Prices can be staggering for garden ornament, which includes lichen-covered statues of Venus and Apollo, rusted garden benches dating from the Civil War, 19th-century fountains and massive Coade stone urns, the Baccarat of the garden. There's a slew of lower tier garden ornaments -- that is far less pricey -- just waiting to be reclaimed.
Garden furnishings and sculpture, ever available in antique shops, can be picked up for reasonable prices in the auction houses, thanks to current downturns in the market. Take the sale this past Tuesday, June 22, at Christie's East in New York. While Christie's specialist Victoria Shaw-Williamson had assembled the house's largest-ever garden ornament offerings with a total of 46 lots, 24 failed to find buyers.
A case in point is the 19th-century cast-iron furniture set, made after a design by the celebrated neoclassical architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Two groups of chairs and a settee were offered separately, but did not find buyers. It wasn't so long ago that a set of Schinkel chairs was quickly snapped up at the New York Botanical Garden sale.
Also at Christie's, a stylish Gothic Revival garden settee in cast iron dating from the 19th century was passed, at a presale estimate of $2,500-$3,500. This great piece was illustrated on the catalogue cover.
Sotheby's auction the next day, Wednesday, June 23, was also a bit weak. The sale totaled $775,042, right in the middle of the presale total estimate of $658,100-$949,300. Among the top lots was a nine-foot-long cast-iron tiger by 19th-century French manufacturer Val d'Osne, which hit a respectable $33,350.
The garden ornament market is fickle, and just because a piece is aged doesn't mean it's going to sell for a lot of money. Sometimes the mere whimsy of an object makes values soar. For example, a cast-stone well head, ca. 1940, estimated at $8,000-$12,000, sold at Sotheby's for a healthy $18,400. Objects done in the "tree trunk" style can bring feverish bidding. An early 20th-century garden bench with cast-stone trunk-like arms and legs went for a stunning $21,850 over a more modest estimate of $4,000-$6,000. Calling the Flintstones!
What's driving such lofty prices for the antique and quixotic is the decorating market, consisting of landscape designers as well as interior decorators. Unlike in the recent past, the trend today is to furnish both the outside and inside.
What's the measure of this market? Antique garden ornament dealer Barbara Israel reports that she frequently fills orders from landscape architects for eight to 12 period garden urns and sculptures for a single client. "Now, $1 million gardens are common," she says.
Further confirmation of the garden market's feverish heights could be found in Christie's auction of the Seago Collection in London on June 9. Garden ornament dealers Timothy and Linda Seago were able to liquidate their holdings for a stunning $4.9 million. The estimate was only $1.3 million. Americans walked away with 24 percent of the purchases. Top lots included a terra-cotta river god statue that made $205,312 and an Italian marble wall fountain that sold for $134,736. The fountain was estimated at $25,800-$34,400.
But the great buys of today are lesser pieces that are not signed, truly middle and lower market items. Lichen-covered statues of Venus and Apollo are de rigeur for Wall Street traders' garden plots, yet affordable alternatives are available. At Sotheby's, a stone bust of a kindly looking French cleric in 19th-century garb was snatched up for a reasonable $1,725. And a graceful cast-stone maiden in Grecian drapery went for a lowly $2,875 against a $2,500-$3,500 estimate.
Not all clients have deep pockets, so affordable alternatives have arisen. Take urns, the containers of the moment. Although English Coade stone is particularly prized, the prices can be astonishing. A large Coade stone urn went for $60,000 at the Seago sale, a record price.
Yet stone and cast-iron urns at conservative prices abound. Lexington Gardens, New York's first-ever garden ornament establishment, does a brisk business in 19th-century and later urns. On hand are a pair of large stone urns with swags and rams head handles for $5,500. A pair of cast-iron urns costs $2,000. A new French terra-cotta urn from the Provence town of Anduze is only $700.
Lexington Gardens also carries architectural remnants -- spires, corbels and lintels -- that give texture and interest to a garden. A stone spire just over five feet and trimmed with Gothic accents is $3,800, while a 19th-century zinc finial constructed of urn and bell shapes topped by a tin banner costs $4,000. Boldly incised terra-cotta corbels touched with flaking blue paint are priced at $1,600. "The stylish architecture pieces move quickly," says shop manager Rosa Szuel.
Unsurprisingly, this market surge has also brought an increasing amount of repros (reproductions) to both shops and salesrooms. For example, Elizabeth Street Gallery carries an enormous inventory of antique garden wares along with reproductions. Owner Michael Garden reports that his repro line, which he terms "recreations" of actual period pieces, is growing rapidly. Prices for these works are hardly negligible. A 10-foot wall fountain with shell and scrolls is $17,500, but then an actual period fountain can reach $250,000 at his Second Avenue gallery.
But with the widening of the garden market, some clients find alternatives to high priced antiques and repros. Rather than purchasing an expensive fountain or gazebo, a garden fancier can consider a rusted lattice obelisk towering at six feet plus. These attractive ornaments can be found at Madison Avenue's A la Maison. At $1,077 each, they could flank a path or mark out the four corners of a garden room. A store spokesperson reported that more than a dozen have been sold in the past two months.
For rock bottom prices, other clients take in willow teepees over seven feet high, which are actually used as frames for supporting pea vines. Tony decorator Bunny Williams stocks them in her garden ornament shop, Treillage. Made by a Canadian artisan, these ethereal structures cost a surprisingly low $225 each. "The willow teepees give an architectural presence to a garden," says shop manager Howard Christian, "and they last." Bronze, lead and zinc ornaments may just have met their match on the willow garden circuit.