One of the surprises of the huge Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé sale this past February was the splendid selection of objets de vertu the two men had gathered for their twentieth-century Kunstkammer.
The way in which this assemblage contravened recent trends in collecting was on my mind as I waited to see the London dealer David Lavender, whose lifework has been hunting for rare, beautiful, and precious objects. Lavender has a worldwide clientele seduced, not I suspect just by his knowledge and love of the quality and rarity of the objects in which he deals, but also because of the personal attention he offers his clients, most of whom he counts among his friends. He has been doing it a long, long time. “Sixty-three years ago I went to work in an antiques shop belonging to a friend of my father,” he says. “I swept the floors. I made the tea, and I worked there for four years. That,” he says proudly, “was my one and only job working for somebody else.”
In 1950 he started on his own, with very little money to play with. “I wandered all over England and Scotland, making a lot of friends and buying all sorts of things: glass, Chinese and English porcelain, paintings. Things cost very little in those days,” he remembers.
Eventually he decided he ought to specialize. At school his best subjects had been history and English literature so he went for portrait miniatures, fine jewels, snuffboxes, and what he describes as other “objects with a history.” He has specialized in these kinds of things ever since.
Portrait miniatures? “Yes, I chose them because they encompass a tremendous amount of history, which really interests me. So many of the subjects are literary personages, politicians who made history, or royalty, and I can say without exaggeration that we have probably had more things of historical significance than anyone else in the trade.”
His first great discovery of a portrait miniature came about fifty years ago when he was offered an eighteenth-century likeness of Henry Howard, the twelfth Earl of Suffolk. He paid £25 for it, put it in a sale and it brought £600. “A few years later I bought it back,” he remembers. “I think I sold it three times!”
And what was the earliest portrait miniature that has passed through his hands? “The earliest was of Queen Mary as a girl by the sixteenth-century Flemish artist Lucas Horenbout, who is generally acknowledged to be the father of English portrait miniatures. He was supposed to have taught the art of limning, as painting in miniature is termed, to Hans Holbein the Younger,” Lavender says. This miniature, dated about 1526, is one of only twenty-three extant miniatures by Horenbout, whom Henry VIII appointed as court painter.
“Then of course I have sold a number of important Elizabethan portrait miniatures including several of Elizabeth I,” he adds. “At Sotheby’s in the early 1950s I bought a portrait by Nicholas Hilliard, who charged Sir Thomas Hearne, an early mayor of Norwich £12 for it. Subsequently it was sold to the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery for £300. It is still there and is probably worth around £200,000.” The charm of these objects for Lavender is evident. “To me,” he explains, “portrait miniatures are like a series of little biographies. There are so many tales behind those faces.”
Jewelry is also a Lavender passion. But its value for him does not reside in the number or size of the gems in a piece. He looks for history again, and for artistry. Early rings are one of his passions, and he has a great many from Greek and Roman times up to the Renaissance. “Actually, I look for pieces from every age,” he says, “anything that is in perfect condition, beautifully made, and of beautiful quality. You look at modern jewelry, and it is just not the same.”
The day I visited Lavender, his immaculate vitrines contained a miniature pavé diamond bow brooch made by Boucheron in the 1920s. There was nineteenth-century classical revival jewelry, as well as a rare seal belonging to a comte de Toulouse, and an exquisite pair of imperial green jade earrings. “If you look closely they are carved in the shape of peapods and I can tell you that they were bought by a member of the Terry chocolate family when he was ambassador to China in the 1920s,” Lavender says, dating the earrings to 1923.
An elaborate painted and sequinned fan caught my eye. “That is a very rare Louis XVI ballooning fan,” Lavender explains. He also showed me two wonderful boxes both from the time of Louis XV. One was of almost transparent lapis lazuli with tiny enamel flowers, every one perfect, garlanding the lid. Another was a superb boldly ribbed gold snuffbox in mint condition. Lavender explains that boxes such as these were often given as ceremonial presents by the king. “They were frequently sold to goldsmiths if the recipient was short of money, which explains why they are still perfect. Ones that were used often have dents in them caused by the tapping of the snuff.”
Perhaps the most exciting object Lavender has found in his sixty-three year career was a seal. “It was the seal of George Washington, and it had been presented to him by the Alexandria Masonic Lodge in Virginia when the first cornerstone was laid for the new Capitol; it is inscribed 1794. It had Washington’s coat of arms on it.” When Lavender acquired this historic object a friend and client was the American ambassador to Italy. He wasted no time in telling his client that the seal should be presented to the nation, which is just what happened, and Lavender and his wife were invited to the second inauguration of George W. Bush. Asked to make a speech at the presentation of the seal, Lavender told the audience that Britain had “always looked after our colonies. Yes,” he admits, “I know, it was a bit naughty!”
Judging by the Saint Laurent and Bergé sale, there are still avid collectors in this somewhat arcane field. Who are they, these days, I ask. “People who have good taste,” he responds crisply. “Often, they come never having collected. How do I start them out? The most important thing, I tell them, is that something will catch your eye, you will think about it and you will come back. It has got to speak to you, and you really have to love it.”
Sitting in his eyrie above Bond Street, surrounded by small works of art created over two millenniums, Lavender is a happy man. But one thing does make him sad. “There are very few specialists in these things now,” he says. “And that is a shame because one never knows what wonderful thing may be just around the corner. And that,” he says looking back over more than half a century, “is the great adventure.”
Images from above: Powder box by Jean-Urbain Guérin (1760-1836), Paris, c. 1810. Gold, enamel, and tortoiseshell; diameter 4 inches. Photographs by courtesy of David Lavender. Fan and pair of gouache miniatures in shagreen cases by Louis Nicolas van Blarenberghe (1716-1794), 1784. Length of fan 15, diameter of miniatures 2 3⁄4 inches. All are painted with ballooning scenes. Fob and table seals of Field Marshall Frederick Sleigh Roberts, Earl Roberts (1832-1914). Gold, citrine, and hardstone; length of table seal 4 3⁄8 inches. A distinguished nineteenth-century commander, Roberts is buried in Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London.