Published: June 21, 2016
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Of Auction Houses
Auction house design departments around the United States rolled up their sleeves to present collectors the world over with more than 1,500 lots of high-quality work from makers and designers throughout the Twentieth Century. With more than $30 million exchanged in just over seven days and a record set for the highest grossing design sale in France, the continued strength of the market is evident to all those watching.
Furniture as art continued its strong performance with works by Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne and Alberto and Diego Giacometti rising to the top of any sale they were entered into. In addition, works by contemporary furniture artists like Ingrid Donat and Ron Arad also saw strong results throughout the week. Meanwhile, the French midcentury designers, Prouvé, Perriand, Le Corbusier, Jeanneret, Royère and Adnet, among many others, continue their solid run, forming a healthy chunk of the gross sales.
The week produced mixed results for the houses, with some lots performing above or between estimates and others unable to take off completely, likely lost in the congestion of the sales. Sotheby’s had a very strong showing between the three sales it presented, while Christie’s, Wright and Phillips all saw lower sell-through percentages in the 60–70 percent range.
Unique forms and rarely seen designs continue to sway collectors as they offer top dollar for prized low editions, pedigree and quality in both form and material.
Rago led off the design sales with a series of four Modern auctions over the June 4–5 weekend. The signature design sale featured seven lots by Carlo Bugatti from the Allan Stone collection. The Bugatti pieces fetched a combined total of $75,000, with a pair of armchairs in stained and painted wood, copper, silk and painted parchment achieving $21,250. Bugatti’s furniture was some of the oldest and most exotic in the sale. Working at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, Carlo Bugatti used a wide range of quality materials brought together with a craftsman’s attention to detail.
A Picasso plaque titled “Luncheon on the Grass,” executed in France in 1964, brought $50,000, surpassing its $25/35,000 estimate. A Paul Evans sculpted front floating cabinet with welded, forged and torch-cut forms under a slate top was the belle of the ball, going at high estimate for $175,000. A Carlo Mollino no. 1114 walnut tiered coffee table made an uncommon appearance, selling within estimate at $50,000.
On the rise is James Bearden, a contemporary sculptor working in Iowa who presents a Brutalist approach to furniture similar in style to Paul Evans welded steel pieces. A standing cabinet in cool blues and purples brought $15,000, nearly tripling its estimate and setting an auction record for the artist.
The firm’s other sales during the weekend included Modern ceramics and glass grossing $1,407,438, Mid-Mod totaling $301,469 and early Twentieth Century design at $1,326,875. Rago’s combined weekend sales totaled $4,612,969.
David Rago, auctioneer, said, “Bidding came from across America and Europe. We had several thousand bids online, as well as about 300 phone bidders, a few hundred in the room throughout the weekend and about 150 absentee bidders. Modern furniture was mostly strong, but Modern ceramics and glass simply smoked. We had a strong sell-through rate, very high prices and consistently strong bidding across the board.”
Sotheby’s New York design department offered a double header, as the firm presented both Important Design as well as a single-owner sale from the collection of John Birch, owner of Wyeth, the perennial vintage design gallery in New York City.
The June 7 Wyeth sale found an unexpected top in a French Modernist desk from the Foundation George Eastman in Paris fetching $112,500 against a $40/60,000 estimate. The chromium-plated bronze, metal and thick Saint-Gobain glass desk was made between 1935 and 1937.
Five of the next six highest-grossing lots were rare designs by Hans Wegner, the Danish furniture master, including an easy chair, Model JH521, with a crescent leather headrest, original navy blue upholstery and oak legs, fetching $100,000. A Wegner teak desk with return, originally exhibited at the 1955 “Copenhagen Cabinetmaker’s Guild Exhibition,” brought $87,500. A rare Gino Sarfatti table lamp in globe form with one half nickel-plated chrome and the other in glass, resting on coiled rubber tubing, earned $37,500.
Jodi Pollack, head of Sotheby’s New York design department, said, “John Birch is one of those rare people with an incredible eye. His taste and aesthetic are so sophisticated, and he instinctively knows good design when he sees it. He has an uncanny ability to mix objects from different countries and periods and make it look chic and effortless. No matter how major or minor, there is a sense of beauty and utility in every object in the Wyeth collection.”
