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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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With the “Alpha Design Crowd” gone to Design / Miami Basel, as Brook S. Mason reported last week, who was left to shop at the New York design sales that took place at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury during the same period, June 13-15, 2012?

Well, anyone looking for a Louis Comfort Tiffany lamp, maybe? At Sotheby’s New York 129-lot sale on June 13, which totaled almost $4.5 million (with premium), five lamps from the ever-in-demand Tiffany Studios made up half of the top ten lots.

A Pony Wisteria and a Dragonfly table lamp each brought $242,500 -- within estimates for the latter but well above the $180,000 presale high estimate for the wisteria lamp, which was originally purchased at the Macklowe Gallery on Madison Avenue. A Poppy table lamp that also passed through the Macklowe Gallery fetched $230,500 (est. $80,000-$120,000) and an Apple Blossom version brought $212,500 (est. $125,000-175,000). The sole hanging lamp in the top ten was a Turtleback Tile -- it sold for $200,500 (est. $120,000-$180,000). Well, they are beautiful.

Top lot in the auction, however, was an aluminum chair by Gerrit Rietveld, an origami-like construction that wraps around the sitter and boasts large circular perforations. An effort by the Dutch architect to fabricate a chair out of a single piece of material, the work apparently exists in four versions: the prototype, which he sold to the Stedelijk Museum, and three more versions, done at the request of the Delft Technical University, which wanted a complete Rietveld reference collection. The design was never mass produced.  

Rietveld fabricated the chairs with the help of two of his sons, Wim and Egbert. One chair went to the university and two were retained by Jan Rietveld, another son, who left them to his niece, Paula, who sold one at Christie’s Amsterdam in 1987 (now at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany) and one to the dealer Frans Leidelmeijer, from whom the selling party purchased the present lot. It sold for $470,500 -- well above a $150,000 high estimate.

Elsewhere in the auction, a set of four of Rietveld’s Beugelstoelen went for $80,500 (est. $70,000-$90,000), though a pair of Steltman Stoel (sold separately) were bought in against estimates of $30,000-$50,000 each. And for the stylish toddler was a highchair version of the iconic Zig-Zag chair (also born out of an obsession with a one piece chair, though its parts were fabricated separately and joined) sold for $25,000, double the presale high estimate of $12,000.

Christie’s New York sale the following day was paired with a small seven-lot sale of Tiffany lamps from the collection of Norman Jay Hobday, who took the name Henry Africa after his San Francisco bar of the same name. The lamps were estimated to bring in the realm of $2 million but realized $826,750, in large part due to a Laburnum table lamp estimated at about $500,000 that failed to find a buyer. As at Sotheby’s, the top Tiffany lot was a Wisteria lamp that sold for $602,500 (est. $500,000-$700,000).

Christie’s offered 15 Tiffany lamps during its mixed-owner design session, just one of which made the top ten, a Dragonfly that sold for $266,500. Interest seemed instead to be on pieces of mid-century biomorphic design.

Top spot at the 130-lot sale, which realized $8.8 million with 108 lots selling, or 83 percent, was a table by Isamu Noguchi that was commissioned by Mr. and Mrs. Samuel C. Dretzin in 1948. Noguchi clearly considered the table to be an artwork, at least according to a quote in the catalogue: “Everything is Sculpture. Any material, any idea without hindrance born into space, I consider sculpture.”

The market appeared to agree, as the work, made with fossil marble, sold for $2.9 million, more than double the $1.2 million presale estimate. This is now the highest price at auction for a piece of Noguchi furniture, and the third highest price for any work by the artist.

The sale also included a Noguchi chess table designed for “The Imagery of Chess,” organized in 1944 by the dealer Julian Levy with Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp. The original version of the table was purchased for $300 at the 1944 exhibition by George Nelson, who became the director of design at Herman Miller in 1945. Nelson convinced the company to produce the table commercially, but it seems that only a few exist. The one on offer at Christie’s was estimated at $60,000-$80,000 and sold for $302,500.

Also biomorphic in nature was a 1943 plywood sculpture by the design power couple Charles and Ray Eames, made the same year that the Eames were commissioned to produce plywood splints for the U.S. Navy. The sculpture, which varies in thickness between eight to 12 sheets of plywood, sold for $458,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000) to an unnamed “European Institution.”

Rounding out the top five were a crescent-shaped Boule sofa in beige fabric designed by Jean Royère in 1947 (est. $100,00-$150,000) and a glass vase by René Lalique made using the lost-wax method, and that retains traces of the famed glassmaker’s fingerprints (est. $200,000-$300,000). Each sold for $290,500.

Another Royere sofa starred at the Phillips de Pury and Company design sale on June 15, which totaled $3.8 million. The Ambassador sofa from around 1955 is upholstered in cherry red and sold for $212,500, above the $150,000 presale high estimate.  

Buyers passed on high-value pieces by the usually popular Emile Jacques Ruhlmann that had been originally made for the British aristo Margaret Hunam Harmsworth, otherwise known as “Miss Redhead.” The pair of Redhead beds and the Redhead dressing table with chair, both from 1925, were bought in against estimates of $60,000-$80,000 and $200,000-$300,000, respectively.

Apparently, Ruhlmann’s work in light-colored wood is less in demand than items made with rosewood and macassar ebony (at least at the right price) -- the auction house was able to sell a rather plain three-legged table in rosewood for $21,250 (est. $6,000-$8,000).

Top lot at Phillips was instead a set of four apparently irresistible sheep by François-Xavier Lalanne that sold for $746,500, above the presale high estimate of $500,000. Lalanne is definitely having his moment; his auction record was set in December of 2011 when a flock of ten of the sittable beasties fetched $7.4 million (est. $600,000-$900,000).

Phillips sold 91 of 116 lots, or 77 percent, for a total of $3.8 million. Other notable items at Phillips included a Jean-Michel Frank Aragon table with so-called pineapple legs -- the auction catalogue cover lot -- that sold for $242,500, above its $200,000 presale high estimate (and about double what it sold for in 2004 at Christie’s), and an Uto dining table from around 1932 by the Swedish designer Axel Einar Hjorth, which sold for $74,500 and set a record for the designer at auction.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.