The Beisteguis, a Spanish Basque colonial family that made a vast fortune in the silver mines of Mexico, is a name that evokes an art de vivre that only money or birth help to manufacture. Two of its members, uncle and nephew were passionate aesthetes and commited lovers of all things beautiful. They both added with their patronage and vision to the mystique of the name.
Carlos de Beistegui (the “de” was an ennobling prefix added by them to permit a better entry into the world of elites) was a 13 year-old Mexican boy when he arrived in France with his wealthy parents in 1876. As a youth, he pursued a career in painting under the guidance and friendship of the painter Léon Bonnat, who counted among his pupils Sargeant and Caillebotte. It soon became manifest that his creative aptitudes were rather paltry and he could aspire to nothing more than being a “peintre de dimanche”, a derisive expression used by the French to designate somebody whose ambitions run ahead of his abilities. His artistic zeal turned then to collecting and he soon amassed a substantial collection of coins and medals, influenced no doubt by his predecessors mining activities and his father’s formal appointment as Director of the Mexican Mint.
But it is his donation to the Louvre of an extraordinary collection of portraits that stands out as an example of patronage and taste. The works acquired over the years with the counsel of curators and art academics, include the elegant full length portrait of “La Marquesa de Solana” by Goya, “the Death of Didion” by Rubens and two Jacques-Louis David, the portraits of Madame de Verninac and Monsieur Meyer, all reflecting the exquisite discernement and predilections of the collector. A presiding portrait by Ignacio Zuloaga of Carlos de Bestegui exuding a scholarly and self-effacing bearing is the only XX century masterpiece of the ensemble. It is rumored that the Prado Museum was offered the collection before the Louvre but upon the insistence of the Spaniards that the portraits should be hung chronologically and by schools rather that grouped, he opted for the French museum.
When his nephew Carlos de Beistegui y De Iturbe was born the prefixes were firmly cinched in the family name. Charlie, as he was also known in the circles in which he moved, was the prototype of wealthy Latin American only at ease in the company of real princesses and titled individuals. He boasted about his friendship with King Alphonse XIII of Spain and rolled his eyes when he showed his visitors the numerous portraits of the Duchess of Alba that populated his salons as if between them existed a degree of complicity that words should not express. Educated at Eton and Cambridge, he proceeded to recreate around him the style and possessions of those born to aristocracy.
In 1939 he purchased the Chateau de Groussay, where he indulged his passion for all things neoclassical. In 1948 he bought the Palazzo Labia in Venice for the modest sum -to our eyes- of 53.000 pounds sterling. The stage was set for unfolding a flamboyant and extravagant lifestyle and admiration grew as fast as the comtempt many contemporaries felt about him. When he sold his Venetian palazzo to the Italian broadcasting corporation, the RAI, it turned out that all the furniture and contents, except for the Tiepolo frescoes were fake. His final claim to fame came with Le Bal Oriental also known as Le Bal Beistegui a party extravaganza that he celebrated at Palazzo Labia in 1951. It was because of the list of invitees and the lavish magnificence of the event that the party stands out as a social record of a world and class long disappeared. The party can also be viewed as the discovery by the mass media of the “beau monde” through the photo reportage of Cecil Beaton. Charlie pursued to his very last day in January 1970 his lifelong job of furnishing Groussay, the only decorating job of his life according to one of his contemporaries. His reluctant heir and nephew Juan “Johnny” de Beistegui chose to auction the château and contents in 1999 ending the historic collection of the man who wanted to be someone that he wasn’t and was what he did not want to be: a fantasist in a world of blue bloods.