An exceedingly rare piano that has been in the possession of a distinguished Buffalo family for more than 70 years is scheduled to be auctioned by Sotheby’s, the famous New York City auction house.
The art deco-style grand piano, created by renowned French furniture designer Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, was purchased in the early 1940s by the Butler family, founders and former owners of The Buffalo Evening News.
For decades, it was on display in the Butler Mansion at Delaware Avenue and North Street. Before that, it sailed aboard the luxurious French ocean liner Normandie during the 1930s.
According to Sotheby’s, it is one of only six Ruhlmann pianos whose present whereabouts can be accounted for and one of only three that were designed in the iconic, modern shape for which Ruhlmann was known.
The piano is expected to fetch between $400,000 and $600,000 at the 20th Century Design sale in New York City next month.
The piano is made of macassar ebony and American walnut with gilt bronze and ivory accents. Ruhlmann first displayed his design for the piano at the landmark 1925 Paris art deco exposition, which was the significant and defining moment of French art deco, according to Sotheby’s.
Ruhlmann’s masterpiece was first stationed aboard one of the greatest ocean liners. The Normandie, built in Saint-Nazaire, France, was famous for its luxurious and elegant French art deco decor.
The ship made its maiden voyage in 1935, two years after Ruhlmann’s death at age 54. As a tribute to him, Ruhlmann’s employees created a room full of his furniture aboard the ship, which became the Ladies Drawing and Music Room. Included in the decor was the Ruhlmann piano.
In 1939, the Normandie was seized by the U.S. Navy and converted into a troopship, the USS Lafayette. The piano and the rest of the ship’s contents were sold at a series of auctions in the early 1940s by the U.S. Treasury Department.
At one of those auctions, the piano was purchased by the Butler family and, for the next several decades, installed at its opulent mansion on Delaware. The building, designed by architect Stanford White and completed in 1899, is now owned by the University at Buffalo and houses the Jacobs Executive Development Center.
The piano has since been passed down to an heir of the Butlers. It is set to be auctioned on March 6.