By: Sallie Brady
Is Italy really the place to buy Italian art and antiques? That’s what many collectors were left wondering earlier this fall when Florence did a flashback to its 1920s glory days, staging one of postwar Italy’s most anticipated auctions.
Shuttered like a time capsule for decades, Palazzo Magnani Feroni was the warehouse of one of the city’s great antiques dealers, Salvatore Romano, who began hoarding Old Master paintings, haute époque sculpture and Renaissance furniture at the turn of the 20th century. A stealth dealer who traded privately with museums and wealthy clients, Romano was well acquainted with the major figures of the Florentine art world, such as Bernard Berenson and Roberto Longhi. When he died in 1955 the palazzo was left in situ, and his son, Francesco, continued acquiring until his death in the 1970s, at which time the palazzo was sealed. When the Romanos’ nine heirs called Sotheby’s in to have a look, they encountered frescoed rooms filled with crates, dust, dirt and treasures that they estimated would fetch €10–15 million ($15.3–22.8 million). The four-day sale began Oct. 12, Italian-style, with a temporary power outage. In the tented terrace of the palazzo, 1,827 lots were offered, of which 40 percent went unsold, but the sale still made €10.5 million ($15.5 million).
Marble and terra-cotta sculpture were the strongest categories. Two graceful terra-cotta female figures by the circle of Gianlorenzo Bernini, both estimated at €25,000–35,000, were hotly battled for on the phones, realizing €186,750 and €138,750. A sixth-century spiraled Roman column (est. €100,000–150,000) that had spent nearly a century outside in the palazzo’s courtyard was the top seller at €276,750.
Although it was mostly Italians in the salesroom, “the top end of the sculpture category was purchased or underbid, generally, by Europeans and Americans,” says Margaret Schwartz, director of Sotheby’s department of European works of art.
The private viewing had been on for weeks before the sale, to coincide with the 50th annual Florence Biennale. While objects had been uncrated, the palazzo had been left just as Sotheby’s found it: a topsy-turvy high-end jumble sale in rooms of jaw-dropping beauty, smothered in dust. The mix of high and low—one lot was consisted of giltwood fragments with an estimate of €50–80—was the wish of the heirs. The fact that they insisted on having reserves on these lots, however, was one reason the sale had a low sell-through, according to Francesco Morroni, director of Sotheby’s Milan. “The second was that some things were overvalued according to the market—the owners wanted to go with high estimates. And the third was that some pieces were stopped by the authorities.”
Notificato is the last word that any auctioneer or art dealer in Italy wants to hear. When a piece is “notified,” it’s considered a national treasure and cannot receive an export license; just watch its value drop and its seller weep. Schwartz says some of the sale’s most important sculptures were notified at the last minute, leaving disappointed buyers overseas. They included a monumental 16th-century marble group of Time, Truth and Deceit by Michelangelo Naccerino (est. €350,000–500,000); and a terra-cotta model relief of the Archangel Michael by Giovanni Battista Maini (est. €200,000–300,000) that had a line of potential buyers wielding flashlights waiting to see it during the dusty private view.