Large dark green patinated floor lamps ‘aux oiseaux’, 1921. Estimate: €1,500,000-2,000,000. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2013.

PARIS.- Christie’s France announced the sale on 23rd May 2013 of an exceptional group of furniture created by the celebrated French Art Deco cabinet maker, Armand Albert Rateau (1882-1938), for the private apartments of the Duchess of Alba, doña María del Rosario de Silva y Gurtubay (1900-1934), in the Liria Palace, Madrid. Commissioned between 1920-1921 by her husband, Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falco (1878-1953), 17th Duke of Alba, probably on the occasion of their marriage on 7th October 1920 at the Spanish Embassy in London, these pieces are amongst the most famous and legendary creations produced by the designer/cabinet maker/sculptor, trained at the renowned École Boulle. 

The House of Alba has decided to sell the Armand Albert Rateau furniture commissioned by the 17th Duke of Alba, don Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart in the early 1920s in France, in order to support the funding of its heritage and of its various palaces throughout Spain as well as supporting new projects for the family. This is part of a general reorganization undertaken by the House of Alba, as illustrated by the recent exhibition ‘El Legado Casa d’Alba’, the first ever organized in Madrid between December 2012-March 2013. These pieces of furniture are all that remain of a larger ensemble that no longer exists. They do not form part of the historic collection of the House of Alba nor do they relate to the history of Spain”, stated the House of Alba. 

This project was one of the three prestigious commissions that launched Rateau’s career after he began working independently in 1919. His first important commission was the Blumenthal swimming pool in New York, for which he created his first bronze pieces. Followed shortly in the early 1920 by a call from Jeanne Lanvin, a key figure in the fashion world, to design the interior of her mansion, rue Barbet-de-Jouy in Paris, as well as her houses in Le Vésinet, and so beginning a five-year period of collaboration. The Duke of Alba commission must have arrived soon after, if not concurrently. 

The Duke of Alba, head of one of the most prestigious European aristocratic families, whose origins date back to the 13th and 14th centuries, had therefore turned to one of the most well-respected and elitist decorators of his time, Armand Albert Rateau, as much aesthete as artist, aged 37, who was already producing work at the height of his talents. 

Pilar González de Gregorio y Álvarez de Toledo, Chairman of Christie’s Spain: “Benefiting from an centuries old international renown, the House of Alba is one of the most important families of the Castilian high nobility, as well as the most celebrated in Spain. Its origins date back to the 13th and 14th centuries. The family comes from the Mozarabic oligarchy of the town of Toledo and descends notably from Esteban Illán, a high official during the reign of King Alfonso VIII of Castile. Three women would bear the title of Duchess of Alba in their own right: the eleventh Duchess of Alba, María Teresa Álvarez de Toledo and Haro; the thirteenth Duchess of Alba, María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva Álvarez de Toledo, the unforgettable muse of Francisco Goya; and finally Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart and Silva, the eighteenth and current Duchess of Alba, known as ‘Tana’, adored by her father.” 

Armand Albert Rateau’s bronzes are creations of infinite poetry and of exceptional quality and subtlety. They relate to the hedonist world born from the designer’s imagination and nourished by his first journey to Naples and Pompeï in 1914, accompanied by a group of friends which included the jewelry designer Cartier and with whom he visited the sites revealed by archeological excavations at the end of the 18th century. During this trip he discovered the bronze furniture on show at the Naples Museum, as well as the wholly fantastic universe created by the decorative frescoes which covered the houses at Pompeï. Not forgetting also the perfect knowledge of the Classical style which he would explore during his years spent with Georges Hoentschel and then Alavoine, two internationally celebrated decorator firms of the time. Through this apprentiships Rateau’s first years of professional activity quickly established him a solid reputation and in turn an impressive client list of great use as he gained his professional independence. 

This taste for imagined and re-interpreted Antiquity no doubt echoed the Duke’s personal preference. An exceptional personality, politician, ambassador and aesthete as well as intellectual and recognized arts connoisseur, he chose Egypt as his honeymoon destination, in the company of Howard Carter – the archeologist and Egyptologist who shortly afterwards would discover the tomb of Tutankhamen. 

Sonja Ganne, European Director of the 20th century Decorative Arts & Design department: “These pieces, which have never left the palace, represent a precious as well as a unique evidence of an exceptional commission, dreamed at but unattainable until today and only known to us through a small number of period photographs. Only a few rare and impressive bronze pieces have found their way to us : a pair of floor lamps ‘aux oiseaux’ – four of them were originally created for the bathroom; a low table of the same design with a black marble top; a dressing table with a grey marble top; a sofa ‘aux cols de cygne’ in gilt carved wood; a carved and gilt wood adjustable day bed with carved drapery pattern and bronze tassels, and finally a white Carrara marble bathtub, initially set into the marble floor as an antique bath”. 

