Selling a family house is never easy. But when the home is a château occupied by a family for 11 generations, sorting through relics falls into a league of its own.
High above Lake Geneva, set on 26 hectares of land with terraced vineyards and tree-lined alleyways, Chateau d’Hauteville awaits a new owner. Philip Grand d’Hauteville, who grew up at the castle, has been actively trying to sell the property since last summer. Its contents – hardly your common family relics - are also now for sale.
In a family that counts heroes from early American battlegrounds and the founder of the Bank of France amongst its past members, the over 1,500 objects up for auction external linkon September 11 and 12 are loaded with historical and cultural significance.
“I knew we had an American connection, a French connection, but I never went into the detail, or rather my father never went into the details,” says 77-year-old Grand d’Hauteville. “And with the little I knew, I made it up.”
Putting the bulk of belongings for sale allowed him to learn a lot about his family’s past, with the auction house spending months researching the many items. “As I am the owner of the family archives” – which are some of the few objects the family decided to keep – “I feel that I should know a lot.”
Rare auction opportunity
For Bernard Piguet, principal auctioneer at Hôtel des Ventes, having the opportunity to organise such an auction is unique.
“These days, this situation is really extremely rare. Usually there are inheritances, divisions of belongings, sales, and in this case, it hadn’t existed. So for us, this is a major sale, due to the sizable work that we have executed, as well as the organisation that it implied.” Assuring security during public visits to the castle and installing electricity in most of the rooms where it hadn’t existed were some of the logistical challenges the auctioneers faced.
Piguet explained that every object had to be researched, with the substantial family archives often providing explanations and historical revelations.
“We found a little book, dating from 1789 in a drawer. It was so tiny that it could be held in the palm of a hand. When paging through it, we discovered rules to a Parisian club, founded by the Chevalier Grand, of a secret society.” Intrigued by its meaning, Piguet’s team discovered that the society was established in 1782 after the family member was knighted by France’s King Louis XVI. After searching for names and addresses, the auctioneers realised that the group in question was none other than the anti-royalist group known as the Jacobins, a central force in the French revolution.
Around the time the group was established, its initiator, part of an influential group of financiers, had also been in contact with US founding father and inventor Benjamin Franklin regarding financial support for American independence, Piguet explained. Meanwhile, Hauteville castle’s lightning rod was installed by Franklin himself.
Visiting the castle before the auction, it felt as if time had paused at various moments over the two and a half centuries since it was acquired by Grand d’Hauteville’s ancestors. In 1760, after fleeing France as a Huguenot Protestant, the banking family of Philippe Canacc purchased the domain and then began to transform it in grand style.
The central grand hall still appears in its original Louis XV style, with crimson red bergère armchairs sitting under a baroque style frescoed cupola and a teardrop crystal chandelier lamp. Other rooms from the same time retain their own period painted wall panels with matching original fittings. For the family, however, the dining room was different, described by them as a “modern” renovation from the turn of the 19th century, with painted panels and 1906 furnishings.
In one of the castle’s wings, old theatre backdrops from the 18th and early 20th centuries were on view, hinting at the family’s more financially carefree times. Piguet explained that castle owners in the region would customarily produce and act in their own theatre shows for neighbouring domains.
But now, with annual maintenance costs of the 30-room château starting at CHF200,000 ($205,000), the castle’s erstwhile resident told swissinfo.ch: “We just haven’t got the means to keep up with expenses. We are three [siblings] and none of us could keep it up. It’s impossible.”
For Grand d’Hauteville, who had grown up in the castle, before beginning his career at the International Committee of the Red Cross, the castle was associated with both good and bad memories. He did not visit the spot for 27 years, when it was occupied by his father’s second wife, Edith Grand d’Hauteville, who was accorded the right of occupancy at her husband’s death. It was only last year, after she died, that the owners of the property, Philip, his brother Jacques and sister Elizabeth, were able to put it up for sale.
Grand d’Hauteville said that he was happy to be now living in a “cute house” in Coppet. “How can you live here? It is a museum.”
Finding someone new to take over the domain, priced at CHF60 million, has not yet been successful. Michel Collatruglio of Riviera Properties, which has been mandated with the sale, explained that the sale has been “very slow”. He estimates renovations to the château, additional buildings, which include coach houses, a winepress and stables, as well as vast gardens, would cost an additional CHF20-30 million.
With the purchase of such a property being limited to a Swiss or a foreign permanent resident, options are more limited, according to Georges Kiner, the director of Barnes in Geneva, another luxury property agency.
“Until four or five years ago, one could rely on foreigners who came to Switzerland. But fiscally things have since become more complicated.” He said that the strong franc, last year’s vote on foreign immigration and the decline of special tax packages for wealthy foreigners have impacted potential interest in expensive property by foreigners. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Belgium, are also competing fiscally with Switzerland to attract such residents.
After the sale of the house was announced last year, and an initial number of lots were put under the hammer at Christie’s in London, the Swiss Heritage Society expressed concern for the château and its contents, especially when cantonal authorities did not intervene. The family announced that some 55-60 family portraits were to be donated to the Swiss National Museum in Prangins, while other items have been given to the Museum of Games in La Tour-de-Peilz.
But with this week’s auction, pieces of the family’s history are now up for grabs by the public.
Like the rare congressional gold medal given to General Alexander Macomb, of the family’s American branch, in honour of the battle he won in Plattsburg in 1814, which dispelled the remaining invading British troops in what is known as the War of 1812. Macomb subsequently became commanding general of the US Army.
Or there’s the photo album which Grand D’Hauteville pages through: a collection of images, including those of presidents, generals, soldiers and citizens, from the American civil war, collected by Frederick Sears Grand d’Hauteville, a captain in the Union Army. In it, one can find a souvenir remnant of a Confederate flag, bestowed following a battle.
“I am seeing this for the first time”, Grand d’Hauteville says. He maintains a pragmatic approach, saying that the donations and sale of the manor and its contents is “the way I would like to see the future of Hauteville. I am not so interested in the walls and the ceilings.”
Piguet elaborates: “The family has focused on maintaining the archives, so that its history can remain intact. But beyond that they have [become] detached from their objects, and see that the objects are taking a new life, given to them by collectors that will give them a new meaning.”
Results from this weekend’s auction of the chateau’s contents, released Monday by the Hôtel des Ventes, strongly exceeded expectations. The 1,600 items put for sale brought in CHF4,379,600, over four times the CHF1 million that was forecast.
“It shows the strong craze amongst buyers for objects that have historic and prestigious provenance," Piguet said.
The gold medal awarded by the US congress to General Alexander Macomb sold for CHF231,000, or 11 times its pre-sale estimate. Piguet's striking of the hammer was followed by applause from bidders present at the auction, which was held in the castle’s grand hall.
Several lots were purchased by Swiss museums, including the family’s old theatre props, acquired by the Swiss National Museum for CHF41,200.end of infobox