Auctions of classic furniture and art held in the shadow of a turreted, picture-postcard French château owned by a former French president don’t come along very often; which is why a sale later this month of more than 400 items held on site at the Château de Varvasse in the Auvergne, a residence of the statesman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, is a talking-point in the French art world.
Giscard d’Estaing’s father Edmond bought the striking 13-hectare property in 1933, filling the medieval building with objects, paintings and furniture dating from the 17th century to the era of Napoleon III in the 19th century. The cream-coloured château, which boasts a chapel and orangery, has been a country base for Giscard d’Estaing and his family, proving useful during his tenure as president of Auvergne regional council from 1986 to 2004.
Political heavyweights such as Henry Kissinger and Helmut Kohl are rumoured to have visited the property, nestled in the countryside near Clermont-Ferrand in central France. But, as an auction press statement wistfully notes, “in recent years the castle of Varvasse has ceased to be regularly inhabited and is no longer a family rallying point as was the case in the past”. According to Le Figaro newspaper, the sprawling mansion has been burgled several times.
Flicking through the auction catalogue is like taking a mini-tour of the château, with sections devoted to the 12 bedrooms, the dining room and the large drawing room, which overflows with furnishings and decorations of the early 19th century. In the last, a large-scale set of nine grisaille wall-paper prints by the Dufour company depicting the goddess Psyche, the wife of Eros, stand out and should appeal to a specialist buyer (estimate €8,000-€12,000 for the set). A set of six mahogany chairs by Loret, the armrests adorned with carved acanthus leaves, crown the room (estimate €6,000-€8,000).
Among all this rather heavy furniture, a bronze timepiece by Lepaute gilded with gold leaf, comprising two vestal virgins valiantly holding the exquisitely decorated clock face, shines in the Charles X drawing room (estimate €12,000-€15,000). Giscard d’Estaing bought the Empire piece for €18,000 (with buyer’s premium) at Sotheby’s Paris in 2004. A huge neoclassical marble sculpture attributed to Pierre Julien dating from 1785, “Sleeping Ariadne”, also adds a touch of drama to the dining room (estimate €30,000-€40,000).
But not everything will break the bank. In the “Louis-Philippe” bedroom, a glass drinks set with sugar bowl and carafe, which is undated, has an estimate of only €50-€80. Choice pottery pieces from Clermont-Ferrand are also available; a prime example, an octagonal 18th-century plate, can be seen in the library (estimate €200-€300).
The established auctioneer Claude Aguttes, who will conduct the sale in a marquee sited in the grounds, hopes to raise more than €400,000 in total.
“The monetary value of the items available is not important. This sale is fascinating because it offers a glimpse into the life of a former president. There’s been a lot of interest from people who are still his devotees,” says Aguttes.
A sprightly figure who is evidently thrilled to have landed this presidential sell-off, even he is reserved about the value of some of the pieces.
“Twenty years ago, the estimates for the sale items would have been double what they are today,” he says.
The auction may also be a canny marketing ploy as the house, which will no doubt be filled with curious onlookers during the public viewings (September 27-29), has been on the market since 2008 with an asking price today of €1.6m (not surprisingly, the château property market in France has reportedly slumped during the global economic downturn).
Giscard d’Estaing has been a big player on the European political stage in the past 50 years, but the “Grand Old Man” of the Elysée Palace is a divisive figure. There’s no denying, however, his accomplishments in French politics, serving as secretary of state for finance from 1959 to 1962, then rising to president in 1974 after crushing the Socialist candidate François Mitterrand. In office, the centre-right politician cheered Europhiles by creating, in tandem with the former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the European Monetary System and the European Council. But, like Nicolas Sarkozy, he carries the dubious distinction of being a one-term president after Mitterrand won the vote in 1981.
Giscard d’Estaing, like most past presidents in the style of les grands projets, is keen nonetheless to leave a legacy, and proceeds from the Auvergne auction will go towards his own foundation based at another grand property, the Château d’Estaing in the southern département of Aveyron, which he acquired in 2005.
Under ambitious plans, that 13th-century château will be turned into an archive for material collected during his time as French president and chairman of the Convention on the Future of Europe (2002-03). In the latter role, he shaped the original draft of the European Union Constitution but French and Dutch voters rejected the plan in 2005 (its later incarnation, the Treaty of Lisbon, was spurned by the Irish in 2008; Irish voters backed the treaty a year later).
How much the sale will raise for the foundation scheme remains to be seen, however. The French art critic Didier Rykner says that the auction is a “non-event ... even the most important items are not essential for French heritage”. Yet inquisitive art aficionados may find this potent Gallic mix of antiques, politics and an archetypal French country estate hard to resist.
Sale takes place on September 29