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  • Harry Fane

Anyone for a cuppa?

If anyone has any doubts about the extravagance which gripped the world during the 1920s, you need to look no further than this amazing 'tea service' by Cartier Paris from 1927. It's solid 18kg gold and weighs two kilos. Now I know

why one needed a butler and a footman...just to 'lug' this into the sitting room at tea time.

Whilst not extravagantly modelled, a tea set is, after all, a tea set, it is beautifully decorated with black enamel with each piece bearing a stylised Chinoiserie cartouche. The extended handle on the teapot is also Oriental in concept. In my mind, this is more utilitarian than an actual artwork and one's mind boggles as to why, or for whom, it was originally made.

It formally belonged to the renowned Commandant Paul Louis Weiller and was sold last week by Cartier, Paris for in excess of $ 400,000. The gold content alone was worth $ 150,000.

Paul Louis Weiller was an interesting man who played a significant role in French life from the 1920s onwards and his accomplishments are more legendary than this brief biography describes. This gold tea service might well have made for him but certainly, it would have been right at home in the setting of one of his homes. The Commandant was a friend of Louis Cartier and a significant client of the firm. His interest in the firm's pieces lasted throughout his life.

The Commandant

Princess Alexandra Ghika

Paul-Louis Weiller, aviator, engineer, industrialist was born in Paris on the 29 September 1893; married 1922 Princess Alexandra Ghika (deceased; one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1932 Aliki Diplarakos (one son; marriage dissolved); died Geneva 6 December 1993.

There have been few industrialists of the stature of Paul-Louis Weiller, and even fewer with such a love for the arts. A pioneer of commercial aviation and a great philanthropist, he died at the age of 100.

The son of Senator Lazare Weiller, of Alsace, and Alice Javal, he was born into two entrepreneurial families which had pioneered the industrialisation of Europe. Transatlantic cables, European railways and electricity were among their financial interests, and his father had backed the Wright brothers when they undertook early test flights in France.

Weiller entered the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1912; and two years later, on the outbreak of the First World War, he became a photographic reconnaissance pilot. He made daily flights over enemy lines, and was shot down no less than five times, sustaining severe injuries. On the one occasion I persuaded him to talk about this time of his life, I asked if he had been frightened. He laughed and said he was always less frightened on the occasions when the Air Force could spare a gunner to go up with him. He was the last survivor of France's air aces in that war, and one of the few to skirmish with Baron Manfred von Richthofen. In recognition of his courage, he became one of the youngest recipients of the Legion d'Honneur. He also received the British Military Cross, among many other decorations.

After the war, Weiller went into civil aviation, first as an administrator of the Societe Gnome et Rhone, which constructed aircraft engines, and then of the Compagnie Internationale de Navigation Aerienne (CIDNA); where, in the 1930s, he set up some of the first regular European commercial flights. Then, in 1935, all private airlines were nationalised, and he joined the board of Air France, whose Pegasus emblem is said to have been inspired by his squadron insignia from the First World War.

In October 1940, Weiller was imprisoned by the Vichy regime; but he escaped to Cuba, rallied to Free France, and was awarded the Medaille de la Resistance by General de Gaulle. However, the airline companies he had developed so successfully were renationalised after the war.

Meanwhile, Weiller had started a second fortune in the Americas, in oil and international banking, which he developed into a vast and varied commercial empire. He returned to Europe in 1947; and, over the next decade, became known as a philanthropist and patron of the arts. He restored the beautiful Hotel des Ambassadeurs de Hollande in the Marais, set up a foundation for artists and musicians, and built a hospital in the Gironde which specialises in eye surgery. In 1989, President Francois Mitterrand awarded him the Grand Croix de la Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honour.

With such a life behind him, studded with memories of the artists, soldiers, princes, politicians and celebrities who had been his friends, Paul-Louis Weiller probably had more interesting stories to tell than anyone I have ever met. Yet he was one of those rare people who are more interested in the present and future than in their own past. His thirst for knowledge and facts was inexhaustible

With Elsie de Wolff

and omnivorous; he could discuss politics one minute, and the best way to cook a salmon the next, bringing to each subject his undivided attention.

He was also a man of contradictions. He loved magnificence and beautiful objects, and his house in the rue de la Faisanderie was filled with paintings, furniture, sculpture and books that any museum would be proud of. Here he housed his guests and entertained; but he himself lived in an intimate house in Neuilly, filled with photographs and mementoes. He was an avid art collector all his life, and at one point owned 93 properties, including an archipelago in the Bahamas; yet his chauffeur drove him around Paris in a small red Renault. He cared passionately about food, and wine - but, while his guests drank Chateau Margaux and Dom Perignon, he drank mineral water.

The most beautiful example of his simple tastes was the Villa La Reine Jeanne, built for him by the American architect Barry Dierks in 1928. Set in a forest of pine, cork and scrub-oak, the house was alive with the sound of the sea and the cooing of white doves. Weiller was rarely seen before noon, but his guests - the house could accommodate about 30 - were expected to amuse themselves with water-skiing, tennis, swimming and sunbathing.

Although Weiller lost his eyesight a few years ago, he was still water-skiing and wind-surfing well into his nineties, keeping his frailty in check with an indomitable will. His memory, too, was phenomenal. He was last in London in June, for a dinner in aid of the London Library. A few weeks off his hundredth birthday, he could still recite a poem by Jean Cocteau without a single hesitation.

To celebrate his centenary, the Academie des Beaux Arts - of which he had been a member since 1965 - honoured him with a tribute just before he died under the cupola of the Institut de France.

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