AUTUMN ROUNDUP / Design Auctions 2020
A mixture of high hopes and some sensational sales – but also some disappointments.
“THE ONLY GOOD thing about the virus,” says Flavien Gaillard, head of the 20th century decorative arts department at Christie’s Paris, “has been that all of our clients were stuck in their homes, thinking about their interiors.”
Postponed from May, Christie’s first post-lockdown Design sale took place in the French capital on 30th June, realising more than €12 million (including fees). “We did the best-ever result [for a design sale],” reports Gaillard. Eighty per cent of the lots found buyers, many of whom paid well over what had been forecast, particularly for works by Jean Royère, four of whose lots went for seven-figure sums, two or three times their estimates. A mirror by Georges Jouves sold for €32,500 (against a lower estimate of €4,000). And 13 works by François-Xavier Lalanne comfortably exceeded expectations.
“Some very important lots were consigned during the lockdown,” says Gaillard, and the trend is continuing so he has high hopes for its December sale – highlights of which are likely to be a sculptural desk designed by Philippe Hiquily in 1968 and a “very important freeform desk” by Marcel Roux, an architect who worked with Le Corbusier. “It’s in the spirit of Charlotte Perriand. We are expecting a lot of bidding on that,” he notes, adding that statement desks, in particular, are highly sought after now that so many of us are working from home.
Special online viewing rooms have been created to showcase works from as many angles as possible, and Gaillard and his colleagues will also be taking video calls so clients can see every part of a piece and ascertain the “the volume and the presence it would have in a room,” he says. “For instance, it’s helpful to put a pack of cigarettes, or a bottle of water, in front of a ceramic to understand its size.”
Across the Channel in London, there’s been optimism at Bonhams too. “Of course, 100 per cent would have been preferable, but 75 per cent by lot and 87 per cent by value is not too shabby,” says Marcus McDonald, its UK director of modern decorative art and design, speaking after its first-ever Design sale on Bond Street. “There was a lot of bidding,” both in the room, absentee and online. “And I would say almost everyone who came to view [in person] either bought or bid.”
By the standards of its rivals’ recent sales, which have tended to focus on French, Italian or Nordic design, even when they weren’t specifically themed, Bonhams’ offering was an eclectic mix. There were pieces by established stars of the field: Alvar Aalto, Gio Ponti, Finn Juhl, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret. “We did exceptionally well” with the latter, says McDonald, citing a Committee table “with impeccable provenance”, designed for the Assembly in Chandigarh, which sold for £75,063 against an estimate of £40,000 – £60,000.
But rather than focus on mid-century work, its historic sweep spanned almost 150 years, from an ‘Astronomer’s’ chair designed in 1873 by William Callaghan – an early and inventive use of birch-veneered plywood, that quintupled its lower estimate and sold for just over £4,000 – to pieces by the likes of Tom Dixon and Juan & Paloma Garrido from the past decade.
The Italian master of Art Nouveau Carlo Bugatti featured strongly, as did Max Schmidt of the Wiener Werkstätte and the French Art Deco designers Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann and Jean Dunand. “It’s nice to incorporate lots of elements,” says McDonald, noting that most buyers of furniture tend not to be “collectors in the true sense [but] people who love the style of the furniture and want it in their homes.” (Glass and ceramics tend to have more of a traditional collector base.)
Phillips’s first live design auction of the summer was an even greater success, with sell-through rates of 98 per cent by value, 95 per cent by lot and three auction records for works by Edmund de Waal, Mario Gottardi and Gino Sarfatti/BBPR. “We also saw an influx of new buyers,” says Domenico Raimondo, Senior Director. “Existing clients are still very active,” he continues, with similar thoughts as Gaillard, “I think it is because they’ve been spending more time at home.”
The next online Phillips sale will offer post-war Italian lighting, a follow up to its September online sale of Nordic design, where 30 of the 34 lots sold comfortably within or ahead of their estimates – some sensationally. A pair of Brazilian rosewood side tables designed by Ejner Larsen and Aksel Bender Madsen in 1955, for instance, went for 10 times their lower estimate of £1,000. Interestingly the lots that didn’t sell were the ones by famous names: a pair of Hans Wegner Chinese armchairs, two Finn Juhl easy chairs, a Frits Henningsen rocking chair and a flatware service by Arne Jacobsen.
“Very targeted and bespoke” private sales have also thrived, says Raimondo, and represent an “important cornerstone of our business,” appealing to collectors too impatient for the traditional auction calendar, or looking for particular pieces. Not, he concedes, that auction houses can “control supply and demand”. But a handful of stellar lots in its forthcoming live Design sale in London on 12th November suggests collectors are still keen to consign. He points to a wall-mounted marble console by Osvaldo Borsani and Lucio Fontana, a work that marks “the transition in Fontana’s work from his baroque-inspired forms to Spatialism” – offered complete with Borsani’s original technical drawings and photographs of it in situ in the house, Casa S, for which it was made. Raimondo is excited, too, to be selling the prototype of Gio Ponti’s ‘Mariposa’ sofa, and a dressing table very similar to the one he designed for the Villa Planchart in Caracas, “one of Ponti’s most celebrated architectural projects”.
