At a London auction house I was browsing a seen-better-days gilt and cream-painted suite of 18th-century Viennese salon furniture, upholstered in old rose silk velvet. “I wonder ... ?” I thought. I imagined the Captain and the Baroness from The Sound of Music waltzing archly in its midst, exchanging unpleasantries, shimmering with camp.
Ever since an interior decorator friend murmured to me, “Of course the French taste only really gets interesting when it spreads to other places like Berlin,” I have been waiting for a moment to say that sentence aloud somewhere.
An expert came over, pert and American, and joined me. I fed her my pal’s sentence as though it were one of my own. She was impressed. “I like that it’s Viennese,” I mumbled.
She carried the conversation on: “Yes, I mean, when you look at it you think, ‘Well, it’s not French, is it?’ and then you ask yourself, ‘Could it be northern Italian? No, not quite ... ’” she mused, bemused.
“Can I sit on it?” I asked casually. I did not tell her about the exploding chair incident in Wallingford c1998, and me scarpering up the back streets of Oxfordshire with a bit of Chippendale sticking into my nevermind, because ... well, sometimes in life you have to forgive yourself.
I looked at the catalogue and at an additional sheet showing the lot’s provenance. The first known owner seemed to be one Augustin Louis Joseph Casimir Gustave de Franquetot, Marquis and Duc de Coigny (1788-1865); “Thence by descent to his daughter.” I googled the fellow. His family’s papers appear to be in the archive of Nottingham University. What are the chances?
“They would have kept the chairs against the wall and got them out for a party I expect,” my adviser said. Suddenly I remembered something: I am a little bit Viennese! “Bet I am a jolly sight more Viennese than the Duc de Coigny,” I thought.
“You know, I am partially Viennese,” I boasted.
The expert nodded encouragingly.
I sat back in the chair and imagined myself sitting in it in at home.
Delusions of grandeur. Delusions of grandma. The expert drew up a matching fauteuil that was covered in green damask and backed in yellow silk gingham. “It’s strong furniture,” she said. “If it was going to go, it would have gone by now.” A bit of doggerel sprang into my mind: “It wasn’t the cough that carried him off but the coffin they carried him off in.”
I had had a bad-ish day; nothing spectacular but I could tell I was in a rotten mood because of my reaction that morning to an email from a company that once delivered me some specialist cheese. The email began: “We noticed you haven’t ordered for a little while – sniff.” Normally this style of email would simply cause me to raise my eyebrows and think, “Gee, I hope to heaven they have not paid too much money for this quirky marketing strategy” (quirketing, as I believe it’s known in the trade). But today, instead I typed a pithy reply whose gist was ENOUGH OF THE NEEDY EMAILS ALREADY.
That “sniff” really lets you down, especially when cheese is in the equation, I conveyed. That sniff will lose you customers. Where’s your backbone? Where’s your moral fibre? I really resented the cheese delivery people for making me feel like a commitment-phobe in a romcom. “Back off,” I thought. “Maybe I’m just not that into you.”
Of course, human nature being what it is, the moment I had formally broken up with the cheese people I was flooded with regret and an almost overwhelming desire for entire wheels of artisanal home-delivered cheese. “Well, too bad,” I told myself. How had this situation turned from moral-grammatical triumph into lose-lose? You tell me.
The expert was still sitting next to me, neither of us getting any younger. The 10 pieces of furniture that comprised the suite looked more and more alluring, all around us. “Has there been much, you know, interest in this lot?” I asked.
“Hard to say,” she said, “but I think it could go your way.”
She went off to check if there was any more information to be had on what I now thought of as “my” chairs, while I imagined the kinds of Viennese cakes that could be eaten while sitting on them. Those cakes would be served with coffee ice-cream, I just knew.
“Ah, we do have a bit of additional provenance,” the expert said on her return. At the bottom of a paper marked “Austrian suite of seat furniture,” it was written: “Further research suggests that the present lot is probably Spanish.”
Spanish? Spanish! Could I ditch schnitzel and psychoanalysis for Picasso and castanets? I thought of the old Duc snuggled between me and a red-and-white dotted flamenco dancer. It was all getting far too complicated.
I hopped on the bus home and found myself thinking, thinking. If I issued a handsome apology, would the home delivery guys forgive me and let me place a lavish order for some of their most excellent cheese, just to cheer myself up?