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News that the State had bought the ensemble for around £1.2m came through just hours before public viewing for the 900-lot sale was due to start on May 20 in three huge marquees erected in the château grounds. (Viewing was held nonetheless, to satisfy public curiosity.)

The lavish catalogue had been in circulation for over a month, and hotels for miles around this corner of France, between Vichy and Clermont-Ferrand, were booked solid.

Drouot President Joël-Marie Millon, who was due to take the two-day sale on May 23-24, admitted he was frustrated by the abrupt cancellation and “deplored the inconvenience caused to potential buyers, especially as the State has known about the sale for six months”. He thought the State might have pre-empted certain lots rather than the entire contents, and felt that he would doubtless have obtained more than £1.2m, a figure that corresponded to the overall low-estimate.

There may, though, have been no individual lot worth pre-empting among the château’s aristocratic but tawdry array of firearms, carriages, saddlery, stuffed animals and monogrammed crockery. The only painting of note was Papety’s giant depiction of the Duc de Montpensier and King of Greece posing amidst Athenian ruins, once hung in Versailles and touted at £150,000.

The State’s intervention was doubtless inspired by political rather than æsthetic considerations, following energetic lobbying from regional politicians.

The Château de Randan was built in the 1820s for King Louis-Philippe’s sister Adélaïde, and remained in the Orléans family until the death of the last Duc de Montpensier, a notorious hell-raiser, in 1924. The château burnt down in mysterious circumstances the following year.

The Duc’s wife, the Marquise de Valdeterrazo, remarried into the Spanish Huarte family, whose descendants’ main interest in the place has been as a sporadic source of goods for auction in Madrid. The French state put a stop to that practice in 1991 by listing the château contents as monuments historiques and thus barred from export. Quite how so many of the château contents were salvaged from the fire of 1924 (to be housed in outbuildings ever since) is another mystery. The château’s charred, overgrown shell has remained untouched for 74 years.

On May 19, when the Antiques Trade Gazette visited Randan, the village was alive with rumours about the imminence of a deal involving the Culture Ministry.

Mayor Gérard Salat’s efforts to stop the auction and have the château turned into a tourist attraction were set to culminate with a noisy demonstration to disrupt public viewing the following day.

After a stormy sojourn in every sense, Millon’s extensive team of experts, clerks, porters and security men were squelching around the château’s muddy driveways, utterly dejected at the thought that months of effort might prove futile.

Millon said he “rejoiced” that the château contents would remain in the public domain, assuring the Antiques Trade Gazette that his étude’s expenses would be met in full – although compensation would need discussing.

It may prove harder for Drouot to avoid unflattering comparisons with the next major house sale on French soil: Sotheby’s five-day sojourn at the Château de Groussay near Paris from June 2-6.