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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi

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Prices for design at auction are skyrocketing -- at least since 2009, when Christie's Paris sold that Eileen Gray (1879-1976) Dragons Armchair for $28 million -- and as we count down the last days of 2011, all three of the big New York auctioneers have managed to wedge design auctions into their calendars.

One notable lot at Christie's New York on Dec. 17, 2011, was a "flock" of ten sheep by François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008), made in 1979 of painted epoxy stone (the fluffy wool) and patinated bronze (the faces and legs). It sold to an anonymous buyer for an astonishing $7.4 million, rather more than the presale estimate of $600,000-$900,000. In fact, each sheep brought what the auction house thought it would get for the whole flock.

The price is a new auction record for the artist, with the proceeds going to the Tateshina Open Air Museum in Japan.

Lalanne is the new must-have, and so it was at Sotheby's New York as well, where on Dec. 15, 2011, a bronze centaur that stands over seven feet tall and looks like an aquamanile on steroids sold for $542,500 (est. $200,000-$300,000). A collaboration between François-Xavier and his wife, Claude Lalanne (b. 1924), the work was originally purchased from the artists by Robert McKinney, JFK's ambassador to Switzerland.

More apartment-friendly Lalanne lots included a 23-inch-tall golden bronze oiseau from 2004 that sold for $170,500 at Christie’s (est. $100,000-$150,000), and a stool-sized bronze hippo (24 x 48 x 16 in.) that sold for $110,500 at Sotheby’s (est. $80,000-$120,000).

Speaking of Eileen Gray, Christie’s had an unusual and rare lot -- a pair of "divan blocks" made of red lacquered wood and bought in Paris in 1923 or '24. The divan seems to be lost to time, but the "ends" sold for $326,500, about double the $150,000 presale low estimate. They do have hinged compartments.

Another odd pair was the two Multi-Use Chairs by the experimental architect Frederick Kiesler (1890-1965), who designed the furnishings for Peggy Guggenheims’ floating ovoid Art of This Century gallery in 1942. Keisler's chair-like biomorph, with oak sides and linoleum facing on its usable surfaces, can serve as a chair, a table or "a support for sculpture or painting" (and is clearly a predecessor of Robert Morris' famous Untitled L Beams from 1965). Sold as separate lots, each est. $25,000-$35,000, the first brought $164,500 and the second $200,500.

Over at Sotheby’s, it was all about the teapots. A 1928 globe teapot made of silver plate with rosewood and ebony details by Bauhaus designer Naum Slutzky (1894-1965) sold for $374,500, more than four times the $80,000 high estimate. Another minimalist, silver-plate teapot, this one by Paul Lobel (1899-1983), the Rumanian-born designer best known for his silver jewelry, sold for $104,500. A nice surprise for the consigner, who had accepted a presale estimate of just $5,000-$7,000.

Furnishings by Deco master Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933) saw mixed results. At Sotheby’s, a vanity in Macassar ebony with ivory knobs and a matching chair sold within presale estimates for $422,500. Ruhlmann used Macassar ebony in many of his most well-known designs, and a table made of the naturally striped wood with brass mounts was one of the top lots at Christie’s.  A large honey-colored Ruhlmann cabinet carried the highest estimate of all lots at Sotheby’s but was bought in. The form seems to be a hard sell -- a similar meuble failed to find a new home at Christie’s Paris in November.

At Phillips de Pury and Co., the sale featured largely post-war material, with emphasis on Italian design. Gio Ponti (1891-1979) was heavily represented -- you could furnish a well-appointed living room with what was on offer. An armchair upholstered in fabric based on an illustration by Luigi Crippa (b. 1921) sold for $40,000 (est. $18,000-$24,000), and a pair of pewter vases that were exhibited at the 1933 V Triennial in Milan soared past their $8,000 estimate to sell for $31,250.

The top lot revived the animal motif, in a safari-themed chest of drawers with a bombe front decorated by Piero Fornasetti, a close friend of Ponti’s, that sold for $86,500 (est. $24,000-$28,000).

Sotheby’s and Christie’s held separate auctions of Tiffany Studios material immediately after the design sales. At Sotheby’s, a blue and purple Wisteria table lamp from 1905-10 sold for $842,500, well above the $600,000 presale high estimate, while at Christie's, a less vibrant green example sold for $326,500 (est. $200,000-$300,00) and was that sale's top lot.

The Sotheby’s catalogue credits Clara Driscoll, head of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany, with the lamp's succulent design. Recent scholarship has brought new attention to Driscoll’s role at Tiffany, which was explored at the New-York Historical Society this year in an exhibition titled "A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls."

In addition to lamps and vases, each sale featured a painting by Louis Comfort Tiffany himself. Sotheby’s opened its auction with Mediterranean Seascape, 1872, presented in a gilt-wood frame, and it sold for $53,125, considerably above the $20,000 presale high estimate. At Christie’s was a tiny (ca. 7 x 6 in.) painting on board, rather the worse for wear, showing a view of the Italian island of Capri. It sold for $11,250 (est. $5,000-$7,000).

Christie’s also sold an edition of The Art Work of Louis C. Tiffany from 1914, a book that was commissioned by the artist’s children and printed in an edition of about 500. This particular volume is inscribed by Tiffany to Frederick Wilson, who served as the studio’s chief window designer from 1897 until 1923. The dedication reads: “It is with great pleasure that I give you my book. We have both been working in the ‘quest for beauty’ but few there are who appreciate our endeavors. I am one of those who realize what good & beautiful work you have done.”

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.