Wednesday, June 13, 2007

First day in Paris

A view of Paris from a terrace on the Quai Anatole France. Photo: JH.
NYSD in Europe. In case you’ve wondered, the travel and touring schedule on this trip has been brutal in preventing us from posting on time each day. Furthermore we had serious technical problems today that shut the site down for a few hours. Our profuse apologies for both.

Paris. We arrived yesterday afternoon from Venice. Traffic from Charles de Gaulle into the city is quite like traffic from JFK into Manhattan: almost standstill. Weather: sunny and warm with some light breezes. We’re in a small hotel off the Champs overlooking a courtyard where yesterday a mother sparrow was flying about anxiously because one of her little ones was on the courtyard pavement, unable to fly. We were anxious too. She was about this morning, still chirping anxiously although I couldn’t spot the little one. This afternoon she was gone.

Today marked the launch of the American Friends of Versailles’ week of festivities to raise funds for the planned restoration of the Pavillon Frais (also called the Salon Frais or Pavillon du Treillage) which was constructed during the reign of Louis XV between 1715 and 1753.

The Pavillon was designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel who was also responsible for the Petit Trianon complex as well as the Versailles Opera and the Place de la Concorde (originally the Place de Louis XV). In its time it was used on warm days of spring and summer by the Queen and the ladies of the court as a private diningroom. The interior was decorated with walls of boiseries sculpted with garlands and flowers, mirrors, a chimney and a Savonnerie carpet. Napoleon did away with all of it in 1810 and the parterres and basins surrounding three years later. Restoration began in 1980 but because of lack of funds it fell into disrepair. American Friends of Versailles has taken on the task.

The American relationship with Versailles began in the days of the American Revolution when the Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, influenced by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, allied themselves with the armies of George Washington. The French aid to the Americans is often referred to as one of the main elements in the economic disasters of the government of the monarchy that led to the French Revolution and the end of the monarchy.

After the execution of the King and Queen, Versailles remained essentially unoccupied forevermore. In the early 1920s John D. Rockefeller Jr. traveling through France discovered the fallen state of the chateau, decrepit after more than a century of neglect.The first thing Rockefeller  did was to finance a new roof to keep out the rain and snow that was already exacting a toll of destruction.

Since that time, the American interest in the restoration of Versailles has been ongoing. For several decades following the Second World War, the restoration was led by Gerald van der Kemp and his American wife Florence. After the van der Kemps retired, the spirit of their work has been taken up by Americans David and Catherine Hamilton. NYSD readers may remember that three years ago at this time we covered the dedication of the restored Trois Fontaines of Louis XIV, a work completed by the Hamiltons and their American Friends of Versailles.
Fresh flowers in the garden of the Baron and Baroness Gerard de Waldner
The business of monument  restoration is a long, laborioius and arduous, no small part of which is in raising the millions needed to complete the task. Part of Mrs. Hamilton’s fund-raising is this amazing gala week which includes a number of receptions, luncheons, dinners and visits to important French houses and institutions. This is the fun part, a magnificent celebration capped off by the grand Le Bal de Marie-Antoinette held in the highest honor of Madame Jacques Chirac and Mrs. Laura Bush this coming Saturday night.

The week began this morning with a “Welcome Champagne Reception” hosted by the Baron and Baroness Gerard de Waldner in the garden of their hotel particulier on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. It was a kind of homecoming reunion for many who’d attended the Trois Fontaines events in 2004. Among others I met was Katie Stapleton from Denver whose son currently occupies the American ambassador’s residence down the road from the de Waldners. The reception was a casual affair. Drinks were served -- orange juice, champagne and water, and some canapes.
Anne-Marie de Ganay and Matilda Stream
Maurice Tobin, John Lee, and Nicole Salinger
Sandy Yturbe, Joan Tobin, Billy Connor, Libby Horn, and Catharine Hamilton
Melinda and Bill Hassen with Catharine Hamilton
Joan Tobin and Meilnda Hassen
Olivier de Rohan and Baroness Gerard de Waldner
John and Alexandra Nichols
Ruth and Sara Levy
Maurice Tobin, Jerome Fouan, John Nichols, Joan Tobin, Baron Gerard de Waldner, and Nicole Salinger
Katie Stapleton, Patrick Coulson, and DPC
John Lee, Maryann Carey de Edwards, Baron, Sandy Yturbe, and David and Catharine Hamilton
Catharine Hamilton with J.J.and Janet Cafaro
Olivier de Rohan, Patrick Coulson, Baroness de Waldner, Katie Stapleton, and Baron de Waldner
The garden scene
At 1 pm part of the group moved on to the residence of President and Madame Valery Giscard d’Estaing for a luncheon while another group went over to a luncheon at the hotel particulier of Nicholas and Alexis Kugel, brothers and owners of J. Kugel Antiquaires on the Quai Anatole France.   

The Kugel Brothers, Nicholas and Alexis
I’d been told by several people over the years that the Kugels have one of the greatest collections of art and antiques in the world. “Unbelievable” is a commonly used word for it. It is difficult to know what that means, of course, unless you see it. We saw it. Unbelievably beautiful, sumptuous, complex artisanship, craftsmanship. A tapestry from the late 1600s, for example, of a German astronomer demonstrating his instruments to the Emperor in Beijing. JH caught it for the camera. This four centuries old tapestry is in such brilliant condition that I asked Alexis Kugel how it has retained its bold colors. “Probably it was rolled up” and stored for much of that time.

The Kugel Collection is like a museum tour. I wanted to ask the price of so many things, to find a way to comprehend its value in terms of rarity and workmanship. But I thought of that famous remark of JP Morgan’s  about the cost of his yacht -- “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”  I am guessing but undoubtedly many of the items have prices well into seven figures.
Late 17th Century tapestry of German astronomers and a Chinese emperor
These trips that we take for the NYSD exposes us to incredible treasures that can only be acquired by museums or the very rich. Although I am always curious, in conversations with dealers of this ilk it is unrealistic to think they would reveal anything specific about their business. Dealers at this level often acquire pieces which have never been seen by the public before, pieces that may have been in families for decades, even centuries. They are known for their discretion and even at times acquire pieces that are seen only by very special (read:serious) clients looking for something in particular.

I was told that the Kugels have many American clients who buy for themselves and for museums.Touring their beautiful rooms, full of fascinating items, one can dream, maybe only dream, but always marvel at the beauty that can be created by the hands and imagination of man.

After our tour we were led to an elevator which  took us up to a terrace on the top of the building with a sweeping view of the Right Bank from the Crillon and the Place de la Concorde to the Louvre and as far away as Montmarte. Waiters in white served the orange juice, water and champagne. Lunch began with a tomato and egg Spanish souffle, both light and slightly spicey, followed by a superb chicken and rice dish, completed by what seemed to be a mousse-like version of strawberry shortcake. Time for a nap after this one.
A look around J. Kugel.
Lunch on the roof
A table centerpiece

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