‘World’s Best’ Modern Design Sale Fetches $60 Million in Paris

A 1920s black lacquer ``Brick'' screen, by Irish-born designer Eileen Gray, sold for 1.4 million euros in Paris. It was estimated to fetch between 1.2 million euros and 1.5 million euros at Christie's International's auction of the Gourdon Collection of 20th-century design, to be held in Paris on March 29 through March 31. Source: Christie's Images via Bloomberg

The sale of a 20th-century design collection, described as the world’s finest, has ended with furniture maker Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann the best-selling name.

The Christie’s International three-day sale in Paris of the contents of the Chateau de Gourdon museum accumulated by Laurent Negro raised 42.4 million euros ($60 million) with fees. Demand was selective. The total at hammer prices was lower than the estimated 40 million euros to 60 million euros, and less than the 59.2 million euros for 150 lots of modern decorative art sold on Feb. 24, 2009, on behalf of the late fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge.

Provenance is important in design auctions, and dealers were comparing this sale with the Saint Laurent event at which an Eileen Gray chair made a record 21.9 million euros. Gray’s works sold for smaller sums this time and she was eclipsed by the French Art Deco designer Ruhlmann, whose 35 pieces raised more than 13 million euros.

“The Chateau de Gourdon is the greatest collection of 20th-century design that has come up for auction,” the London-based dealer Sean Berg said. “When the biggest collector becomes the seller, this creates problems, though. It’s like having a Premier League of buyers without Manchester United.”

Negro, 39, was clearing out the entire contents of his medieval castle, near Grasse, Provence, to make more living space. The centerpiece of the Palais de Tokyo sale was 500 examples of Art Deco, Art Nouveau and modernist design that he’d bought within the last 15 years, often for big-ticket prices.

Father’s Armor

Christie’s found buyers for 84 percent of the 860 lots in total, which also included Old Masters and antique armor that had been collected by Negro’s father, who had started temporary employment company Bis SA.

The March 29 evening auction raised 24.3 million euros, with Ruhlmann works capturing four out of the five top prices.

An adjustable chaise longue “Aux Skis” sold for a record 2.9 million euros and a black-lacquer “Tardieu” desk for 2.3 million euros. Both pieces dated from 1929 and had high estimates of 3 million euros.

The chaise longue -- one of two pieces in the sale designated a “national treasure” by the French government -- sold to a European collector, while the desk went to the Paris dealer Cheska Vallois, who won Gray’s “dragons” armchair at the YSL sale.

An Asian collector paid 1.8 million euros for a 1925 ebony “Lassalle” commode by Ruhlmann. The price was more than three times the low estimate.

Top Performer

Ruhlmann was the top auction performer in 2010, with sales of 6.4 million pounds ($10.3 million), according to the DeTnk Collectible Design Market Report, published on March 18.

Works by other 20th-century designers met with a patchier response. A unique Art Deco games table created by Jean Dunand in 1930 for the couturier Madeleine Vionnet, estimated at 3 million euros to 5 million euros, failed to sell, as did Gray’s late 1920s canvas and black lacquer “Transat” chair, valued at 600,000 euros to 800,000 euros.

“There are plenty of buyers for luxury furniture,” said Berg. “Modernist icons aren’t so easy to house.”

A 1920s black lacquer “Brick” screen was the most successful of the Gray lots. Originally owned by the Irish-born designer herself, it sold to a European collector for 1.4 million euros, just below the high estimate.

A 1929 modernist carpet by Francis Bacon -- who worked as a designer before devoting himself to painting -- sold for 109,000 euros against a valuation of 20,000 euros to 30,000 euros.

Art Deco

Negro lost money on a number of pieces. He paid $386,500 for Jan and Joel Martel’s 1931 aluminum Art Deco sculpture of an express train, “Locomotive en marche,” at Sotheby’s, New York, in 2008. It sold for a hammer price of 200,000 euros. A 1927 Gustave Miklos bronze sculpture, “Jeune Fille,” fetched 1.15 million euros without fees. This had been bought at a French auction in June 2005 for 1.6 million euros.

The purchase price of the design collection had been higher than the low estimate, Jonathan Rendell, Christie’s New York-based deputy chairman, said in an interview before the event.

“Considering that the collection was barely 10 years old, the sale did well,” the London-based consultant Christopher Payne said in an interview. “This is still a young market and the provenance didn’t have as much pull as Saint Laurent.”

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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