Coco Chanel is remembered for her timeless elegance, little black dresses and total disregard for sartorial rules. She was born in 1883 to working-class parents in the Loire Valley in France, but later moved to Paris where, in 1918, she established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon.
There Chanel would reinvent the female silhouette with her simple-line designs and iconic tweed suits; host salons and exhibitions for the world’s fashion elite; and expand her eponymous range to include perfumes, accessories, shoes and make-up. The grand Haussmannian building was also home to Chanel’s private apartment.
‘Chanel famously entertained at 31 rue Cambon, but slept in a private suite at the Ritz Hotel,’ explains Camille de Foresta, a specialist in Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art. ‘She was a notable collector of antiquities, furniture and Chinese works of art, and surrounded herself with beautiful, opulent objects from around the world, from Greek vases to rock-crystal chandeliers and gilt Venetian mirrors.’
Amid the collection, which was split between the private apartment at 31 rue Cambon — which has remained virtually untouched since Chanel’s death in 1971 — and her suite at the Ritz, was this rock-crystal deer, sculpted in China during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911).
‘It formerly adorned a coffee table — and at times the mantlepiece [its glass case can just be made out behind Chanel’s head in the above photograph] — in Coco’s suite at the Ritz,’ says de Foresta. ‘The deer is an auspicious figure in Chinese mythology, associated with longevity, wisdom and good fortune.’
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This would not have been lost on Chanel, who was famously superstitious and a firm believer in symbols, signs and crystals. Besides her magnificent collection of around 32 Coromandel lacquer screens [also seen in the above 1937 photograph], emblazoned with scenes of imperial life, flora and fauna, her interiors were filled with beneficent emblems and talismans, such as a majestic, gilded pair of lions’ heads — ‘a nod to her star sign, Leo,’ says de Foresta.
In June 2018 Christie’s auctioned another of Coco Chanel’s talismanic sculptures: a white and brown-glazed biscuit statue of a monkey (pictured above), an animal which, in ancient Chinese mythology, is widely symbolic of power and wisdom. The statue soared past its estimate of €4,000-6,000 to realise €112,500.
‘Considering the amazing result realised for the biscuit monkey, I expect this rock-crystal deer to have tremendous appeal to lovers of Asian art,’ comments the specialist, ‘as well as devoted admirers of Coco Chanel.’