Sotheby’s June 8 Important Design sale featured high-caliber pieces by blue-chip designers and artists throughout the Twentieth Century. The sale featured six works by Francois-Xavier Lalanne and one by Claude Lalanne, which accounted for $1,797,750 of the sale total. The top lot of the sale was Claude Lalanne’s only featured item, a gilt-bronze and copper chandelier, Lustre ‘Structure Vegetale, in the form of branches with butterflies perched throughout, which doubled its high estimate to finish at $610,000. A group of three sheep by Francois-Xavier Lalanne, executed 1996–1998, of epoxy stone and patinated bronze reached $394,000. Italian glass attracted healthy interest as multiple pieces went well above high estimates. A Fulvio Bianconi Gatto vase went wild, bringing $225,000 against a $30/50,000 estimate, while an Ercole Barovier Grappoli D’uva vase with vibrant grape clusters brought $162,000 against its $40/60,000 estimate.
Meanwhile, Sotheby’s May 24 Paris Design sale produced the highest grossing design sale in the history of the field, garnering $8.8 million in total sales. The sale featured more than 18 works by the Giacometti brothers, boasting a 100 percent sell-through rate for the artists and $3,497,110 in sales. Of note was a patinated bronze occasional table in tree branch form with a single owl on a perch beneath a glass top. It brought a robust $490,723 against a $79/112,000 estimate.
Also on show was a collection of 40 works by the master French ceramicist Georges Jouve. In total, Jouve’s lots brought $481,698 to the auction, led by an organically formed yellow glazed bowl fetching $39,483 against a $9/13,500 estimate. The Lalannes were well represented with 21 lots and took the podium with the top sale of the auction, a Claude Lalanne gilt-bronze crocodile bench, produced only nine years ago, reaching $517,797 on a $225/338,000 estimate.
Christie’s June 8 design sale brought together some of the finest Twentieth Century designers and artists, including Tiffany, Gio Ponti, Giacometti, Bertoia and included a Baby 52 electric car by Ettore Bugatti. The sale’s top lot was a sheep group by Francois-Xavier Lalanne that included one sheep and two ottomans, fetching $1,085,000. The next highest was another Lalanne sheep group with one less ottoman, reaching $665,000. Following up was a Tiffany Studios Drophead Dragonfly table lamp, circa 1910, selling at $173,000.
Christie’s New York design department head Carina Villinger said, “I think that the market is very strong; people are willing to pay significant prices for lots that they love and that are fresh to the market. You can tell there’s a lot of interest in this market at the moment.”
French midcentury performed well, with significant pieces by Jean Prouvé, Perriand and Jean Royère finishing very strong. Royère’s designs particularly outperformed expectations with a travertine top and gilt-wrought iron Sphere table bringing $100,000 against a $40/60,000 estimate and a flowing pair of eight-light appliqué sconces going well above estimate at $112,500.
On the continued strength of French midcentury, Villinger said, “It’s a style that’s very modern and easy to integrate with contemporary art. It speaks to a modern sensibility while being usable and easy to live with.”
Wright’s June 9 design sale featured a fine array of uncommon and rare examples. The firm presented two Angelo Lelli Stella chandeliers, of nickel-plated brass and steel suspending frosted glass globes, with each besting its $20/30,000 estimate to land at $47,500 and $55,000.
A Shiro Kuramata Luminous chair also performed well at $37,500. A pair of Ico and Luisa Parisi red wall lamps with sweeping enameled steel arms, holding two frosted glass globes each, brought $20,000. Ron Arad continues to bring solid results as his Box in Four Movements chair, a hinge jointed cantilevered chair in polished aluminum and steel, went within estimate at $42,500. An intricate and atomic-like wrought iron elevator screen designed by Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan in 1893 for the Chicago Stock Exchange brought $63,750, doubling its low estimate.
Phillips’ June 9 auction presented rare and quality pieces by contemporary and Twentieth Century designers. A plush Jean Royère Ours Polaire sofa finished as the top lot of the sale at $754,000, nearly doubling estimate. A pair of Franco Albini wall lights outperformed all expectations as bidders were drawn to the slender, hanging form with a segmented, patinated brass shade. The lights were originally designed for the National Institute of Assurance Office Building in Parma between 1950 and 1954. The pair tripled the $40/60,000 estimate to land at $175,000.
Ingrid Donat’s “Hommage à Klimt,” a patinated bronze cabinet comprised of disc forms adorned with outstretched heads, beat its $40/60,000 estimate to reach $118,750. Jean Royère, who performed exceptionally well across all of the design sales, found eager bidders on a pair of Ondulation armchairs, circa 1950. The dramatically sculpted oak frame chairs brought $81,250, doubling high estimate.
Alexander Payne, the company’s worldwide director of design, said, “Phillips’ first New York sale of 2016 has underscored the continued demand for high-quality examples of Twentieth Century design, particularly French midcentury pieces. Works by Jean Royère performed exceptionally well, and Italian postwar lighting also saw a great deal of interest, as the record price for a work by Franco Albini was broken, and many pieces by Gino Sarfatti sold well above estimate.”
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium and were converted from euros to dollars at press time.
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