April 30, 2012



During “Islamic Week” in London in mid-April, Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered art from the Muslim world, but Phillips de Pury Company went its own way, holding a design sale. The bit of counter-programming paid off, and the auction resulted in the firm’s highest total for the category. The 211-lot sale on Apr. 26, 2012, totaled £4,658,800, or $7.5 million (£1 = $1.62) with 79 percent of the lots selling. The results just topped the house’s own December design sales in New York, which brought $7.1 million. Results are given here in dollars.

The session lacked a million-dollar lot like the pair of Emile Jacques Ruhlmann armchairs that boosted the December sale, though the star Art Deco ébéniste took three of the top ten prices. A lacquered wood desk from 1932 sold for $392,730 and a handsome pair of leather armchairs brought $216,917, both within presale estimates. A pair of cylindrical Tournicol side tables on pedestal bases, looking rather alien and fashioned of Ruhlmann’s favored Macassar ebony, were sold for $197,380 above a high estimate of $146,500. The price is nearly double what the pair brought at auction in 2004, when they sold at Christie’s New York for $89,625.

The record was set for a design work by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe when a severely reductionist steel and glass Tugendhat coffee table, the only known example of the MR 150/3 model, sold for $351,641. The table, along with a pair of chairs and light fixtures also on offer, were designed for the architect’s Tugendhat Villa, Czechoslovakia, built during 1928-30.

The three Mies lots (which could be ordered from a catalogue) were originally purchased for a house designed around 1929 by the Zurich-based architect Louise “Lux” Guyer, one of the first women to open her own architectural practice in Switzerland. Though the chairs failed to find a buyer (est. $97,600-$146,500) and the lights sold within presale estimates for $10,000, the table far exceeded expectations, soaring above the presale $80,000 estimate. A cube wood stool by another legend of modern architecture, Le Corbusier, went for $74,000 (est. $14,600-$22,700).

Several other records were set. A plush neo-Baroque wood armchair with hand-painted upholstery by the Italian designer Alessandro Mendini, who is celebrated for ritually burning one of his chair designs in 1975 for the cover of Casabella, sold for $148,500, a new record for the artist. The chair had sold less than two years ago at Bonhams for $58,600. Buyers at Phillips passed on several other Mendini lots, including a restyled “Wassily” chair and a Memphis-style mirror.

Similarly, a tufted wool chair on four rounded wood legs by architect Martin Olsen — it looks a little like a fabric-covered sports car seat mounted for the parlor — sold for $52,825 against a high estimate of $11,395. Elsewhere in the auction, the appropriately named Z Desk — a pair of z-shaped legs, with a tabletop resting across them –by the Italian minimalist designer Gabriella Crespi from 1974 brought $60,600 (est. $14,000-$22,000).

The sale’s top lot was Diego Giacometti’s patinated bronze bookshelf that has the craggy surface for which both Giacometti brothers are well known. Minimalist in design save for a pair of owl finials mounted to the rear vertical supports, the shelf sold within presale estimates for $584,719. One of the younger Giacometti’s best-known works — a bronze ostrich carrying a real ostrich egg — sold for $95,800.

All 25 lots by the revered British potter Lucie Rie found buyers. Bowls were particularly coveted, with one “knitted” bowl fetching $22,300 (est. $4,800-$6,500), and another footed bowl with pale green glaze and a metallic rim fetching $64,000 (est. $22,800-$29,000). Four lidded ceramic vessels by Edmund de Waal all were sold, too, for between $7,000 and $18,000.

This week, all eyes are on the Impressionist and modern art sales in New York, where Sotheby’s is expecting to sell a pastel version of Edvard Munch’s The Scream for upwards of $80 million. Whatever its final price, the sale has already made global news.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first £25,000, 20 percent of the next £25,000 to £500,000, 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.

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