John Gutfreund’s Decor, Once a Symbol of Excess, Could Fetch $7 Million


Four years after former Salomon Brothers chairman John Gutfreund died at the age of 86, and one year after his widow Susan Gutfreund sold their 12,000-square-foot Fifth Avenue apartment for $53 million to billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller, the bulk of their New York possessions are going to auction at Christie’s.

“From a timing point of view, John did die several years ago, and the process of selling an apartment on this scale is not an immediate one,” says William Strafford, a senior international specialist of European furniture and decorative arts at Christie’s. “Obviously, for Susan, without her husband, it was a pretty large apartment to be living in on her own.” (The apartment’s original asking price was $120 million.)

The auction was previously scheduled for December. Now, starting on Jan. 14 and running through Jan. 29, a series of live and online sales will offer more than 665 lots, almost all from the New York apartment.

The sales carry an overall high estimate of $7.4 million. When the apartment was completed, gossip columns reported that the apartment had cost $20 million just to decorate. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $47 million today.

John Gutfreund’s Decor, Once a Symbol of Excess, Could Fetch $7 Million

“It’s a reflection of changing tastes and the changing market,” Strafford says of the interior’s 63% depreciation over the last 35 years. “There’s no question that this type of furniture, and this type of environment, is not as valuable as it once was.”

It’s also, he continues, a product of Christie’s approach to its sales: Lower prices generate more excitement and more bidders.

He notes that the Gutfreunds were often buying retail and are now effectively selling wholesale. “In a sense,” he says, “it’s the equivalent of buying a whole wardrobe of haute couture and then selling it.”

Not coincidentally, one of the Christie’s sales will be devoted exclusively to Chanel fashion jewelry gifted to Susan over the years by Karl Lagerfeld.

Return on Investment

There are early indications of a better-than-expected return.

In 2012, the couple auctioned the contents of its Paris townhouse; that sale netted just over its high estimate of €1.75 million $2.1 million).

John Gutfreund’s Decor, Once a Symbol of Excess, Could Fetch $7 Million

And this year, Stair Galleries in Hudson, N.Y., held two sales consisting of contents from the Gutfreunds’ country house in Villanova, Pa., along with pieces from their New York and Paris houses.

The overall estimate from the two auctions’ 718 lots was $923,000, says the auction house’s founder Colin Stair, and they achieved just under $1.6 million. “It was just wildly successful,” Stair says. “The stuff took off—lots of traction.”

The forthcoming auctions, he continues, “should just skyrocket at Christie’s. Her taste comes through every time.”

High Value Lots

The sales at Christie’s will represent the bulk of the Gutfreunds’ high-value possessions. Assembled by Susan Gutfreund and French decorator Henri Samuel, the overall aesthetic falls under “classical French.”

“This collection reflects Susan’s far-ranging and adventurous and individual tastes,” says Strafford.

John Gutfreund’s Decor, Once a Symbol of Excess, Could Fetch $7 Million

There’s a two-foot-high, late-Victorian model of a British country home clad in mother-of-pearl and set in a glass vitrine (estimate: $6,000 to $10,000); a 13 foot-long yellow and white striped couch that was “reputedly” made for the Château de Saint Cloud (estimate: $30,000 to $50,000); and a pair of shimmering gold, orb-like ceiling lights made by Tiffany Studios in about 1910 (estimate: $3,000 to $5,000).

“This is an amazing opportunity for collectors to buy great works of art,” Strafford says, “but also to experience a vision which you just never see today.”

Given that the entire house was designed as a gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork), there are no standout, high-profile individual objects.

John Gutfreund’s Decor, Once a Symbol of Excess, Could Fetch $7 Million

The most expensive lot in the sale is a huge “Flora Danica” Royal Copenhagen porcelain dinner service estimated at $150,000 to $200,000, followed by a comparatively affordable painting of Mary Magdalene from 1571 by the Flemish artist Jan Massys. Estimated from $120,000 to $130,000, “it’s very grand late-baroque,” Strafford says. Next is a pair of silver-gilt, George III candelabras  accompanied by matching candle sticks from 1775. These carry an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

Another one is a massive, 34-foot-long carpet designed by Robert Adam from about 1770, “one of those grand English country house carpets,” Strafford says. “When it came on the open market in the 1970s, it belonged to the earls of Shrewsbury.” It carries an estimate of $100,000 to $150,000.

John Gutfreund’s Decor, Once a Symbol of Excess, Could Fetch $7 Million

Although at one moment the Gutfreund name was synonymous with Wall Street and power, Strafford says he doesn’t expect it to carry much weight at this point. “Unless you’re selling Elizabeth Taylor, whose name alone is completely iconic, it’s less about the individual name and more about what the sale represents,” he says.

This sale, he says, will “undoubtedly attract a number of people who’ve never heard of the Gutfreunds but who want a pass at that connoisseurial lifestyle, which is almost out of reach.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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