If Those Chairs Could Talk

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The house of Hubert de Givenchy is going up for auction. This week. Christie’s will auction more than 1,200 lots of furniture, sculpture and art that belonged to the designer. His inner circle tells the stories behind the stuff.

In the Salon Vert of Hubert de Givenchy’s stately mansion in Paris.
Credit…Nina Slavecheva, via Christie’s Images

PARIS — When guests arrived at the Hotel d’Orrouer, the French couturier Hubert de Givenchy’s stately 18th-century mansion here, they rang a polished brass doorbell on the limestone wall. Once the bell was rung — no sound was made — the guardian would open the right side of the monumental evergreen-lacquered double doors and usher in the guests.

The white pea gravel courtyard was raked to such meticulous perfection it was unthinkable to cross it. “You’d walk on the pavement along the wall and not on the gravel,” said Nicolas Kugel, an owner of the Galerie Kugel, one of Mr. de Givenchy’s preferred antique dealers in Paris. “If a car came in to make a delivery, the gravel would be raked right after.”

If the visit was in the warmer months, Paul, the butler in livery, would lead the way to the ground floor salon of the summer apartment: a large room that was both imposing, with its 18th-century gilded commodes and important art (a Picasso here, a Miró there), and inviting, with its cushy white linen sofas, bouquets of white flowers and a golden Labrador retriever or two, tails wagging but somehow never knocking one of the many precious objets off a low table.

If it was the colder months, and you were a good friend or family, you would be taken up to the winter apartment’s Salon Vert, a “very grand” room, Mr. Kugel remembered. The Salon Vert was dark and rich, with green silk velvet upholstery and curtains, gilded Louis XIV armoires and commodes, and a fire lit.

“It was very opulent, yet very cozy,” Mr. Kugel said.

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Credit…Stephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In whichever salon you were seated, once you had a moment to take in all that beauty, in would sweep Monsieur de Givenchy, who, like his home, was quite grand (he stood an erect 6-foot-5, with rime-white hair combed neatly back) and gracious. He would be followed by his life partner, the fellow French couturier Philippe Venet.

This week, 1,229 lots of items Mr. de Givenchy collected for the Hotel d’Orrouer, as well as for the Manoir du Jonchet, his Renaissance chateau in Touraine, will be auctioned by Christie’s in Paris. With an estimated value of 50 million euros (about $52.9 million), the auction, which is being held live from June 14 to 17 at the Théâtre Marigny and Christie’s on the Avenue Matignon, and online through June 22, will be the largest-ever sale for Christie’s Paris.

The sale also signals, in a sense, the end of a certain continental way of life, a sort of effortless grandeur that Mr. de Givenchy, who died in 2018 at 91, and Mr. Venet, who died last year, also at 91, spent a lifetime cultivating.

“It’s really the final goodbye — to them, to that era and to that generation in French couture,” said Zoë de Givenchy, the wife of Mr. de Givenchy’s nephew Olivier. “They were the last.”

Count Hubert James Marcel Taffin de Givenchy was born in Beauvais, a city north of Paris, where his grandfather was the director of the revered Beauvais and Gobelins tapestry workshops. Mr. de Givenchy chose fashion design as a career, and while working for Elsa Schiaparelli after World War II, he fell in love with Mr. Venet, a fellow assistant. They moved in together, and each subsequently opened a couture house. Mr. de Givenchy made his international reputation by dressing Audrey Hepburn for her movie roles, most notably “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” in 1961.

The American philanthropist Catherine Blair, known as Deeda, met Mr. de Givenchy in the early 1960s. She wore a gown by Balenciaga and a veil by Givenchy when she married William McCormick Blair, the United States ambassador to Denmark, in 1961, and became a devoted Givenchy client. Back then, Mr. de Givenchy and Mr. Venet lived on the Rue Fabert, “with a Rothko on the wall, and dark, dark screens to the ceiling, and books all over the coffee table,” Mrs. Blair recalled.

“Hubert was already successful,” she said. “And he was already collecting perfection. There was never anything banal. There was never thing ordinary. Their apartment was small but enormously, totally, scholarly perfection, and very original. If I had to describe Hubert in one word, I’d say disciplined.”

Sometime in the mid-1980s, Mr. de Givenchy told Mrs. Blair he had fallen in love with a house. “He said, ‘It’s the house of my dreams, and it is very big,’ and I said, ‘Oh, Hubert, I’d love to see it.’ And you couldn’t believe such a thing had survived the revolution. But there it was. He knew exactly what he was going to do with it. He had perfect pitch on where furniture should go, where it should fall in the world. That house was his great, great love.”

“All of his sofas were done by Maison Decour, the Rolls-Royce of comfortable sofas,” said Susan Gutfreund, who, with her husband, John Gutfreund, the chief executive of Salomon Brothers investment bank, owned the apartment on the west side of the Paris property. Mrs. Gutfreund preferred “the wonderful tiger-print velvet chairs.”

“There was a small one and a large one, and I used to sit on the large one quite a bit,” she said. Both are in the Christie’s sale. “And the lighting,” she added. “Hubert made a big effort with his lighting — soft and encompassing. It was really perfection.”

But there would always be room for improvement. “He could part with things and replace things to upscale his collection,” said Mr. Kugel who, with his brother Alexis, has staged a parallel exhibition in their gallery of pieces Mr. de Givenchy sold off over the years.

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Credit…Stephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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Credit…Marina Gadonneix, via Christie’s Images

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Credit…Stephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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Credit…Nina Slavecheva, via Christie’s Images

“There was never a jarring sense that things had changed,” Mrs. Gutfreund said. “You would have to spend some time there to see that those two chairs were new.”

“The one thing that always stayed was a lovely oval table, in the window looking out on the garden in the second drawing room on the ground floor, and that is where you lunched,” Mrs. Blair said.

“The linen was immaculate,” Ms. de Givenchy said. “I remember thinking, ‘How does one get linen looking so perfect?’ And when the butler Paul put my napkin in my lap, it was still warm from the iron, and there was the scent of lavender.”

“And fantastically good food,” Mrs. Blair said. “It was the first place I ever had a whole truffle covered in puff pastry.”

In 1992, Mr. de Givenchy’s Labrador, Sandy, “had a hip problem, and was on wheels,” Mr. Kugel said. Because it was difficult to take the dog from the first-floor flat down to the garden, Mr. de Givenchy decided to sell the upper apartment and everything in it.

“He called Christie’s, and they did a fantastic auction in 1993, and it was a huge success — over the moon,” Mr. Kugel said. “Millions and millions. Then some of his New York friends said there was a new hospital in New York that specialized in dogs and told him to bring Sandy. He and the dog took the Concorde, the dog had a hip operation and could walk again, and he decided to keep the apartment and refurnish it.”

Which meant more collecting.

Two years later, at the age of 68, Mr. de Givenchy retired from his couture house, which was then owned by LVMH. He worked on several Christie’s exhibitions and auctions, including the sale of some of his Diego Giacometti pieces in 2017. Many more are among the lots this week.

Mr. de Givenchy’s family is keeping Le Jonchet as a holiday retreat.

The Hotel d’Orrouer was sold to Xavier Niel, a French tech billionaire, who will live there with his partner, Delphine Arnault, the daughter of the LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault and director and executive vice president of Louis Vuitton, and their 10-year-old daughter.

Whether she will be allowed to disturb the pea gravel remains to be seen.

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