Haute Ambassador: Wish You Were Here

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“It is legal because I wish it.” So declared Louis XIV, and, indeed, the autocrat could get away with this edict during his sun-kissed reign. Less successful are our modern day reincarnations, wannabe kings of Wall Street with their unbridled avarice, abandonment of longstanding business rules, and wanton overreach, sending the current economy into a vortex. The markets have not seen such free fall in a lifetime. And yet, our lives continue…

As a member of the designer committee of the Biennale des Antiquaires in Paris, I attended what is arguably the art world’s most glamorous collecting opportunity.  Astounding examples of 18th century Boulle were juxtaposed with contemporary art on display in the restored Palais Royal. Didier Aaron and Steinitz were standouts, with inventories to tantalize any serious collector. A posse of curatorial advisors for the Abu Dhabi museum was shown the red carpet. Gems continue to take center stage. Among the strong, Cartier dazzled under direction of the young president Frédéric de Narp. The opening night dinner was a sumptuous affair, chaired by Marie-Josee Kravis with official hosts President and Mrs. Sarkozy present. American attendees included the beautiful Kim Heirston and her husband Richard Evans, Marjorie Reed Gordon, and serious art acquisitors, the Lawrence Friedlands.

In an unprecedented move, the French embraced American artist Jeff Koons and installed a mammoth solo installation of his work in their revered bastion of culture, the unrivaled Palace of Versailles. Koons calls it a high point of his artistic life, and so he ought to. Among the 17 sculptures of wit and delight, a personal favorite: the colossal red lobster hanging from the ceiling in the Salon de Mars. One of the private patrons contributing to the $22.8 million funding was none other than Francois Pinault, France’s wealthiest art collector. A shrewd move on his part, as it almost certainly guarantees a massive increase in value. The cunning fellow has six pieces from his private collection in the exhibition. A slight conflict of interest, non?

Across the Channel, an English counterpart, artist Damien Hirst, outwitted his dealers and hit a bull’s-eye with a solo auction at Sotheby’s in London. His work appears to be one of the few commodities unaffected by the current financial storm. Very few American buyers raised a paddle, but the Russian collectors were there to support the astronomical prices. The top seller of the two-day event was the Golden Calf preserved in a tank of formaldehyde. Talk about idolatry, with hooves and horns made of 18-karat gold and head crowned with a gold disk; it found a buyer at $18.6 million. My Palm Beach clients Sir Geoffrey and Lady Leigh were intent on coming away with a butterfly painting but, with good reason, let a Russian spring for this outrageous excess at $4 million, three times the high estimate. It’ll be sure to brighten a dreary Moscow drawing room. The event was hailed as “a phenomenon” by New York art dealer Alberto Mugrabi—certainly no overstatement.

Whilst Mr. Hirst walked away with a sales total of more than $200 million and the auction houses anticipate single works by artists taking a similar route in the future, the Russians, in their unending race of one-upmanship, keep vying for the title of most expensive home. Villa Leopolda, the massive 20-acre French Riviera estate once owned by Edmund Safra, has been sold for the incomprehensible price of $750 million to a Russian oligarch. “I think they’re trying to make a splash,” quipped the über broker Dolly Lenz of Prudential Douglas Elliman. With the recent rough weeks in the market, however, it remains to be seen if the final payment will be forthcoming. After all, Bill Gates was once purchasing this property in 2005 for $105 million, but the deposit check never arrived.

The New York season remains unfettered, regardless of financial slaughter. Cases in point: Peter Bacanovic’s glamorous drinks party at Fred Leighton; a reception for Baron Jean van Gysel of V Resorts Limited at The Core Club; legendary fashion designer Galanos dining with Ralph Rucci at a brimming La Grenouille; sitting between Jacqueline Stone and Monique Van Vooren at the screening and reception for Oliver Stone’s new film, W; dinner with the best-selling author Barbara Taylor Bradford and her husband Bob at a bustling Cipriani; and round out the month with royalty at the Princess Grace Awards, amongst a marathon of similar worthy charities.

It took two more crowned heads and untold dissipation before foreclosure on the Bourbon titles and deed to Versailles. This is something the Sun King would not have anticipated when he said, “There is little that can withstand a man who can conquer himself.” Le Roi believed in the essential good of man, and, fortunately, there are those who still exist today. The paragon of restrained investing, Warren Buffett has taken it upon himself to become the new triple-A rating system in an attempt to re-instill confidence in the current market. With two audacious moves, $5 billion in Goldman Sachs and $3 billion in General Electric, Buffett signaled where he thought the safe money was.

Where would our country be without financial knights on white charges like the Morgans of the past and the Buffetts of today? And when will we ever be confident of our safety again?

Let’s keep a vigilant eye on the economic GPS and seatbelts fastened for this bumpy ride…

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