For sale: An aristocratic Italian romance

A glamourous count and countess's life treasures are being sold at auction.
Click to follow

Romantic may seem an odd word for an auction but the contents sale of the two Italian residences of Count and Countess Martignone at Bonhams in New Bond Street is just that. 

The Martignone family is ancient. Ennobled in the 13th century by Ottone Visconte, 13th archbishop of Milan, in the 14th century a Martignone ruled Alexandria. Fast-forward to the Second World War, and handsome young doctor Ettore Martignone served with the Red Cross, to be awarded the Maltese Cross in 1946. His wife Mariella, known as Maria, created the influential postwar company Vampa Chemicals, and was awarded many honours, too. The couple died childless. However, there is an unidentified beneficiary, hence the sale a week today.

Passion for art and life: Count and Countess Martignone were avid collectors and partygoers

Pictures of the glamorous, party-loving couple, whose guests included prime ministers, popes and even the last king of Italy, show them laughing together, apparently in love all their lives. Their passion was collecting Old Master paintings and decorative arts, with which their flat in Milan and their Genoese villa, perched above the dramatic Ligurian coast, were crammed. They often travelled to America, and stayed with the Kennedys.

Souvenirs of  gilded lives
The grand and charming possessions in this sale speak volumes of the character of their owners. You know they loved to entertain from the contents of their homes, which are gilded and exuberant, but also surprisingly cosy. There are more than 500 lots, and given the definite quality of many pieces, prices are pitched to sell. Moreover, all lots estimated above £3,000 are sold “without reserve”, which means that even if the final bid is £3,010, the hammer will come down. So some bargains may be had.

Guests of the count and countess could watch each other in big, carved, gilded mirrors — a fine Florentine one, almost seven feet high, is priced at £800-£1,200. Scattered around were tables, demilune tables, bureaux and commodes, some decorated with fine marquetry, others with Italian pietra dura or rustic carving. A nice marble-topped Belgian commode in three woods, lot 275, is on for £2,500-£3,500, and there’s a gorgeous Venetian 18th-century arte povera gilded bureau cabinet for £4,000 to £6,000. More provincial, and kept at the villa, is a sweet writing table in walnut, lot 459, on curvaceous legs, for £500-£800.

Weird and wonderful: this pair of novelty drinking cups, which were made in Germany, are expected to fetch up to £3,000

The couple smothered all these surfaces with decorative objects trawled worldwide, and even propped small, gilded paintings between their books. It looked fabulous, but must have been hell to dust. They had a particular love of quirky silver, such as a group of 21 articulated fishes, lot 30, for £2,000-£3,000. The lot includes four silver frogs. There are numerous groups of silver animals and birds, and a pair of German novelty drinking cups straight out of Alice in Wonderland, one with a chicken body and nodding head, for £2,500-£3,500.

There are piles of ordinary silver for the table. Just the tally of solid silver coffee pots — well over 20, many of them Georgian — indicates how many delicious breakfasts and dinners were served over the decades. Lot 168, a George II coffee pot weighing 20oz, represents a good buy at £700-£1,000, as do seven coloured decanters, lot 61, for the same estimate. There’s silver gilt, too, including a pretty 1900 partial dessert service, lot 205, at £2,000-£3,000.

This green French 19th century walnut salon suite has an estimate of £700-£1,000 (lot 367) 

Silk sofas, statues and a walnut four-poster
There are comfortable sofas, one done in petit point, lot 94, for £2,000-£3,000, plus chairs in silk or velvet, such as a French walnut salon suite for £700-£1,000 or 10 black and gold chairs for £2,000-£3,000 (lot 355). Good pairs of chairs, for those intense conversations over Negronis, include a grand leathered pair, lot 93, in walnut, at £800-£1,000.

In Liguria, the more provincial décor included old cassone and substantial wooden furniture such as a great walnut four-poster bed at £600-£800 (lot 489). A magnificent marble garden fountain, with rearing horses snorting spray to compete with the boiling sea below, is lot 507, priced at £5,000-£8,000. 

In both homes, paintings ranged from fine devotional works to portraits, all with distinctive personality. The couple evidently did not do bland. Among the portraits is lot 54, a 17th-century ruffed lady, oil on panel, for £1,200-£1,800. Impressively lovely is lot 88, a portrait of a 17th-century boy holding a rose, estimated at £10,000-£15,000, but it is lot 107, an adorable 18th-century terrier for just £300-£500, that steals the heart.

Lot 107 is a charming Genoese 18th century portrait of a terrier, estimate just £300-£500

The auction of the contents of Count and Countess Martignone’s Milanese and Genoese properties is at Bonhams, 101 New Bond Street on September 24. Visit for full details.

Follow us on Twitter @HomesProperty, Facebook and Instagram