Getty Buys a Treasure of Pope and King

Borghese-Windsor Cabinet

The Getty Museum has paid the equivalent of $2.81 million for the so-called Borghese-Windsor Cabinet (c. 1620) at Sotheby’s Paris. Made for Pope Paul V, it was displayed in the Borghese Palace (as was the Getty’s 1621 Bernini bust of Paul V, acquired last year). Britain’s King George IV bought the cabinet in 1827 and installed it in Windsor Castle’s Great Hall. It was moved to Buckingham Palace in 1840, and it remained in the British Royal Collection until 1959, when Queen Elizabeth II went on a decluttering kick. She auctioned it, and ever since it’s been in the Paris townhouse of shopping-mall tycoon Robert Zellinger de Balkany. (Getty press release here.)

The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet is ebony with lapis-lazuli columns, panels of semi-precious stones (pietre dure), and silver-gilt statuettes. The figure at the top must be a Roman emperor. The cabinet is nearly 6 feet tall, or 8-1/2 feet with its Neoclassical stand, dated to the 1820s and tentatively assigned to Alexandre Louis Bellangé.

It’s believed that the cabinet’s former owners used it to store rare coins, seashells, jewels, and other curious objects. Sotheby’s Mario Tanella said that they “still haven’t discovered all of its tricks—there are a lot of secret drawers.”

Only a few pietre dure cabinets of this scale exist, and most incorporate easier-to-cut marble and alabaster along with quartz gemstones. The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet bears comparison to the famous Sixtus Cabinet at Stourhead, Britain (below). That was probably made for Pope Sixtus around 1580. The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet may have been Paul V’s attempt to rival it.

Sixtus Cabinet

Though the Sixtus Cabinet is a foot taller, it includes much marble and alabaster. The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet is all quartz hardstone, a greater technical achievement allowing a wider range of colors and banded effects. Its panels form abstract pictures crafted from fitted slices of agate, jasper, carnelian, lapis, and amethyst. It’s a Mannerist conception raised to the power of the Baroque.


The fascination of such things continued long after the golden age of Papal patronage. Early in the 1700s, 19-year-old British aristocrat Henry Somerset commissioned the biggest, baddest hardstone cabinet of all. The Badminton Cabinet, as it’s called (below) is the Trump Tower of hardstone bric-a-brac, a mash-up of Rococo, Baroque, and Renaissance styles. In 2004 it made headlines as the world’s most expensive piece of something when it sold for $36 million. It’s now in the Lichtenstein Collection, Vienna.

Badminton Cabinet

Timothy Potts’ former employer, the Fitzwilliam Museum, acquired a pair of hard stone cabinets just last month. Dubbed the Brideshead Cabinets (below) for their provenance to Castle Howard, inspiration for Brideshead Revisited, they’re dated c. 1625, just a few years after the Getty’s cabinet. They may likewise have been made for someone in the Borghese circle. The Fitzwilliam paid £1.2 million for the pair, pre-empting export to a foreign buyer.


The Getty has been relatively cautious in expanding the scope of its founder’s esteemed collection of French furniture. Some Italian, German, and Dutch pieces have been added, but nothing like this. The Borghese-Windsor Cabinet promises to be the museum’s most spectacular example of Italian furniture.

Below, the Getty cabinet on its Neoclassical stand; the cabinet’s back, plain except for collection stamps of the Borghese and Buckingham Palace.

On standback

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