Design Auction Season That’s Fit for the Brave

One of the few stars at recent auctions: a 1949 custom side table by Carlo Mollino, which sold for $1.31 million at Christie’s.

Thin cracks could be detected last week in the steely calm fronts that auctioneers put up during sales. Many hundreds of examples of 20th-century furniture came up for bidding at the winter design sales at four major New York auction houses before sparse crowds. Sometimes a dozen lots in a row did not sell or barely scraped past reserve prices (the minimum amounts agreed upon in advance by the sellers and the auction houses.)

When a cellphone went off somewhere in the subdued audience at Bonham’s sale of 20th-century decorative arts on Wednesday, the auctioneer, Malcolm Barber, paused for a moment between slow-moving lots of Tiffany glass vases and bronze candlesticks and offered a glum joke: “That might be a bid; answer it.”

And at the design sale at Phillips de Pury & Company, when some 1990s chairs by Ron Arad and Frank Gehry attracted little interest, the auctioneer, Brook Hazelton, impatiently tapped his shiny black heel along the edge of the podium platform while waiting for motion from paddles, hands or chins.

A little while later, as a 1950s oak table by Gio Ponti fell thousands of dollars short of its $10,000 to $12,000 estimate, he scanned a long line of co-workers staffing the telephone banks. “All those phones, no bids?” he asked.

Yet the auction houses still expressed relief that the results were not worse, and found some room for optimism, as did the dealers and collectors who depend on auctions to set public price standards.

“Obviously there were disappointments,” said Alexander Payne, the worldwide director of the design department at Phillips, which realized $2.2 million from the sale, although 69 of the 172 objects offered did not sell; the auction’s low estimate was some $3.7 million.

“Considering how much stress all the markets have been in,” Mr. Payne added, “we fared reasonably well, with a very international buyer base.”

The strongest-performing objects last week — that is, the few that caused bidding flurries and reached six-figure prices — came in three broad categories that have well-established collector bases and track records in the market: Tiffany lamps, early-1900s American metalwork and French and Italian furniture from the 1930s through the 1950s.

At a Sotheby’s design sale that totaled $3.6 million, nearly one-quarter of the proceeds came from two century-old chunks of American iron: hammered andirons by Gustav Stickley and an elevator cage studded with spheres that the architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler had installed at the Chicago Stock Exchange. The purchaser of the cage, said James Zemaitis, the director of the 20th-century design department for Sotheby’s in New York, “is a major West Coast institution making a commitment to 20th-century design, and renovating a wing for that purpose.”

At Christie’s, more than 40 percent of the $2.99 million realized at the 20th-century decorative art and design sale came from one lot: a 1949 side table by the Italian designer Carlo Mollino. The piece, which has two irregular sheets of glass mounted on an S-curve of maple plywood, was a custom design for the apartment of a nobleman in Turin, Italy.

Brian Kish, a dealer with a store in SoHo, paid $1.31 million for the table on behalf of a client he declined to identify. “It’ll go into a New York loft that has several other Mollino pieces,” Mr. Kish said. “It has great sinuous curves, a sculptural quality and exalted provenance, at a very friendly size.” He attended the auction and did not mind being recognized while steadfastly bidding against a phone or two.

“I wanted to be there in person to suss out who else was in the room,” he said. “And it was good to show support for the market, to make a public statement after all the downturns.” Given that no other auction prices for design last week topped $740,000, he added, “I was the belle of the ball.”

The architect Lee Mindel was also happy to raise paddles publicly last week. He sat in the back rows for hours at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, occasionally looking up from his computer or cellphone to nod at the auctioneers. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of “many, many clients,” he said.

“There’s wonderful stuff available now for the brave,” he continued. “You’ve got to grin and bear it, and go for those great values out there.”


Walking sticks seem stripped of all their connotations of lame legs in “Vertical Art: The Enduring Beauty of Antique Canes and Walking Sticks” (Hudson Hills Press, $350). This 400-page slipcased photo essay by the Italian photographer Umberto Barone shows 377 canes that all belong to one California collector who remains anonymous in the book; the captions are by Roberta Maneker.

The canes, mostly made in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, range from folk art wooden poles carved with animal faces to Fabergé snakewood shafts topped in spheres of semiprecious stones inlaid with diamonds. Mr. Barone’s photos only show the knobs, enlarged to saucer size and arranged in eerie tableaus amid smoke tendrils, water sprays, sand dunes and rose petals.

“Most books about canes out there have been meat-and-potatoes histories of canes through the ages,” said Ronald Varney, a fine-art agent who orchestrated the book’s publication for the collector. “This is meant to raise the profile of these fantastic, extraordinary objects, and not just be useful for the small niche of cane collectors.”

The owner will match proceeds from sales of this extravagant volume with a donation to a charity in San Francisco, the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.

A version of this article appeared in print on December 26, 2008, on page C37 of the New York edition.
27 greene st, new york ny 10013 tel/fax 212.925.7850 by appointment

© 2013 Brian Kish Inc. | Design by Steven Chu Studio