A Table on sale for US$11.6m, legs optional

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 26, 2018.

The table, pictured here on a much later, Georgian-era stand.Source: Robilant and Voena.

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In 1568, Francesco I de’ Medici, heir to the Grand Dukedom of Tuscany, commissioned a table designed by the artist, architect and writer, Giorgio Vasari. Vasari was one of the most famous artists in Florence. The Medici family had already enlisted him for projects ranging from murals in the Palazzo Vecchio to the design of the first buildings of the Uffizi.

The table was to be made with an inlay technique called pietre dure (hard stone), comprising of a design made from hundreds of thinly sliced, immensely valuable stones such as jasper and lapis lazuli, set on top of a piece of white marble. It took more than 10 years to build and cost a spectacular sum.

“Putting it in terms of its comparative wealth, you could buy a painting by Titian — the greatest master of his day — for much, much less,” said Benedict Tomlinson, a London art dealer. Tomlinson is a director of Robilant and Voena, a gallery that will be exhibiting the tabletop at the Masterpiece London art fair, which runs from Thursday to July 4.

The table carries an asking price “in the region of €10 million (US$11.6 million/RM46.6 million)”, he said. Currently, the table sits on a much newer base.

“There’s two parts to the price,” Tomlinson said. “First, you’ve got its history.” By that, Tomlinson is referring to the table’s nearly unbroken stretch of royal ownership.

Thanks to European monarchs’ enduring (and ultimately devastating) tendency to marry their cousins, the table managed to stayed in the immediate Medici family for more than a century.

The table even had a brief stint in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister, Elisa, whom he had appointed Grand Duchess of Tuscany.

It was subsequently sold in 1870 by the Italian state to a British art dealer named William Spence, who turned around and sold it to Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, who would become first Duke of Westminster.

The table was duly shipped from Italy to Grosvenor House, the family’s massive townhouse in London’s Mayfair, and stayed there for 70 years.

In 1953, the family put the table up for auction, at which it passed into private, non-royal hands.

“You’ve got these 400 years of extraordinary provenance, which is very hard to find,” said Tomlinson.

It is not just about who owned the table, though. There is the object itself. It is more than 152.4cm and 116.44cm wide, and covered in giant pieces of agate, jasper, lapis lazuli, and other stones.

“The more translucent stones have silver leaf underneath, so they shine,” Tomlinson said.

“I had an expert come in here and tell me, ‘You’re lighting it all wrong, you should be lighting it by candlelight.”’

   “For a work of art, it’s comparatively inexpensive,” he said, “which is a ridiculous thing to say: It’s still an extraordinary amount of money, but — because the art market has reached a strange moment in history where there’s no limit to prices — comparatively speaking, it’s good value.”

Tomlinson suggests that buyers compare the 400-year-old table with the price of a painting by Christopher Wool, a contemporary artist whose most expensive “word paintings” have sold for more than US$20 million at auction.

“It’s actually a beautiful thing,” he said. “You’re not just buying a concept.”

Tomlinson said that there is already been some interest from museums, but the table could appeal to anyone with means and an eye for fine things.

It is also, he added, very durable.

“You could quite safely put something on top of it, because it’s quite hard. You can’t make a dent in it, so you could put a bust on it or something,” he added.

“I suppose when you look at a table, it’s hard for it not to take on a functional use.”  — Bloomberg