Certainly Artcurial’s recent sale of Italian Design (28th September), at which 78 per cent of the lots sold, realising a total of just over €1.218m – well above its presale estimate of €868,600 – indicates that demand is strong for what Justine Despretz, one of its Italian design specialists, calls “icons” of the genre, especially works with exemplary provenance and, ideally, informed by a rich narrative.
Ahead of the sale, Artcurial had held a conference on Ettore Sottsass and Alessandro Mendini. Its object was “educational more than a sales strategy,” she insists, but the more knowledgeable a buyer becomes, the more likely they are to want something. “The history of Mendini’s ‘Poltrona di Proust’ armchair fascinated them!” she says of the hand-painted pointillist reinvention of a 19th century fauteuil that came to be seen as a manifesto for the “anti-design” designers of Studio Alchimia (who rejected the idea of industrially produced furniture in favour of one-offs, and small editions of sculpture that nevertheless functioned as furniture, “making it a precursor of gallery design”). It sold for €54,600 (estimate: €15,000 – €20,000). Interestingly, however, a Mendini light, ‘Deriva di Proust’ made in 2015 using the same fabric, failed to sell at Bonhams the following month. “I was a bit disappointed by that,” says McDonald, “because I really liked it.”
But then for all the successes, there have been some dispiriting sales too. Take the disastrous online auction of decorative arts and design, antiques, old masters and modern and contemporary art, that Christie’s ran in partnership with the cancelled Biennale Paris art and antiques fair last month. Only 14 out of 90 lots were sold – among them a ‘Taureau’ bench by Jean Marie Fiori (€62,500), two 1990 standard lamps by Philippe Anthonioz (€50,000 apiece) and a set of six straw-seated chairs by Charlotte Perriand (€10,625) – realising just €1.49m against a pre-sale estimate of €7m-10m.
The auction house ostensibly came to the aid of dealers (in a move that might have signalled an end to their long-held rivalry), however, only 42 dealers took part (compared with 70 the previous year). Christie’s chief executive, Guillaume Cerutti, merely noted that its results needed to “be judged beyond the purely financial dimension … The highlighting of the merchants’ work, the collaboration with a major trade fair, the positive feedback from our customers and market observers, are matters of great satisfaction for Christie’s and encourage us to continue on this path,” he commented. Another disappointment was its recent Thinking Italian sale, part of its “London to Paris”, two-centre “virtual auction” in October, at which just 18 out of 30 lots sold, amounting to barely half the pre-sale estimate.
Dorotheum recorded modest results at its autumn Design sale in Vienna too, where only 91 lots out of 193 on offer found buyers and even the one on the catalogue cover – a set of six S-chairs designed by Verner Panton – failed to sell. The American designer’s work had proved a draw at Sotheby’s New York the preceding week, where a sideboard and a set of dining chairs had each sold for upwards of $20,000, though not so two dining tables. Yet the following week, a cabinet from the Cityscape series went for less than its lower estimate at Bonhams. There were a few cheering surprises for Dorotheum however, such as Bodil Kjaer’s ‘Writing Desk Mod. No. 901’ (circa 1950s), which sold for €22,800 (estimate: €8,000 – €12,000). Perhaps the only conclusion to be drawn is that there is no predicting the market just now.
What is clear, is that having totalled $20.153m at its Important Design in New York last July, Sotheby’s remains the self-styled “unequivocal market leader for 20th century design”, a position reinforced by the stellar prices it achieved for three animal sculptures by Francois-Xavier Lalanne, a ‘Petit Chien Prosaïque’ (1996), which went for $596,000 (estimate: $50,000 – $70,000), and two ormolu monkeys ‘Singe I’ and ‘Singe II’, from the estate of Felix Rohatyn, the former US ambassador to France, that fetched $3.5m and $3.98 apiece (estimate: $40,000 – $60,000). The consignors of an upholstered Kem Weber lounge chair in chromium-plated tubular steel and lacquered wood, which rocketed to $125,000 against a lower estimate of $8,000, and a pair of Flemming Lassen armchairs fetched more than 10 times their lower estimate, would have been well satisfied too.
And there are high hopes for its forthcoming December sale, notably a number of rare and exceptional pieces by Charlotte Perriand from a collection of furniture commissioned by a couple in Toulouse for a house they’d had built by the architect Pierre Debeaux in the early 1970s.
Others are buoyant as well. “I am very optimistic about the future of design sales,” says Artcurial’s Justine Despretz. A sentiment with which Phillips’s Domenico Raimondo concurs. “As works were soaring above their estimates, I felt uplifted for our clients,” consignors and collectors alike.
Phillips Design Auction, London, 12th November, and online sale of postwar Italian lighting “Lux, Lucis, Luci – A Declension of Lights”, 9th to 16th December.
Sotheby’s Important Design live sale, 17th December, and Collection Neumann-Hug, 26th November, both in Paris.
Christie’s Design sale, Paris, 3rd December.