The sales, which concluded on Tuesday, marked the first dedicated auction in North America of works from the French branch of the long-time banking family. Most of the lots were acquired in the 19th century by Baron James Mayer de Rothschild, his wife Betty and their son Alphonse, and have remained in their descendants’ collection since.
The collection included art acquired by the family, particularly work by Old Masters, led by Gerrit Dou’s painting “A young woman holding a hare with a boy at a window,” which dates back to the 17th century and sold for over $7 million.
Among the oldest items in the sale is a first-century AD Roman Sardonyx cameo portrait of the Roman emperor Claudius, which fetched almost $116,000. Coincidentally, the cameo last came to auction at Christie’s in 1899, when it sold for £3,750 (about £395,000 or $496,000, in today’s money), shortly before it is believed to have entered the Rothschild collection.
“These are things that have been kept away since the end of the 19th century. And unless you knew this particular branch of the family, you wouldn’t have seen them,” said Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman of Christie’s Americas, in a phone interview ahead of the sales. “It’s not the type of thing that, in New York, we normally get to play with. You’re more likely to see a sale like this in Europe.”
The consignors, members of the French branch of the Rothschild family who descended from James Mayer de Rothschild, specifically wanted to hold the sale in New York, according to Christie’s. This particular branch of the family lived in the US during World War II, Rendell said, while adding that he expects the collection “would do incredibly well anywhere.”
The sale also included furniture, ceramics (like important Italian Renaissance maiolica), silver, tapestries and jewelry that illustrate the Rothschilds’ distinct taste, which Rendell described as “an extraordinary combination of sumptuousness and domesticity.”
“This is the sort of thing that, 100 years ago, 150 years ago, the market would have gone crazy for. We don’t get a bulk of this type of material coming up for sale anymore,” Rendell said.
Auctions took place over several days, with an evening sale on October 11 followed by two day sales and a concurrent live auction in which some lots started at prices as low as $100, according to Christie’s.
As for why the family chose to sell the collection now, Rendell believes it may have been a “rationalization” and a “generational shift” in attitude. “Not everybody lives like a 19th-century Rothschild, even the Rothschilds,” he said.