Armand Albert Rateau chose to present a reconstruction of the Duchess’ bathroom at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs Industriels Modernes in Paris, 1925, which was displayed from June 1st to 16th at the Arnold Seligmann gallery, located on the Place Vendôme. The fact that Rateau chose to feature this group on such an occasion, underlines the value the artist attached himself to the group within his overall oeuvre. It met such a success that the American Association of Modern decorative Art Loan Exhibition organised its own touring exhibition the following year through seven American cities and featuring works from the 1925 Exhibition. In February 1926 it was presented to the Metropolitan Museum of New York, who acquired one work by Rateau: the dressing table of same design as the one belonging to the Duchess of Alba. At this occasion Rateau donated a bronze hand-mirror with an ivory handle to the museum. In that same year, Rateau was made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur. 

In 1965 the Prince of Polignac, the husband of Jeanne Lanvin’s daughter Blanche de Polignac, donated to the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the furniture by Rateau from the private rooms of the legendary fashion designer in her mansion on rue Barbet-de-Jouy, now on permanent display in the museum. Several pieces such as the bronze lamps and the low table “aux oiseaux”, can be found in both the Lanvin and Alba sets.

The House of Alba

Internationally renowned for centuries, the House of Alba – which dates back to the 13th and 14th centuries - is one of the most important families in Castilian high nobility, and the most famous in Spain. The House’s origins descend from Toledo’s Mozarabic oligarchy, specifically from Esteban Illán, a high dignitary of King Alfonso of Castile. In 1429 his descendant, archbishop Don Gutierre of Toledo, received the fiefdom of Alba de Tormes, in the province of Salamanca. In 1432, his nephew and successor, Don Ferdinand Álvarez of Toledo was ennobled by King John II in gratitude for his loyalty in troubled times and made Count of Alba. Under the reign of Henry IV, the second Count of Alba, Don García Álvarez of Toledo, was in turn created Duke of Alba de Tormes. 

The House of Alba played an active part in the course of history. Ever loyal to the Crown, members participated in wars, held important posts, expanded their lands and formed advantageous wedding alliances, hence enriching their domains and multiplying their titles via the female line, according to the hereditary rights of which Spain’s females have always benefited. This is how they managed to acquire the now more than 40 titles of nobility which the 18th Duchess of Alba now bears. 

These historical characters were warriors as well as cultivated gentlemen, art lovers and patrons, befriending men of letters and of the arts, presiding over the construction of churches, monasteries and palaces. The most illustrious figure of this ancestry would be Ferdinand Álvarez of Toledo, 3rd Duke of Alba, known as the “Great Duke”. He was a glorious general and the cornerstone of Kings Charles V and Phillip II’s reigns and one of the architects of Spain’s military dominance over 16th century Europe. 

Only three women from the House of Alba have borne the title of Duchess of Alba in their own right: María Teresa Álvarez of Toledo and Haro, 11th Duchess of Alba; María del Pilar Teresa Cayetana de Silva y Álvarez of Toledo, the 13th Duchess of Alba as well as the unforgettable muse of Francisco Goya; and finally, the 18th and present Duchess of Alba, Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva. 

More recently, the House of Alba distinguished itself in the 20th century with the 17th Duke of Alba, Don Jacobo Fitz-James Stuart y Falco, a worthy successor to the “Great Duke”. 

Born in the Liria Palace in Madrid on 17 October 1878, he benefited from an education dispensed by his tutor, the keeper of the Fine Arts section of the National Library. His great-aunt, Empress Eugenie de Montijo, watched over his childhood. Raised in England at the Jesuit school of Beaumont College, near Windsor, Berkshire, he graduated with a law degree from San Bernardo University, Madrid. 

A man of morals, a great presence, polyglot, sociable, influential, a sportsman and a traveller, curious and worldly, he demonstrated very early on a taste for the things of the mind. A close friend of King Alfonso XIII, he worked to bring him together with the intellectuals with whom he entertained numerous and enriching relationships. He occupied one of the main roles in Spanish and international society of the time. 

Honorary titles were acquired in equal number of those of the nobility. He was a member and supporter of many important Spanish institutions, including, amongst others, the Royal Academy of History (1918) – which he subsequently directed for 25 years, the Royal Spanish Academy (1922), the Paintings Department of the Fine Arts Academy (1924); and served as the President of the Prado Museum Advisory board. He was made a doctor honoris causa of Trinity College, Oxford; and was a member of the Imperial Academy, Berlin; of the British Academy, London; and of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston. Together with American billionaire Archer Huntington, he was a founding member of the New York Hispanic Society, where he acted as an advisor from 1924. In 1922, he supported the establishment of the first university department dedicated to prehistory – the chair of Primitive History of Man – given to the prestigious German archeologist Hugo Obermaier. In 1923, he created the British-Spanish Committee, along with its Student’s Residency which became celebrated for its liberal atmosphere. 

