This past Wednesday, the 14th of March Sotheby's London held a single owner sale of property from "The Collection of Giovanni & Gabriella Barilla: Important Porcelain, Venetian Fine and Decorative Arts from their Residence in Geneva". Realising $7,173,834, well above the pre-sale estimate of $4–6 million, the auction was 89% sold by lot and 96% sold by value. The top porcelain lot was a figure of Harlequin Alarmed, modeled by J.J. Kändler, circa 1738-40 that realised more than three times its pre-sale estimate.
Mr Barilla was the grandson of the founder of the top pasta producer worldwide based in Parma Italy. In the 1970's he and his family sold his share of the company and moved with their important collection of Venetian furniture to Switzerland. It was there that Mrs Barilla unleashed her passion and developed one of the most important collections of European porcelain in private hands. In one of the most exciting auctions in a long time, willing buyers from across the globe engaged in tense bidding resulting in some spectacular prices being achieved.
Regrettably, the choice pieces of Capodimonte and the exquisite examples of Commedia Dell'Arte figures from the lesser manufactories failed to find the admiration of buyers they so much deserved. On the other hand, the auctioneer only had to use the word Meissen in describing a lot and a tangible excitement engulfed the room.
The first lots of Della Robbia faired better than expected. As the steam started to build with the first 24 lots of Meissen wares, an encyclopaedic group of early forms and decoration, lot 119 broke through the stratosphere. A dizzying free for all when the Commedia figures came to the podium. Standing 7" tall the grotesque Harlequin Alarmed, his face and body contorted leaning on a white tree stump, is not the most important figure in Kändler’s littany of Commedia figures. Originally estimated at $40,000 to $55,000 no one was satisfied until $190,096 (with buyer’s premium) was achieved, a price heretofore only aspired to by the best groups in the cannon.
All of the Meissen lots did respectably well, sadly the Buen Retiro star of the sale a Commedia group of spaghetti eaters (Barilla spaghetti?) failed to sell. A number of very important and rather fantastic Kloster-Veilsdorf figures failed to find respect. Happily, a wonderful little Doccia ewer came in 4 times it’s original estimate and the Vezzi porcelain did very well.
Collections like this do not come to market often and I’m grateful to Sotheby’s and in particular Alice Bleuzen for the access and fantastic images. Full results are available from www.sothebys.com
For a fantastic tome on the Commedia Dell'Arte see Meredith Chilton's "Harlequin Unmasked: The Commedia Dell'Arte and Porcelain Sculpture" written in conjunction with an exhibition at the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, Toronto in 2001.