Published: April 9, 2002
Custom Designs at the Heart of a $1.1 Million Rago Modern Auction
By Carole Deutsch
LAMBERTVILLE, N.J. – “Fantastic” was the word David Rago used to describe the results of his March 16-17 Twentieth Century Modern auction which topped out at $1.1 million, exceeding the pre-auction estimate of $800/825,000. In fact, $810,000 had been met in the first 338 lots, which comprised the first session of the 776 lot two-session auction presented by David Rago and John Sollo.
John Sollo, a respected authority in the modern arena, described the sale as esoteric and eclectic with fine examples by premier designers such as George Nakashima, James Mont, Vernor Panton, Paul Evans, Vladmir Kagan, Wendal Castle, Eero Saarinen, Paul Voulkos, Beatrice Wood, Natzler, and many others. While the auction had a little bit of everything, including some crossover pieces, the heart of the sale was in the many unique custom designs.
“The collecting trend seems to be moving toward the more individual pieces as opposed to the corporate or repeated forms of furniture,” stated Sollo. Maybe so, but it did not stop the corporate pieces from drawing strong prices well beyond the estimates in the March auction.
David Rago and John Sollo were due for a bit of good fortune. The last two Modern auctions met with challenging circumstances. Last year’s spring auction was held on a day that predicted a record breaking blizzard, and the fall auction occurred following September 11.
In addition, the post office that services the Lambertville auction house was closed due to the Anthrax scare and mail was not delivered for more than a week. All this made it “difficult to ascertain where the market was going,” stated Rago.
David Rago, who has long been considered a definitive authority in Arts & Crafts, has well established his credibility in the Modern arena. Rago’s knowledge of his product is legendary and collectors are looking to him to build their Twentieth Century Modern collections.
He finds Modern interesting from a collector’s perspective as well as for the aesthetic art forms. “A collector could reasonably piece together a world class collection without spending a huge fortune. In many cases we are selling great furniture for less than it cost in its day and less than one could buy it for today.”
He points out that a new Barcelona chair sells for $4,400 and a realized price of $1,500 was achieved for an original Barcelona. However, it should be noted, that since his first Modern auction in 1995, Rago has frequently achieved record prices. This year’s March auction sold a George Nakashima table for $63,250 and in a previous Rago auction a cloud sofa that was made by Vladimir Kagan in 1950 for approximately $2,000 sold for $26,880 in 1999. It appears that anything is possible in the modern market.
According to Rago and Sollo the market has a broad base of appeal and collectors do not fit a stereotype profile. “New York decorators are buying it, collectors are buying it, newlyweds are buying it, senior citizens are buying it; I never know what to expect when I look out into the auction audience,” stated Sollo.
This year’s auction was filled to capacity and had more than 300 telephone and absentee bids, which established a Rago record. Phone bidders from France, England, Germany, and Japan, as well as from the American states of California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Florida, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wyoming bid aggressively on almost all lots.
New York bought the top lot of the day, which was a George Nakashima walnut conference table with a bookmatched plank top joined by eight rosewood butterfly joints on a modified Frenchman’s cove base. This was catalogued as “the largest we have seen” and was hand-marked “Dusquesne University.” Estimated at $18/24,000, the actual selling price was $63,250.
One of the most interesting aspects of the sale were the many unique, and in some cases “over the top”, rdf_Descriptions that characterized the custom pieces done by the more prominent designers of the day. One such innovative designer was James Mont who worked in New York from the late 40’s and into the 60’s. Mont, a self-proclaimed social reprobate with a criminal record to prove it, was valued by his avant-garde clients for his flamboyant sense of style and “tasteful excess.”
In his day, Mont commanded astronomically high prices for his works, which were almost exclusively custom designed. Today, many of Mont’s designs blend artfully with everything from French to Chinese to Traditional.
Approximately 20 lots of James Mont’s work were represented in the sale. One of the most outstanding pieces was a fine custom designed gilt-wood table lamp with a Chinese cross bar base supporting a carved hulking falcon and a woven silver-leaf parchment shade. This piece was an imposing 48 inches high and realized $3,450 against a presale estimate of $600/900.
A pair of silvered pagoda-style shelf units, marked James Mont Designs, catalogued as “excellent examples of James Mont’s imaginative design work” realized $3,450 against a presale estimate of $800/1,200, and a pair of unmarked oversized gold velvet lounge chairs brought $7475 ($2/3,000).
Great buys also occurred in the Mont section of the sale. A lined-oak dining table with eight chairs carved in a teal and silver bamboo motif, which was estimated at $2/3,000, sold for $1,725, and a highly presentational and rare wall-mounted pendant lamp with a gilded parchment shade and silk tassel cord used to pulley the fixture to adjust the height sold for $863.
