Elisabeth Feodorovna (1864-1918), Portrait of Princess Zenaida Yusupov, Countess Sumarokovf-Elston (1861-1939), pastel dated 1892, 62.5 x 46 cm/24.6 x 18.1 in.
More than their estimates, the history of these objects is what will appeal to lovers of royal or princely family mementos. Thanks to numerous photos, we get an idea of the daily surroundings of this house in Rue Pierre-Guérin (16th arrondissement), where Felix and Irina Yusupov lived from 1943 until their deaths in 1967 and 1970. This pied-à-terre remained in the family until it was recently sold. What remains of its contents is being sold by Xenia, granddaughter of Felix and Irina, who has lived in Greece for many years.
The Yusupov family had an extraordinary destiny. Their origins, according to legend, went back to an ancestor of Yusuf. Khan of the Tatar-Mongol horde of Nogai, known as the Golden Horde, Yusuf developed amicable relations with the Russian Empire and received vast landholdings as a reward for his services. The first and greatest collector of this line, who settled permanently in Russia in the 17th century, was Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov (1751-1831). In 1778, a German astronomer staying in St. Petersburg mentioned his collection as remarkable for its engraved stones and its paintings, which included Rembrandt's Old Man with a Child.
A Legacy of 520 Paintings
It's putting it mildly to say that Prince Nikolai's passion led him to collect a large number of Italian, Flemish, Dutch and especially French masterpieces. Photographs of the St Petersburg palaces and the Arkhangelskoye residence (Moscow's Versailles) taken before the 1917 Revolution show the extent of the collections, which included French furniture and bronzes, Russian porcelain, marbles by Canova, paintings by Correggio, Titian, Boucher (the first works by the artist to enter Russia), Claude Lorrain, Rubens, Charles Le Brun, Prud'hon, Vernet and Jacques Louis David, not to mention two portraits by Rembrandt: Man Holding Gloves and Young Woman with a Fan. In 1827, Nikolai Borisovich had a five-volume catalog of his collections drawn up, containing not only descriptions of the works but also pen and wash sketches: a total of 520 paintings and 290 sculptures.
Felix Yusupov was the sole heir to these treasures after his brother Nikolai died in a duel in 1908. He and his wife Irina were the most striking and elegant couple in Russia, until Rasputin's assassination on the night of December 30, 1916—probably orchestrated by Felix—and the Bolshevik Revolution put an end to this extraordinary life. When they moved to Paris, they were only able to save a few of the family treasures, including the two Rembrandt portraits, which they sold to an American collector—on condition that the sale would be canceled if the Romanovs returned to the throne. These are now in the National Gallery in Washington, while the 45,295 paintings and art objects listed are divided between the museums of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Sales of Yusupov memorabilia began in 2004 under Coutau-Bégarie's hammer. There was nothing comparable to these treasures. However, we remember the sale on November 4, 2016, where the outstanding lot was a boyar's outfit consisting of an 18th-century gold brocade suit and a jacket in orange silk taffeta embroidered with silver thread, gold braid frogging and mother-of-pearl beads. Felix Yusupov ordered it in St. Petersburg and wore it at the ball given at the Albert Hall in London on July 11, 1912. If the young man with his legendary good looks caused a sensation with the guests (including one Oscar Wilde), the suit was the star of the sale, fetching €78,368. The sale here echoes this with a polychrome collage (anonymous) given to Felix, showing him in this very outfit (€1,000/2,000).
The most eagerly awaited lot of the auction, however, is a Portrait of Prince Felix Yusupov in a white shirt with arms folded, probably painted by an exponent of the Russian school, during his trip to America between 1923 and 1925 (€30,000/50,000). Yusupov kept it in his bedroom on the second floor of his villa. It is one of two known portraits of the prince. The other, now in the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, shows him aged 15 or so in a green suit with his dog and was painted by the great portraitist Valentin Serov (1865-1911). This painting hung next to a portrait of his wife by Alexander Leontovsky, a famous artist at the court of St. Petersburg, who made several of Nicholas II. Here she is 16, with a still childish but serious-looking face (€12,000/15,000). Another rarity is this portrait of Felix's mother, Princess Zenaida Yusupov, Countess Sumarokov-Elston (1861-1939). Renowned for her beauty, she was also said to be the wealthiest and most elegant woman in Russia. This pastel is the only known work by her friend Elisabeth Feodorovna (1864-1918), Grand Duchess of Russia.
From St. Petersburg to Keriolet
Now retired from public life after the assassination of her husband, Grand Duke Sergei, on February 17, 1905, the woman who became Mother Elisabeth was arrested in May 1918 on Lenin's orders. She was sent into exile in the Urals, then to a small town near Ekaterinburg, where the princess met with members of the Romanov family. She was thrown alive into a disused iron mine shaft, and her body was discovered a few months later by soldiers of the White Army. Today, Elisabeth Feodorovna is considered a martyr in her country. This painting is the only testament to her talent as an artist. The selection contains engravings and drawings of landscapes and monuments (€500/5,000), a bronze of dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina (€10,000/12,000), gold and silver cigarette cases, photographic portraits and a Bible (St. Petersburg, 1903) given to Irina for her 10th birthday (€1,000/2,000). There is also a guestbook compiled by Princess Zenaida for Koreiz, her retreat in the Crimea from 1903 to 1912, containing poems, dedications and autographs (€2,000/3,000), and furniture, especially in the Louis XIII style, once seen in the atypical Château de Keriolet near Concarneau, owned by Princess Zenaida Narishkin Yusupov, Felix's great-grandmother.
The final mementos of people who were said to be "richer than the Tsar" could once again arouse the—almost exclusive—interest of Russian collectors and institutions.