A celebrated arbiter of taste, the dealer Gordon Watson held court for 27 years from his Fulham Road Gallery, a well-known landmark in London and a magnet for celebrities and high-profile names from all over the world, ranging from Mick Jagger and Elle Macpherson to decorators such as Chester Jones, David Mlinaric and Peter Marino. Watson stood firmly at the cutting edge of style with a constantly changing eclectic mix of 20th-century objects -- furniture, ceramics, glass, sculpture, jewelry, paintings, photographs, rugs, and Islamic and Indian works of art -- most of it procured on his ceaseless travels around the globe. In May of 2006, Sotheby’s London offered the contents of Watson’s shop and its storerooms and unseen pieces from his warehouses and private collection in a series of exceptional single-owner sales that realized a combined total in excess of £2.7 million.
In an effort to sustain the exuberance and intense interest surrounding these sales and to create a new taste for all things 20th century, Sotheby’s once again sought the Watson "look" for a sale titled "20th Century Decorative Arts Selected by Gordon Watson" and held at Sotheby’s New Bond Street salesrooms on Sept. 26, 2007. The auction totaled $2,885,241, with 176 of 284 lots finding buyers.
Watson’s diverse trove spanned eight decades of 20th-century design, including French Art Deco furniture from masters like Pierre Chareau, Paul Dupre-Lafon and Jacques Adnet, as well as Venetian glass by Carlo Scarpa and Fulvio Bianconi and marble pieces by Angelo Mangiarotti.
Highlights included a pair of Fontana Arte side tables from the 1950s made of simple slabs of deep blue glass that sold for £70,100 ($141,413), well above the presale high estimate of £15,000. Buyers of the top lots were more or less evenly split between collectors and dealers from the U.S. and the U.K.
A pair of upholstered armchairs from ca. 1923 by Pierre Chareau, their walnut legs with sleek, curling lines reminiscent of Art Nouveau, sold for £60,500 ($122,047), while Paul Belvoir’s contemporary rock crystal bowl nestled in a minimalist silver stand went for £31,700 ($63,948), rather more than its presale high estimate of £15,000.
A special sensation was the sale of a pink painted wrought iron dressing table with mirror and chair from the 1950s by the almost forgotten designer, Giovanni Ferrabini, for £31,700 ($63,948), once again more than doubling the presale high estimate of £15,000.
In setting up the sale, Watson had specific pieces in mind, especially from the 1940s. According to Watson, the ‘40s look is "very saleable and really works with contemporary art and would fit into modern buildings and flats. . . and these ‘40s things come from virtually the last period of proper craftsmanship. . . before the demand for mass-produced pieces of the ‘50s and ‘60s."
He also wanted to include some "wackier" things like the Ferrabini dressing table as well as four other lots by the designer. Something of a forgotten figure, Ferrabini was a wealthy dilettante from Milan who was part of the Italian design elite of the ‘50s. A painter and then a sculptor, Ferrabini was best friend of the celebrated Italian designer Carlo Mollino. Watson believes that his sale is the first to include Ferrabini’s work, certainly in England, and something of a coup for Sotheby’s.
Sotheby’s London design expert Jeremy Morrison noted that in addition to establishing a UK market for Ferrabini, the sale saw "prices for works by the silversmith Paul Belvoir, whose pieces were first sold at auction by Gordon in May 2006, continue to go from strength to strength."
The showroom was packed with notables, including the minimalist architect John Pawson and his wife Catherine, an interior designer; the tastemaker extraordinaire Nicky Haslam; British artists Gillian Wearing, Anya Gallacio and Michael Landy; and Hilary Swank, straight off a plane wearing a t-shirt, sneakers and jeans, cruising the floor accompanied by her decorator. Watson remains a celebrity magnet and his new Pimlico Road shop will no doubt be the epicenter for decorative arts in the 21st century.
For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.
MARY BARONE photographs "Out with Mary" for Artnet Magazine.