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Christie's and Sotheby's 20th Century Decorative Arts
by Brook S. Mason
|In jousting for market share of 20th century decorative arts, Christie's is the undisputed winner. The house's June 8 auction, cleverly titled Masterworks: 1900-2000, brought its two-day sale total to an astonishing $23.9 million. Virtually every item in the 67-lot sale was an icon and the catalogue with its museum-like text underscored the prominence of the offerings.
Six world records were set. "The sale confirmed that collectors are looking for museum quality material," says Nancy McClelland, international director of Christie's 20th century Decorative Arts. It also means that New York now triumphs over London in this field.
Clearly, Art Deco modernist works are on a high. Edgar Brandt's L'Oasis five panel screen in iron and brass made $1.9 million, thereby setting a record for any Art Deco object sold at auction. An artist/craftsman, Brandt had pioneered the use of the oxy-actelene welding torch. A European client had found the screen languishing in South America.
A quixotic cast iron bronze chair by Armand Albert Rateau made with links of fishes and shells in 1919 for financier and Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee Ralph Blumenthal sold for $666,000 (est. $300,000-$500,000). That price makes those for 18th century French and George III furnishings look comparatively weak.
Another record was established for a Charles Rennie Mackintosh oak high-back side chair. This time the winning bid $468,000 vaulted over its estimate two times (est. $220,000-$280,000). Then a world auction record was set for a Charles and Henry Greene couch, its upholstery in tatters.
Eileen Gray also seems to be on a roll. A red lacquer console of utmost simplicity sold for a record $534,000 (est. $4-500,000). Parisian and New York dealer Bob Vallois bought both the screen and a gray chair. Even though a Raymond Loewy prototype of a pencil sharpener (est. $100,000-$150,000) did not meet its reserve and was bought in at $85,000, that bid demonstrates just how powerful a pull such Machine Age material can have.
A further index to soaring popularity of such wares is that a record 200 clients demanded condition reports on the lots featured, reports Ms. McClelland.
The final lot was an architectural gem, a Philip Johnson-designed, 28,000 square foot townhouse. No. 242 East 52nd Street contained two bedrooms and had been owned by dealer Anthony d'Offay. Six bidders, including an agent for a European client, battled it out. A stunning $11,116,000, close to triple its presale low estimate (est. $3.5-5 million), was the winning bid. "We felt a masterpiece house would be the perfect addition for this sale," explains Lars Rachen, Christie's specialist. "At first, we thought perhaps a Frank Lloyd Wright."
Along with new pricing benchmarks, this sale also established new taste trends. Clearly, Art Nouveau is experiencing a downturn. Examples by both Majorelle and Gaillard failed to rouse bidders.
At Sotheby's sale the following day, the record for Eileen Gray was quickly trounced when a dealer paid $1.2 million for lacquered screen composed of black blocks (est. $400,000-$600,000).
This auction house racked up a total $5.8 million in 20th century furnishings.
BROOK S. MASON writes on fine and decorative arts.