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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Old Ballet Russes Costumes a Hit at Sotheby's

LONDON -- As the auctioneer's hammer came down at $54,075, the saleroom audience burst into spontaneous applause, a rare occurrence in the usually staid atmosphere of London's auction house Sotheby's. The cause for celebration was the sale of a spectacular zebra-striped costume by Henri Matisse for Stravinsky's ballet, "Le Chant du Rossignol," first performed in Paris in 1920. The Matisse robe formed part of an unparalleled collection of Diaghilev and Ballets Russes costumes from Castle Howard, the stately home in Northern England famous as the setting for the television series "Brideshead Revisited."

Amassed by the late Lord Howard of Henderskelfe, the collection sold last month at Sotheby's included breathtaking costumes by a range of artists including Lev Bakst, Nicolas Roerich, Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Lariyonov. These were just a few of the numerous artists who succumbed to the charm of Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929), an impresario of extraordinary charisma and vitality. Unable to paint, sing, dance or compose, Diaghilev is nevertheless universally acknowledged as a pivotal figure in stage design and ballet production, primarily thanks to his Ballets Russes which took Europe by storm at the beginning of the 20th century.

Diaghilev's talent lay in his enigmatic powers of persuasion, with which he inspired artists such as Bakst, Matisse, Georges Braque, Alexandre Benois and Picasso, the dancers Isadora Duncan and Vaslav Nijinsky, and composers such as Stravinsky, Debussy and Ravel to produce their finest work and integrate it into spectacular productions of ballet.

Over the years, Lord Howard assembled the largest collection of Ballets Russes costumes to remain in private hands, but unfortunately the extortionate upkeep of the privately held Castle Howard necessitated the sale of these treasures, and the entire collection was recently auctioned by Sotheby's. Selling consistently over estimate, primarily to institutions such as the Theater Museum in Stockholm, the costumes were without doubt one of the highlights of Sotheby's week of Russian festivities in mid-December.

The Matisse costume was for a mourner in Stravinsky's ballet, but not all of the lots were as somber. On the contrary, they ranged from costumes for roles as bizarre as squid, spotty fish and seaweed in Rimsky-Korsakov's ballet "Sadko" to zany little numbers for shepherds in "Daphnis and Chlo‘."

The comedy of these lots was not lost on Sotheby's staff. "And now we come to the spotty fish," announced the genial auctioneer, provoking unprecedented auction-room hilarity.

He was quite a character, the auctioneer, articulating his thousands with the speed and coherence of a horse-racing commentator, and yet still finding time for jocularity with the ladies: "The bid is with the gentleman on the second row, and against all the ladies at the back; they will hate you, sir."

The audience, too, had its fair share of flamboyance. Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, who, with her husband Nikita, owns one of the most comprehensive collections of Russian theatrical art and design, was in particularly fine form. "Show Rosalind your pants," she ordered an unsuspecting and bemused Russian gentleman. He obediently lifted his sheepskin to reveal a pair of trousers covered in wax. This had been the unfortunate result of sitting in too close proximity to a candle at a pre-sale extravaganza at the house of Sotheby's Russian expert, John Stuart, the night before. Lobanov-Rostovsky saved the day by offering to iron the wax out while she and the Russian gentleman had tea.

The Russian gentleman was one of several Russian faces in the audience, complementing the Saville Row suits of the dealers. There was even an Orthodox priest present, which caused intense speculation. "Perhaps he is going to buy one of the brigands' costumes," wondered Lobanov-Rostovsky. In that the brigands' costumes, designed by Lev Bakst for the ballet "Daphnis and Chlo‘" resembled duvet-sized baby jumpers in kaleidoscopic oranges, yellows and reds, such a purchase required considerable stretches of the imagination. "I'm sure that he could wear one," she insisted.

Not only were the costumes on sale icons of visual impact and paragons of ingenious craftsmanship, they had also been worn by ballerinas and ballet dancers as famous as Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Sokolova and Vaslav Nijinsky. There was even a Chinese robe worn by the exquisite Ninette de Valois in "Le Chant du Rossignol." But just in case we were too overwhelmed by such exemplary provenance, Sotheby's auction catalog announced that Dame Ninette had been born Edris Stannus. There is then hope for all of those who dream of pas-de-deux stardom but have sadly not been blessed with the sort of name befitting a celebrity.

Dame Ninette's attire, estimated at $618 to $927, went to a phone bidder for $1,545, and was one of many lots which did better than anticipated. Indeed, paddles in the auction room were held up without pause to think, causing the girls taking telephone bids to twitter with alacrity. Amongst the other sensational sales was one of Bakst's brigand's costumes, which was sold for $6,489, Nelidova's sensual costume as the Goddess in "Le Dieu Bleu," which fetched $7,725, and Goncharova's dazzling costume for a sea-monster in Sadko which sold for $9,270.

Impressive as these figures are, they could not match the four major Matisse lots of costumes for mourners and mandarins, which sold for $33,990, $54,075, $27,810 and $16,995 respectively. Hardly the sort of sums one would usually squander on second-hand clothes -- indeed, Sotheby's was disarmingly honest about the condition of the costumes. The lot which fetched $54,075 was described in the catalog as with "vertical tear and repair at front neck, re-stitched left underarm seam, a few small stains." An extravagant purchase, then? Or the wise investment of a connoisseur who appreciates that the same money could not normally buy you the paper which Matisse wrapped his baguette in, let alone a costume designed by the great master which actually appeared in the first performance of a ballet by Stravinsky?

Castle Howard was evidently pleased with the sums raised, as at the end of the auction the auctioneer announced that he had just received instructions to sell off all the lots which had not sold without any reserve price. This meant the there was no minimal sum which had to be reached before the costume could actually be sold, and several wonderful, if worn, articles went for under $154. I had left four lots before the end, and minutes before the auctioneer made his announcement: a tragedy.