Lalanne sculptures auction to pay for Paris museum extension

Proceeds of sale of rarely seen art works by Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne to go to Musée d’Orsay

A private collection of rarely seen sculptures by the French artists Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne is to go on sale to pay for an extension to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.

Daniel Marchesseau, a close friend of the sculptors for 50 years, agreed to part with the works as part of a €5m (£4.2m) gift to create an annexe for the archiving and research of 19th-century art.

Among the Lalanne works are a large bronze tortoise planted with succulents, and one of François-Xavier’s Lalanne’s trademark sheep also in bronze, bird candlesticks, a mouse and butterfly chandelier and a pigeon lamp.

Marchesseau, 74, an art historian and curator of several Paris museums, said he was donating the proceeds of the Sotheby’s auction next month to renovate the Hôtel de Mailly-Nesle, a 17th-century house on the other side of the Seine opposite the Louvre that will become the Musée d’Orsay’s Research and Archive Centre specialising in 19th-century art. When completed in 2025, it will be the Musée d’Orsay’s most significant heritage project.

An apple sculpture in bronze.
An apple sculpture in bronze. Photograph: Collection Marchesseau

“The works left my apartment three to four days ago and I’m sobbing every morning but one has to know what one wants and my goal is far more important than keeping these works for myself, so it’s over,” Marchesseau told the Guardian.

“The Lalannes were friends of mine for 50 years. I did commission some of the works myself but these weren’t official commissions, they were friendly requests. Ours was a wonderful relationship, so happy, friendly, trusting. I feel privileged to have known them and shared this pure friendship with them.”

Marchesseau, former curator at the Paris Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Decorative Arts, and now director of the Museum of the Romantic Life in the French capital, is selling 18 Lalanne works. All are one-of-a-kind pieces or prototypes for later Lalanne sculptures. Asked about his donation, he said art curators had a responsibility to “set an example”.

“I wanted to make a major heritage-focused contribution to the Musée d’Orsay. The idea that the work by this artist couple would contribute to renovate an architectural complex for the purposes of art-history seemed essential to me … we have to leave something that will last,” he said.

François-Xavier Lalanne died in 2008 aged 81 and was a contemporary of René Magritte and Salvador Dali in post-war Paris. His wife, Claude, died in 2019 aged 93. Although known collectively as Les Lalanne, she worked mostly independently of her husband on her own works and collaborated with Yves Saint Laurent.

Marchesseau said: “All their lives they were totally independent [artistically] and they paid a high price for that because they didn’t live very well until the end of their lives. They were just pleased to have a small, loyal network of friends.

A large bronze tortoise planted with succulents.
A large bronze tortoise planted with succulents. Photograph: Collection Marchesseau

The Hôtel de Mailly-Nesle was once the home to the De Mailly family; four of whose five daughters were successively official mistresses of Louis XV. The building was later owned by the marshal of France during the revolution, when it was seized and used to store confiscated art works, then as a home for artists expelled from the Louvre. Only the eastern wing of the original building remains but contains extraordinary 17th-century decorations. The Musée d’Orsay acquired the building in 2016. Three of the De Mailly sisters were believed to be the models for the Carle van Loo’s 1765 painting The Three Graces.

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As well as the Lalanne sheep, one of dozens made by the artist, the Sotheby’s sale on 24 May will also include another of his other animal favourites in the Grand Rhinoceros II, a patinated bronze and leather desk, as well as works by René Lalique and Alberto Giacometti.


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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