- The Conti Sales of 1777 and 1779 and their Impact on the Parisian Art Market
Louis-François de Bourbon, prince de Conti (1717–1776), embraced life with a sense of hauteur appropriate to his station as prince of the blood and displayed his enthusiasms in many domains: military prowess, scientific investigations, theatre and music, women, and art collecting. His professional path had an interesting arc: following his military career, his involvement with Louis XV in foreign policy negotiations, his exile from court in part through the manipulations of Mme de Pompadour, and subsequent dalliance in a frondiste association with Protestants and the intermingling with Parlement's affairs, the prince de Conti settled into a comfortable life as Grand Prieur of the Knights of Malta, headquartered at the Temple in the Marais. His court within Paris, a legal jurisdiction protected from French laws, attracted both the high born and low.1 The famous painting by Michel-Barthélemy Ollivier of English Tea at the Temple with the Entire Court of the prince de Conti (fig. 1) illustrates the brilliance of that mondain assembly. Nearby, within a special gallery of the Temple, the prince de Conti amassed an art collection of immense proportions.2 Some authors think he began collecting in the 1740s, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that his frenzied art accumulations occurred during the last twenty years of his life.3 Along with the rest of his train de vie, the [End Page 77] prince's art collections represented just a part of his larger pattern of profligate consumption.
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The main issue addressed in this essay is what happened before and after the sale of the prince de Conti's collections held between April and June 1777, and the impact on the Parisian art market through the mid 1780s. The main losers in the dispersals of this collection were his son, Louis-François-Joseph de Bourbon, the new prince de Conti, who was forced to liquidate almost all his real estate holdings and moveable property during the 1780s to pay off his father's debts, and all the art dealers who had supplied the old prince with the art objects that helped create his sense of self-presentation.4 Louis-François de Bourbon's case demonstrates the blurred lines between the noble and bourgeois spheres. He fell into the clutches of the purveyors of luxury items, including Old Master and contemporary paintings, but they in turn, became his victims, even after his death, as they scrambled to undo the prince's twenty-year buying spree and disperse his collections back into the ebb and flow of art commerce. The Conti collection was the last feudal assemblage of fine art dispersed [End Page 78] before the Revolution; its glut of the market signaled a shift of power away from the aristocratic buyers toward the dealers. The prince de Conti's lifestyle needed the monarchy. There was a reciprocal connection between the king and all the princes of blood. Their luxurious consumption depended on maintaining the nobility's privileges within that political system. With the demise of the old prince de Conti, the art dealers had to change their symbiotic habits in relation to noble clients, as they sought new ways to exploit consumer interest in the art market, from the cheapest baubles to luxury master paintings. We will look at the Conti sales in some detail and then examine a few representative auctions of the late 1770s and 1780s, as the dealers adjusted their practices to the changing market dynamics in the years approaching the Revolution.
It is well established that the passion for art collecting and attendant auction activity heated up in a number of major European centers during the second half of the eighteenth century, but nowhere as much as in Paris.5...