Bertoia, Lalanne, and Tiffany Sales Lead Spring Design Auctions

This 1934 coffee service by Paul Lobel, estimated at $75,000-100,000, sold for $449,000 at Sotheby's Important 20th Century Design sale.
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

New York’s spring auction season wrapped up this week with sales of design and 20th-century decorative arts making a strong showing in a category that sometimes seems to be a catch-all for seemingly endless areas of niche connoisseurship. “We have the opportunity to promote different markets next to one another with the goal of reaching as many buyers as possible,” says Sotheby’s head of 20th-century design Jodi Pollack.

Sales in the showrooms of Phillips, Sotheby’s, and Christie’s combined brought a cool $19 million, while the addition of significant sales from Chicago’s Wright and Lambertville, New Jersey’s Rago Arts and Auction Center bring the tally up to $29.3 million. Despite design’s eclectic nature, each season brings concurrent interests, illustrated this week by major sales of Tiffany, François-Xavier Lalanne, and Harry Bertoia.


Enthusiasm for Bertoia was buoyed by works from the designer’s 1974 commission for Chicago’s Edward Durrell Stone-designed Standard Oil Building (now the Aon Center), many of which were offered in a standalone sale by Wright on June 6. “Bertoia is one of our long-running favorite artists,” says proprietor Richard Wright. The pieces on offer comprised Bertoia’s monumental outdoor installation for the building, much of which was dismantled by the current owner, and the 16 lots hammered in total of $1 million. “The best blue chip material is performing very well and that’s where we see most of our client focus,” says Wright.

On the same day, the house also offered sales of Important Italian Glass (totaling $1.5 million) and Important Design ($3.3 million). The latter offered a variety of other Bertoia works, including a rare stainless steel-and-brass 1965 Dandelion sculpture, which brought $284,500. Other highflyers were Walter von Nessen’s rare Art Deco chair from the 1928 International Exposition of Art, which, at $128,500, achieved a new auction record for the designer; Gio Ponti’s rare 1953-1954 lacquered wood, curly maple, glass, and Italian walnut coffee table that brought $80,500; Scandinavian carpet designer Ingrid Dessau’s 1955 hand-woven wool flatweave that doubled its estimate to achieve $40,000; and a 1966 wheel-thrown, crystalline-glazed earthenware bottle by Gertrud and Otto Natzler, which fetched $26,250 over its $15,000 high.

Studio pottery made up an entire sale at Rago, highlighted by Edwin and Mary Scheier’s Monumental Footed Vase, which fetched a record-setting $21,250. “Modern ceramics performed exceedingly well, setting more than a few new records for artists like the Scheiers and Turner,” said David Rago, referring to the sale’s penultimate lot, a Massive Glazed Stoneware Vessel by Robert Turner, which brought $16,250. Other top-selling lots were the Early 20th-Century Design and Arts & Crafts sale’s Frederick H. Rhead and Agnes Rhead University City Squat Bowl for $55,000 and the 20th-, 21st-century, and Modern Design sale’s Important Sculpture Front Cabinet by Paul Evans for $187,500, seconded by the designer’s Important Sculpture Front Vertical Cabinet for $162,500. All told, the June 8 and 9 weekend events drew $4.5 million.

Phillips started the trio of Manhattan auctions in its Park Avenue showroom with its simply titled Design sale on June 11. “We’re very pleased with the results,” says design specialist and head of sale Meaghan Roddy of the $4 million total, led by Lalanne’s Singe Avise (Grand), the bronze monkey gracing the back cover of the sale catalogue, which fetched $413,000. It was followed by Ron Arad’s Afterthought chair, a 2007 polished aluminum piece that brought $209,000. Next in line was Piero Fornasetti’s elaborately printed and painted wood 1954 Giardino Settecentesco wardrobe, which stood in the designer’s own home on Italy’s Lake Como. Two bidders in hard action ticked the price to double its high estimate at $179,000. “The Fornesetti is exemplary of the sort of lots that make for a great sale,” says Roddy. “It’s a great piece of design and designer history that’s fresh to the market.”

New material has always been a key factor in auction success, and while Sotheby’s Important 20th-century Design offered its share of familiar offerings, the department also stepped out on limb with series of lots by ceramists Toshiko Takaezu and Claude Conover and one of masterfully turned wood. “Sometimes it’s important to take risks and define and market,” says Pollack. Although the aforementioned will likely take time to develop, as several of these beautiful works unhappily went down, Pollack was beaming at the result of the $5-million sale’s top lot, a complete 1934 coffee service by Paul Lobel, the other two examples of which are held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and John C. Waddell, who has promised it to the Yale University Art Gallery. A persistent war from a plethora of bidders sent the piece to an orbit of $449,000, over four times its high estimate of $100,000. “This price in particular is evidence that dedicated collectors will come to market and drive the sale,” says Pollack. “Many knew this was the final opportunity to acquire the complete set.” Works by Tiffany and Lalanne rounded out the top lots, with an exquisite set of flatware by the latter fetching $185,000 on its $90,000 high estimate. Disappointing, however, was the pre-sale withdrawal of an anodized aluminum chair attributed to Donald Judd, estimated at $40,000 to $60,000. “The Judd Foundation needs to conduct further research on it,” says Pollack simply. Contemporary art fans were somewhat placated by a series of three foil-covered chairs by Rudolf Stingel, all of which sold for prices between their $20,000 to $30,000 estimates.

The week ended with its high at Christie’s, where the 20th-century Decorative Arts & Design sale brought $8 million. Just as the holdings from “Andy Williams: An American Legend” collection added to the house’s Postwar & Contemporary Art sale in May, a work sold by the singer’s estate, Lalanne’s 1975 Moutons De Laine, provided the design department with its top lot. In a tenacious fight between a phone client and an auto bidder, the flock of six wool, wood, and aluminum sheep soared to a price of $987,750 on a $700,000 high. Although the buyers in tow proved enamored of mammalian lots (the top four including another flock by Lalanne for $783,750 as well Rembrandt Bugatti’s bronze ostrich, $303,750, and two tapirs of the same material, $267,750), lots from a complete interior by Jean-Michel Frank rounded out the top six: A pair of club chairs covered with Hermès leather for $243,750 and a spectacular quartz and bronze table lamp, which ticked past its high estimate of $150,000, pausing briefly at $170,000, ending with renewed vigorous bidding also to land at $ $243,750. “We were pleased to see the continued strength in the market for works by Jean-Michel Frank,” says head of 20th-century Decorative Arts Carina Villinger.

Still, it’s hard to argue with the dominance of Tiffany, monumental pieces of which Christie’s offered in the standalone “Masterworks by Tiffany Studios: A Sutton Place Collection” sale, which preceded the morning design offerings. Led by a leaded glass and bronze 1905 Snowball table lamp, which fetched $459,750, the 57 lots yielded just over $2 million. According to Villigner, “Great demand for remarkable examples confirm this category’s blue-chip status once again.”