The auction of André Becker’s carriage collection is a major event in a highly specialized market.
The Count of Farrobo’s gala coupé, Portugal, last third of the 18th century, painted decoration of cherubs in floral frames, 19th-century interior upholstery, 234 x 450 x 165 cm/92.12 x 177.16 x 64.96 in.
“A collection of this magnitude hasn’t appeared at auction in over 30 years. That’s exceptional,” says Patrice Biget, the expert of the sale led at Drouot by Benoît Derouineau of the Daguerre auction house in conjunction with Anhée, near Namur, Belgium, where the carriages are in storage. The collection will surely spark the excitement of enthusiasts worldwide and take us back to the historic and material sources of the horse-drawn vehicle, which combined technological progress with artistic achievement. the invention of the modern carriage is attributed to Frenchman Jean Le Pautre, who developed it in the 1660s in Paris with, among other things, the possibility of better steering. From gala carriages, like the ornately decorated 1848 grand berlin from Portugal (€20,000/30,000), to a road coach used for sports or leisure activities (a beautiful example is in the sale, estimated €40,000/50,000 and a two-wheeled gig (cabriolet) from c. 1830 (€800/1,000), horse-drawn vehicles have always been an art of living, a civilizing object combining social, cultural and political characteristics and an outdoor living room that accompanied the owner on their journeys through life.
A Low-Profile Collector
France, being a land of construction and innovation in this means of transportation, has prestigious collections. In the latter half of the 20th century, Dina Vierny (1919–2009), an inveterate collector and sculptor Aristide Maillol’s muse, and André Becker, a discrete industrialist from Coignières in the Yvelines, were major carriage collectors. Becker, who made a fortune from patenting the igloo tent, died last year at the age of 94. He had a passionate interest in military memorabilia and in the 1970s started collecting animal-drawn vehicles, buying a great deal and selling very little. He had the space to keep them and exhibited some of his treasures in his private horse-drawn carriage and transport museum. When Vierny died, Becker bought some of her pieces directly from her heirs, which can be found in the catalog, whether crank, spring, lever or foot-operated. After about 15 vintage sleds, the heart of the sale will feature over 100 rare horse-drawn carriages. It will also include accessories (spurs, muzzles, boots, coachman’s coats, etc.), approximately 50 lots of lanterns, some by master craftsmen, and about 50 lots of period documentation in this highly technical field.
The Ferrari and Rolls-Royces of Yesteryear
What did Becker look for? "He was interested not just in prestigious vehicles but especially in rare ones," says Mr. Piget. These included public coaches, like the c. 1880 40-seat “Hôtel de Ville Versailles” omnibus (€15,000/20,000)—probably, says Mr. Piget, one of the last in private hands: for safety reasons, by law they had to be destroyed after 10 years. The sale also includes service vehicles used by Parisian merchants, such as a rare two-wheel patache from the first quarter of the 19th century (€2,000/3,000) and a simple, dog-drawn ragman’s cart (€100/150).
The auction will combine prestige with rarity. Symbols of wealth, rank and power, many horse-drawn carriages were commissioned by great families. They were the equivalent of today’s Ferraris or Rolls-Royces. The large travel coupé long thought to have belonged to Chateaubriand was actually owned by the Count of Sales, Sardinia’s ambassador to Paris. In remarkable condition, it perfectly illustrates Becker’s two requirements: quality and distinction (€40,000/60,000). Its provenance and the fact that it was used by a historical figure add to its value. Family lore has it that Eugène Delacroix used the travel carriage with a brown lacquered boat body that could be completely closed in winter for the trips from Paris to Rome (€40,000/50,000).
The sale also includes a three-wheeled trirote built c. 1800 in Pavia, Italy, by Antonio Bottigella, the only known piece of its kind (€30,000/40,000). The auction’s 130 carriages are in working order. One of them, an Empire Period "bastardelle" travel coupé owned by a silk merchant in Lyon, where Boneberge built it c. 1805, is even a designated historic monument and, therefore, cannot leave France (€50,000/60,000).
The estimated number of horse-drawn carriages in private hands in Europe is put at 10,000. Most date from the 18th and 19th centuries. Approximately 20 of the 500 to 600 carriages known in French public collections were built in the 17th century, says specialist Jean-Louis Libourel, honorary head curator of heritage and co-author of the auction catalog. The full history of carriages, he says, has yet to be written. In this niche market, Becker preferred vehicles built before 1850. The further back in time one goes, the rarer and more precious the pieces and information are.
The Count of Farrobo’s Portuguese gala coupé from the last third of the 18th century features remarkable painted decoration (€20,000/30,000), while the wooden body of an important berlin is curved on all sides (€40,000/50,000). The collection’s oldest piece is a French gala berlin built c. 1750, a work of art in its own right with carved wheels and ornate rocaille decoration (€40,000/50,000). “It's like a beautiful piece of furniture with stunning details,” says Mr. Derouineau. The c. 1760 phaeton, an open-bodied carriage of which the only known example with a caned body is found here, was more suitable for outings in town or the countryside (€4,000/5,000). If it snowed, the richly carved molded wooden sled (Holland, 18th century, Louis XV style, €3,000/4,000) or the lion-shaped sled (€1,500/2,000) would have been perfectly suitable.