Nakashima stands in a class by himself and his works continue to command high prices across the board. In addition to the top lots of the day, a 1981 Kornblut cabinet with a dovetail case that was consigned by the original Pennsylvania owner brought $24,150.
A Conoid dining table with bookmatched walnut planks and rosewood butterfly joints from the collection of the original owner, marked with the clients name and signed “George Nakashima, Sept, 15th, 1982,” opened to the order at $10,000 and almost hammered down at $17,000 before the bidding reached a final price of $25,875.
Pieces on the cutting edge of individualistic design included an Aldo Tura for Memphis malachite green lacquered corner liquor cabinet with a brass gallery top and a baluster pedestal base. A transfer-print depicting a Renaissance scene decorated the front door that dropped down to reveal a mirrored glass interior.
This piece surpassed its high estimate of $1,800 to reach a final price of $4,025. A final bid of $5,750 was achieved for a strange and wonderful Wendell Castle post-modern wedge-shaped cabinet of carved and polychrome wood with a pod motif that was mounted on a faux carpet of enameled cast-metal.
Another “outré” piece for those who do not lack courage was a rare and unusual Alphonse Mattia “Raccoon” free-form bench/coffee table of white and black enameled wood with rings that were reminiscent of a raccoon’s tail – the raccoon brought $4,888. A completely bizarre sofa by Gianni Ruffi for Poltranova, entitled “La Cova” (The Nest), 1973 was shaped realistically like a bird’s nest using pillows that were shaped like eggs. This piece sold to the order for $6,325.
Highly collectible pieces included a rare and early 1940 Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen laminated Honduran ribbon mahogany occasional table with a triangular tray top that was designed for the Museum of Modern Art “Organic Design” competition and is the only one known to exist.
This piece galloped to $10,000, at which point auctioneer David Rago advanced the bid to $11,000 and was asked by a phone bidder to split the bid to $10,500. Rago declined on principle and sold the piece for a hammer price for $10,000 to the under bidder ($11,500 after buyers premium).
An early Charles Eames for Herman Miller ESU 100 three-drawer side table of blue and gray on a laminated metal frame was in excellent original condition and sold for $7,475. A Le Corbusier wood staircase with metal handrails that was designed for Le Corbusier’s Unite’ d’ Habitation in Firminy, France, which was completed in 1967, (documented in Metropolis Magazine, March 1994) brought $9,775.
As anticipated, lighting brought strong prices. Many collectors that have succeeded in acquiring enough modern furniture to fill a room are beginning to be aware that they lack appropriate lighting fixtures.
A rare Simonet Freres French Art deco gilded bronze and frosted glass chandelier, circa 1925, patterned in “Monnaie du Pape” (honesty leaves) opened at $15,000 and escalated to a final price of $24,150 to a phone bidder.
A Gino Sarfatti for Arteluce “Triennale” bright chrome and enameled floor lamp with three conical shades in colors of ivory, brown, and black realized $4,255, and a signed Wendell Castle biomorphic three-footed table lamp, 1994, sold for $2,530.
The piece that was chosen for the front of the catalogue was a Natzler bowl that was found in an LA thrift shop. This large 12-inch hemispheric footed bowl, signed Natzler in ink, was covered in an experimental volcanic turquoise and umber glaze and realized $12,650.
A massive stoneware charger made in 1995 by Peter Voulkos described as “a folded, ripped, and gouged brutal form,” met its high estimate of $15,000 ($17,250 with buyers premium). A fine Beatrice Wood footed bowl with applied fish forms in shades of aqua and gold luster brought $2760 against a presale estimate of $900/1,400 in spite of a restoration to the foot.
In the “great buy” category was a Mies Van Der Rohe for Knoll Barcelona lounge chair in chrome and black leather that sold for $805 and a handsome oval burlwood two-tier table with brushed chrome legs which was a bargain at $633.
Other rdf_Descriptions that sold reasonably included an unusual Warren McArthur armchair with continuous-form seat, upholstered in vintage Knoll green fabric, which brought $1,619 against a presale estimate of $2,500/3,000 and a rare Paul Frankel “Skyscraper” armchair and matching ottoman with triple banded chrome and new brown vinyl upholstery that brought $2,415 for both rdf_Descriptions. An unusual three-tiered Venni glass chandelier with green and yellow hollow glass prisms that resembled a honeycomb and gave a soft light similar to candlelight sold for $1,093.
An rdf_Description that met its high estimate at $2,300, but would have been a buy at any price, was a stunning Michael Coffey, 1990, sculptural music stand made of African Mozambique wood with a sweeping organic form base.
Rago auctions do not disappoint but this one raised the bar in points of interest and in prices that went form the ridiculous to the sublime – at day’s end everyone went home happy.
Prices reflect a 15 percent buyer’s premium.
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