The sale tomorrow has 500 lots, each imbued with the Birley mystique, which is likely to make it a success
You've heard of dead man's shoes, where you have to wait for someone to die before a job comes up? Well, last Monday at a lunch to celebrate Sotheby's sale of Mark Birley's private collection, we had dead man's silver cutlery.
The Sotheby's boardroom walls had been decked out with paintings and drawings from the Thurloe Lodge home of Birley, who founded Annabel's, Mark's Club and other institutions of London society. (This necessitated the removal of the regular boardroom decoration: not wildly lovely Damien Hirst butterfly panels.)
The table had been laid just as it would have been at Thurloe Lodge (they took advice from Birley's housekeeper), with the cutlery sitting outside silver plates, heavy silver dog statuettes by each place (pictured below) and Lalique vases crowded with scarlet and purple and pink flowers in the centre.
Pictured above: A collection of eleven silver model dogs, lot 301 in the Mark Birley sale at Sotheby's
The sale tomorrow has 500 lots, each imbued with the Birley mystique, which is likely to make it a success. Although he died in 2007, people still talk about late-night backgammon sessions with him, elegant lunches, the refinement and perfectionism of his taste. Those who bid tomorrow are not going just to buy cute silver dogs but, like the Yves Saint Laurent sale, but to reclaim, inherit, some part of the Birley lifestyle. This is a proper case of provenance proving key.
WHAT MAKES THE sale all the more appealing is that estimates for items are at every level.
At the lower end, there are several collections of silver items (£300-500) – one lot includes mustard pots, sugar bowls and an engraved Worcestershire Sauce bottle holder – a 19th century French gueridon (£1,000-1,500) and (my tip) lot 358, five beautiful Russian cigarette boxes (£250-400, pictured left).
At the top end, there are plenty of beautiful dog pictures, including Landseers and a Hockney (£12,00-18,000), and a cute if quaint La Thangue in oils of a woman resting in a wicker chair (£250,000-350,000, pictured below).
ONE OF THE questions I asked Harry Dalmeny, Sotheby's UK deputy chairman, before lunch started (but after he had suggested that Sotheby's should do their own Harlem Shake video) was whether anyone still had such a lifestyle as Mark Birley, with a premium placed on good taste and elegant entertaining.
Pictured above: A Study (Resting After the Game) by Henry Herbert La Thangue, lot 261 in the Mark Birley sale at Sotheby's
He came up with several other gentlemen – David Tang, Claus von Bulow – who do have this mode of living, but it seems a dying class. Entertaining – and entertaining well, in style, with generosity – is something we should not let fade.