The Duke also participates in the construction of Madrid’s university campus, and frequently met with famous personalities such as the philosopher, sociologist, essayist and politician Jose Ortega y Gasset; the philologist and historian Ramon Menéndez Pidal; the doctor, scientist and historian Gregorio Marañón; the writer Ramon Pérez de Ayala; the archeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen; the painter José María Sert, who was commissioned to execute the frescoes of the Liria Palace’s chapel; the English architect Sir Edwin Luytens, who supervised the rebuilding of the palace after the Spanish Civil War bombings together with the Spanish architect Manuel Cabanyes. 

In 1916, appointed head of the Madrid Royal Opera House, the Duke, together with the Prime Minister Eduardo Dato, invited the Russian Ballets to perform in Spain. The same year, he travelled to London together with King Alfonso XIII with the aim to recover the celebrated Stradivarius viola located at W. E. Hill and Sons. Stolen during the Spanish War of Independance, it was finally restituted in 1945 and integrated into the Stradivarius string instruments collection in the Royal Palace of Madrid,where it remains. 

The cinema was another little-known area of interest shared by the Duke and his wife. Whilst he was a friend of Hollywood star Douglas Fairbanks, the Duchess played a role in “Currito de la Cruz”, a 1925 feature film by Alejandro Perez Lugin which proved to be a real popular success. 

The political career of the Duke of Alba would be particularly successful. Advisor of the National Institute of Forecasting, he was elected Deputy in 1905. Between 1908 and 1909, as a senator, he formed part of the commissions for the construction of roads in poorer areas. In 1929 he was appointed as curator of the International Exhibition in Barcelona. In 1930 he served as Minister of Public Education, then became minister of Berenguer’s state department before being appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1931, exerting all its efforts to try to save the monarchy. 

Between 1939 and 1945, he served as Ambassador of Spain to Great Britain despite of his well-known Royalist stance and its ideological distance with Franco’s government. His ties with the Royal family of Great Britain, to which he is related by his Duchy of Berwick, also provided him a distant kinship with Winston Churchill. 

A gifted businessman, the Duke made many wise investments including in the construction of the Madrid underground, many buildings on the Grand Vía, the city’s main street, and the promotion of the Pedreña Golf Club in Santander. He also became CEO of the Spanish Telephonic Company and of Standard Eléctrica. 

Known as “Jimmy” Alba, the Duke was a driving personality in high society and the epitome of elegance. He smoked a pipe, which was first warmed by a servant, who was also in charge of easing his shoes. He made famous his Madrid tailor, Collado. In 1918 he commissioned painter Zuloaga to do his portrait; ensuring the instant success of the artist, who went on to execute several portraits of the Alba family. 

The Duke led a very glamorous life. In 1920, at the age of 42 and late in comparison to his contemporaries, he married a young and exquisitely beautiful woman 22 years younger than him: María del Rosario de Silva and Gurtubay, nicknamed ‘Totó’; the Marquess of San Vincente del Barco, and heiress to the Dukes of Híjar, one of the most important and wealthy Aragon families. 

At that time he was close friends with a beautiful and rich divorced American, Linda Lee Thomas, who upon hearing about the Duke’s engagement herself married the famous composer Cole Porter in 1919. Nevertheless the two couples developed a great friendship. The Duke and the Duchess of Alba used to stay regularly at their friends’ house in Venice where they met with international high society. These personalities included the playwriter and composer Noël Coward, the writer and librettist Boris Kochno and the journalist and glamorous events planner Elsa Maxwell, as well as Misia Sert, Barbara Hutton, the Mdvianis and the Bestegui. 

As elegant as her husband, the Duchess’s wardrobe was Parisian, mainly from Chanel, however she was proud of her Spanish roots and was a great follower of bull racing. In honor of kings, queens and other important visitors to the Spanish capital, the Duke and the Duchess often hosted sumptuous balls at the Liria Palace and regularly entertained international high society. 

This fairytale marriage lasted fourteen years before the Duchess Rosario prematurely died of tuberculosis aged 34. 

On 26 March 1926 she had given birth to her only child Cayetana, nicknamed ‘Tana’, who grew up adored by her father. 

In 1945, at the end of the War and having completed his role as ambassador, the Duke of Alba returned to Madrid whilst still travelling frequently. Whilst managing his estate, he also took charge of the restoration of the Liria Palace which was badly treated during the Civil War, an initiative continued and completed by his daughter. At the same time, he was involved in supporting the restoration of the monarchy, despite it being a remote and uncertain possibility. He managed the education of his daughter and heiress and was happy to participate to her wedding as well as of having the chance of knowing his first two grandchildren. 

The XVII Duke of Alba, an exceptional man, died in Lausanne on the 24 September 1953, while visiting his old friend Queen Victoire Eugénie, following a cruise on the Mediterranean and just days before his 75th birthday. The Queen herself closed Duke Jacobo’s eyes, just as four centuries previously the 12th Duke of Alba had done for King Ferdinand the Catholic, thus turning another page of the History of the House of Alba. 


This project was one of the three prestigious commissions that launched Rateau’s career after he began working independently in 1919. Photo: Christie's Images Ltd 2013.