Published: June 17, 2003
Modernist Materials Tally $3.1 Million at Phillips
By David S. Smith
NEW YORK CITY — A prime selection of materials representing the modernist movements of the Twentieth Century were offered at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg on Wednesday, June 11, with strong prices posted throughout the three sessions. The auction grossed an impressive $2,675,164 from the 143 lots sold in the morning and afternoon sessions and an additional $502,647 for the evening sale bringing the tally to more than $3.1 million.
James Zemaitis, Phillips’ Twentieth Century specialist commented that he was “extraordinarily pleased with the outcome of the auction. We established a world record price paid at auction twice, and within three lots of each other, for Nakashima… Midcentury Modern Masters continue to trend upward, American Modernism of the 1930s did extremely well and cutting edge high-end design by Ruhlmann and Eileen Gray proved to be extraordinarily hot.”
Items by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann proved to be most popular with many of the rdf_Descriptions exceeding their presale estimates by substantial amounts. Leading the morning session was a striking Ruhlmann monumental gilt bronze circular wall mirror, circa 1927, that had buyers on the floor and telephones in heated competition. The mirror, measuring 511/4 inches in diameter, was suspended with two bronze-colored silk ropes and carried a provenance of L’Arc en Seine, Paris
The lot, estimated at $100/150,000, opened to the floor for bidding at $80,000 and bounced back and forth between a bidder standing in the rear of the room and a telephone bidder. A woman seated on the aisle midway in the gallery attempted to get in on the quick paced action several times and was finally recognized at the $130,000 mark. Bids advanced between the two buyers in the gallery for a while until both had finished at $190,000. From there a new phone bidder became active and competed with the original telephone bidder with the lot finally selling at $262,500.
Other Ruhlmann rdf_Descriptions included a vitrine made of silvered bronze, ebony of Macassar and glass. The piece was marked on the back with a “B” atelier mark and also marked “Ruhlmann.” Estimated at $100/150,000, the vitrine sold just above the high estimate to a phone bidder at $158,000. An alabaster and gilt bronze wall appliqué, circa 1925, sold well above the $20/30,000 presale estimates bringing $52,580.
A Ruhlmann lamp, circa 1925, that had been consigned by “an important European collector,” featured a flaring cylindrical alabaster shade with rolled edges at the top, a bronze support that was fixed to a square black marble base also did well selling to a phone bidder between estimates at $74,090.
Not all of the Ruhlmann rdf_Descriptions in the auction fared as well, however, as a “Cailloute” wall appliqué from the Michael and Tin Chow collection that had been sold at Sotheby’s in 1998 was passed at $44,000 against a $50/70,000 presale estimate and an ebony of Macassar low table by Ruhlmann for the London showrooms of Yardley’s, circa 1931, was bought in at $100,000 against a $150/200,000 estimate.
Items by Eileen Gray also saw a great deal of interest from both the American trade and international private collectors. The standout rdf_Description by Gray offered at Phillips was a “brick” screen in white paint, which has been referred to as one of the “highest profile objects identified with the emergence of radical Modernism in design in the 1920s.” The screen, which had been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the past 15 years, was described by Zemaitis as having achieved “Iconic status. It is a seminal work by Gray and her most identifiable design,” he said.
“Gray made a small number of these screens, trying different panel sizes, using plain panels and panels with a slightly raised central rectangle, and changing the number and width of the rows and consequently the proportions,” states the Phillips catalog. Only a dozen screens were recorded, seven in black and the remaining five in white, two of which were first presented to the public in the 1923 Salon des Artistes Decorateurs in the “Bedroom-Boudoir for Monte Carlo” that she created.
The condition of this particular piece has always been of concern, as it had been while in the hands of The Met. Conservationists ultimately decided that the flaking original paint should be left alone.
The rare screen failed to sell during the auction against what was described by the auction house as an “aggressive” $200/300,000 presale estimate, although the lot sold privately before the conclusion of the auction for $180,000 to Tony DeLorenzo.
“Eileen Gray is regarded as being one of the hottest designers amongst the serious collectors today,” stated Zemaitis, and as if one Gray screen was not rare enough, Phillips offered a second. This one, a four-paneled white perforated steel screen that was originally conceived for the guest bedroom of Gray’s “E-1027” home, was designed circa 1930-1932.
Zemaitis described the screen as “sublime” and “gorgeous” and commented that the piece had attracted the attention of numerous European private collectors. “There is a great deal of her material in New York collections that left Europe after the Sotheby’s Monaco sale in 1980 and the Europeans want it back. They are just dying to get their hands on it.” Despite the French trade “suffering badly” right now, Zemaitis said that French and European private collectors are currently stronger than ever.
Several French collectors were reported to be bidding by telephone as the Gray rdf_Descriptions crossed the auction block. The white perforated steel screen, estimated at $50/70,000, opened to the floor for bidding at $40,000 and bounced back and forth between the room and the telephones, eventually narrowed to just the telephones with it selling at $107,550. The rdf_Description was reportedly sold in the 1980 auction for $4,000.
A pair of Eileen Gray chromed steel dining chairs that carried a provenance of the designer and Cobra and Bellamy, London, and had an exhibition history including the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Scottish Arts Council and the Museum of Modern Art, sold well above the $32/38,000 estimates bringing $52,140.
A set of six bent and chrome plated tubular steel chairs with bent and black stained plywood seats and backs by Wassili and Ghans Luckhardt also garnered a great deal of interest. These chairs listed a provenance of the Palace of the Maharaja of Indore, India, used in the ballroom and the theater. These chairs were reportedly among a small number of rdf_Descriptions that were held back by the consignor of the historic Sotheby’s Monaco auction in 1980 and were later sold privately.
The chairs, described as being “resolutely modern is every respect,” opened for bidding at $80,000 with two phone bidders pushing the pieces to a selling price of $152,500.
Also from the Maharaja’s Palace was a pair of painted wooden side tables designed by Eckart Muthesius and executed by Tischlerei Johann Eckel, Berlin-Lankwitz. In an elegant minimalist style, the tables sold within estimates at $77,675.
Two record prices paid at auction for George Nakashima were established within three lots of each other during the later stages of the afternoon session, first as an important “Frenchman’s Cove” dining table and chairs, circa 1968-1969, sold at $95,600. Two lots later the record was eclipsed by a stunning George Nakashima designed monumental “Minguren II” dining table that was executed by his daughter in Mira in 1992. The table, which Nakashima designed and picked the wood for prior to his death, was finished by his daughter. Estimated at $80/120,000, the piece established a record price paid at auction for Nakashima at $130,500.
“Midcentury Modern artists such as Noguchi and Bertoia continue to trend upward,” stated Zemaitis. The Phillips specialist was quick to point to an early “in-50” Isamu Noguchi table by Herman Miller that carried a presale estimate of $5/7,000, yet was knocked down at $17,925, while a Noguchi-designed rocking stool manufactured by Knoll and estimated at $10/12,000 realized a strong $25,095. “These two lots are indicative of the bull market for Noguchi,” he said.
Harry Bertoia sculpture also commanded solid prices with a sounding sculpture, circa 1960, selling at $38,240, while a slightly less elaborate sounding sculpture realized $29,875.
Highlights from the evening session included a gilt bronze torso by Boris Lovet-Lorski, circa 1935, that realized twice the high estimate selling at $48,995, a pair of Marc Newson “Coast” chairs were hammered down at $11,950, as was a Pablo Picasso lithograph entitled “Le Pitchet Noir et la Tete de Morte.”
Prices include the buyer’s premium charged.
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