Published: July 3, 2017
Review and Onsite Photos by Greg Smith, Catalog Photos Courtesy Bonhams
NEW YORK CITY – In the morning-of hustle that accompanies every sale, Benjamin Walker, Bonhams’ newly minted US department head of Modern and decorative art and design, stood outside of the lower level exhibition gallery on Wednesday, June 21, with a phone pressed to his ear and a catalog in his hand. He spoke in a low voice and a calm tone in the otherwise quiet gallery; his first sale at the international auction house would begin in only an hour.
On the pedestals spaced around him were examples of fine glass that included a number of works from contemporary master Lino Tagliapietra, as well as an impressively tall and colorful vase from Stephen Rolfe Powell. Through the doors ahead came the exhibition space that housed what could be interpreted as a rebirth for Bonhams’ East Coast Modern design department. The sale included pieces from Dale Chihuly, Jacques Emile Ruhlmann, Charles and Ray Eames, Buccellati, Michael Graves, Lalique, Daum and Piero Fornasetti, as well as a selection of works from Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s Chandigarh commission, which represented 22 pieces of the 93-lot sale that Bonhams would be offering that afternoon. The auction would go on to produce $793,250 in sales.
After a yearlong hiatus for the Twentieth Century decorative arts department in the United States, Walker is approaching his position at Bonhams with an eye on creating new areas of interest for existing and incoming clients.
“We want to create our own character and bring in a whole new set of clients,” said Walker. “We are looking to really engage with the collecting process, bringing in more customers and getting them involved. To do that, we need to create new markets and new areas of collectibility.”
Curatorship also takes a well-heeled stance in the director’s strategy moving forward, with an approach that presents the material as lively and engaging.
“It’s about having objects of integrity, craftsmanship and something you can really enjoy,” said Walker. “That’s what we want to offer people who come into Bonhams. A bit of breadth, color and fun, something that’s a little more exciting from all areas of collectibility. We want to open it up a little bit.”
This philosophy directed a sale that was both eclectic and pronounced. It featured lots from contemporary ceramicists and glass artists and placed them beside renowned makers from the turn of the Twentieth Century. A Michael Graves Postmodern tea and coffee service sat next to the clean lines of Pierre Jeanneret. Flavio Poli sat alongside Dale Chihuly, William Morris and René Lalique. Tiffany Studios traded light with Stilnovo. And what results from this amalgamation of styles and periods is not a disoriented market, but a more knowledgeable and decentralized one. One where buyers can branch out with confidence and find an interest in something that they never knew they wanted.
Following the Partition of British India in 1947, India found itself without an administrative capital in the northern-most province of Punjab, with the prior capital of Lahore being sectioned into Pakistan. The prime minister of India at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru, called for the creation of a new city to be built and named it Chandigarh. Nehru commissioned famed French architect Le Corbusier to design the city, and he in turn brought along his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, to design the interiors and furnishings. By enlisting the modern architect, Nehru proclaimed that the city be “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.” Comprising three buildings, three monuments and a lake, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh Capitol Complex became a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, though well after many of the furniture and lighting examples had been sold to the international collecting community at will.
“This collection was brought together and curated by the owner from 2002 to 2007, before the market realized the potential of works from Chandigarh,” said Walker. “They are very pure and in good condition, unrestored.”
Hailing from that collection was the star lot of the sale, a periodics rack designed by Pierre Jeanneret that once sat in the Panjab University Library. With a teak frame that supported four rows and five columns of shelving, each shelf with an aluminum pull-down periodical display, the piece became the subject of a bidding war between phones, ultimately settling at $102,500. Walker expected the hot result, noting the untouched condition and quality of the work, as well as the rarity of the particular piece coming to the market.
“I have never seen a happier buyer on this planet,” said Walker. “He was over the moon.”
In the same section, a lounge furniture suite featuring two chairs and a sofa came in strong at $47,500. The sculptural scissor teak frames and strong lined cushioning proved desirable for collectors. Two lighting examples from the commission were offered, both collaborative designs between the architect and designer. “Standard Lamp” featured an uplit yellow enameled aluminum shade across from a downlit black shade, both sitting atop a singular stem rising up from a teak side table. The piece brought $13,750. The “Diabolo” floor lamp, which sat in the High Court and Legislative Assembly rooms, failed to find a bidder with a $25,000 low estimate. Lukewarm bidding accompanied a few Jeanneret lots in this section, though many have sold within estimate to postsale offers, according to Walker.
Bidding noticeably kicked into high gear at the beginning of the glass section, which saw many lots perform above high estimate. It was led by an exceptional “Float Boat” installation work from Dale Chihuly. Featuring a colorful assortment of 21 blown glass spheres in a painted white canoe with a lit interior, the work was originally made for a 1999 installation in Palm Springs, Calif. It sold to the phone for $92,500.
Hailing from the Rubin collection in Cave Creek, Ariz., a number of works with gallery provenance from Italian glass artist Lino Tagliapietra drew bid cards upward. Finding a new home at $37,500 was a wall installation work titled “Esodo” that featured red, black and blue fish swimming diagonally downward through a black rectangular frame. “I thought that was incredibly inventive,” said Walker. “That’s Lino thinking out of the box and creating an artwork out of glass.”
From the same maker was a 1996 work titled “Angel Tear” in cool shades of blue, purple and green. That went out at $25,000. “Dinosaur” was a 31½-inch battuto and blown glass work with bright red coloring that brought $18,750. At the same price was an untitled blown glass vase, this one featuring swirling designs in light blue and clear glass from 1993.
Using this sale as a model, Walker hopes to corral additional glass collections to bring to market in his future sales. With a successful run behind it, the department at Bonhams has demonstrated that it can find multiple buyers for quality works.
“I think we’re just going to throw our weight behind it,” said Walker, on building up the glass sales at Bonhams. “I think a lot of glass collectors get enough enjoyment out of buying new pieces as they do from selling their older pieces. When buyers pay large sums for quality works, they are happy to see life and vitality in the area of collectibility that they have committed to.”
A monumental work from Stephen Rolfe Powell drew admiration from a number of prospective bidders as the work doubled the $15,000 high estimate to land at $30,000. At 61¾ inches, “Naive Gasping Joy” was a long-necked vase that tapered outward into a blown murrine glass body of reds, yellows, oranges, pinks and blues. The stunning work was also from the Rubin collection.
Early Twentieth Century glass examples were also on hand, with rare works from René Lalique finding new homes. With a sandblasted finish on a molded clear glass form, a “Palestre” vase featured standing classical nude men encircling the body in conversation or looking away. It finished within estimate at $37,500. A pair of molded and enameled glass lamps, “Bague Personnages,” each 18½ inches high, sold for $26,250. Wrangling in $18,750 was a circular-form vase titled “Oranges,” circa 1925, that depicted bushels of the fruit protruding from the form in front of black enameled grass chutes.
From Daum Nancy, a monumental “Gingko Leaf” vase went sky high, more than doubling the $8,000 high estimate to finish at $17,500. Circa 1900, the 24½-inch-tall piece featured a foliate scene of greens, blues and purples with an orange root snaking around the body.
When asked how he felt after his first sale, Walker replied, “I feel very relieved. And also very excited for the next sale coming up.”
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.bonhams.com or 212-644-9001.
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