural materials, such as lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, crimson coral from the Mediterranean at Trapani or porphyry from the Egyptian mountains, into magnificent works.
In sculpture, modern eyes appreciate an insight into an artist’s creative mind and so terracotta figures and groups, often working models for a larger project, have become more sought after. In these models, you can often get the sense of the sculp- tor working with his hands, manipulating the clay into different forms, his fingers working in unison with his brain.
£5,000 at auction
For this amount, you could buy a large, high-quality bronze by one of the pioneers of animal sculpture in 19th-century France. Sporting bronzes by artists such as Pierre-jules Mêne, Rosa Bonheur and Christophe Fratin were highly sought after by the aristocracy of Victorian Britain, but, since the 1970s, have been out of fashion and now represent remarkably good value.
Regency Blue John urns, made from a semi-precious mineral mined in Derbyshire, can be bought for as little as £5,000 , although a pair would cost more, to sit either side of your fire as they do in houses such as Chatsworth and Kedleston.
£5,000 to £20,000
At this level, it’s possible to find finely worked ormolu objets d’art, such as wall lights and candlesticks by artists working in the new Rococo style of Jacques Caffieri, who was designing for the King at Versailles and Fontainebleau.
£20,000 to £50,000
A quirky but wonderful heirloom is a 15th-century Nottingham alabaster carving. I have delighted in these eccentric scenes of the lives of saints and sinners since my father came home with a depiction of a serenely ambivalent but decapitated John the Baptist during my childhood. These rare survivals from pre-reformation England have gained in popularity in recent years, but can still be picked up for about £20,000.
£50,000 and above
Renaissance and Baroque bronzes were made by the finest sculptors of the day for the private pleasure of royal and noble patrons. Artists such as Giambologna, Barthélemy Prieur and Massimo Soldani-benzi cast small-scale bronzes, depicting subjects full of drama or of the beauty and grace of pagan goddesses. They were meant to be held in the hand and admired. The authorship of these unsigned masterpieces passed down by word of mouth. Many such works can be purchased for less than a Picasso ceramic or a drawing by Tracey Emin.
Closer to £50,000, it is possible to buy a commode or writing table by the world-famous Martin Carlin (one of MarieAntoinette’s favourite cabinetmakers) or a glistening Limoges enamel made at the height
of the High Renaissance by celebrated enamellists such as Pierre Reymond or Léonard Limosin. These are objects that could grace any museum in the world and not look out of place, but in today’s market cost less than a new BMW. I know which I’d prefer to have.
A beautiful little ivory head of the Jesuit missionary Saint Francis Xavier was carved by an unknown Philippine artist in the 17th century.
It’s a symbol of European culture and her appetite for discovery at the time it was created. The head was formerly part of a larger wooded sculpture carved for a church in the Philippines by local artists working with or under the command of, in this case, Spanish missionaries. It’s one of the finest Hispano-philippine ivory heads I have ever seen and, given its size (about 4in high), is something that I often hold in my hands, feel the weight of and reflect upon the environment it was created in.
I would love to keep it in my family as an heirloom and as a constant reminder of the complexity of our society and of the often dark history that shaped the world we currently live in.
French ormolumounted bois satine and amaranth parquetry bureau plat in the Louis XVI style, after Jean-henri Riesener
A bust of Milo of Croton after the model by Puget was sold by Christie’s in 2016 for $40,000 (£32,000), $10,000 over estimate