Why Brazil's Midcentury Modern Furniture Is a Steal
In 2005, a 1950s lacquered rosewood lounge chair with a crisp, beige leather cushion hit the auction block at Sotheby’s in New York. Created by Joaquim Tenreiro, a seminal Brazilian modernist designer, it was the first of its kind ever to sell at auction, according to Artnet's database. Carrying a high estimate of $20,000, bidders pushed up the final price, including premium, to $48,000. It was an auspicious start for the market of one of the giants of South American modernism, and yet, over the subsequent decade, his prices never quite took off. The same can be said for most of Tenreiro’s Brazilian modernist peers.
“People are more interested in Italian and French mid-century,” says Meaghan Roddy, a senior specialist in the design department of Phillips New York. “Brazilian design just isn’t on their radar.” In a booming market for 20th century design in which chairs sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, Brazilian designers, for the most part, don’t rate. Why?
It’s not for lack of material, at least material in the country of origin. For much of the 20th century Brazil fostered a thriving design market. In the design critic and curator Aric Chen’s upcoming book, Brazil Modern: The Rediscovery of Twentieth-Century Brazilian Furniture, more than 300 pages are devoted to hundreds of objects by more than a dozen designers. “There was an intense, diversified production by very talented people,” says Zeuler R. M. de A. Lima, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who wrote the book’s forward. “It really caught on after the end of World War II.”
This is hardly reflected in the material available for sale and the prices it fetches. Outlandish chairs by Sergio Rodriguez, a furniture designer and founder of the once-prolific (now defunct) furniture store Oca, sell for just a few thousand dollars. His highest lot at auction, a slatted "Mucki" bench from 1958, sold for $32,400 at Sotheby’s in 2007. Compare that with a 1974 bench by the American modernist architect and designer George Nakashima, which sold for $62,500, last month at Sotheby’s in New York. (Nakashima’s highest price was $822,400, which a collector paid for one of his dining tables at Sotheby’s New York in 2006.)
The wild, sweeping designs of Jean Gillon offer another example. Gillon, a Romanian furniture designer who emigrated to Brazil in the 1950s, was famous for his vaguely nautical, netted chairs and ottomans. Pieces by Gillon have come up for auction just 58 times around the world, according to Artnet's database. (Tenreiro’s designs have only come up 128 times; Rodrigues's, 257 times. Nakashima’s work has come up a whopping 3,213 times, according to Artnet.)
“I’m not sure if it’s stylistic preference,” Phillips' Roddy says. “We try to include some of [Brazilian modernism] in each auction, but it’s not the easiest thing to sell.”
Beyond purely aesthetic concerns, there are a few plausible reasons as to why the segment has languished.
The first is a question of materials. Many of Tenreiro’s pieces are made out of severely endangered Brazilian rosewood, which has been cut so heavily that it is officially listed as “threatened with extinction” by the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Objects containing rosewood are often subject to import/export restrictions. “You can’t ship it in and out of the country,” says Roddy. “When it’s here, it’s here.” That means it’s difficult to get many Brazilian-modern objects with rosewood out of the country in the first place. Once they are purchased, there’s a chance collectors won’t be able to sell them outside their own country.
The second reason is that for multiple decades "during Brazil's military dictatorship, it was against the law to export furniture" says Zesty Meyers, co-owner of the furniture gallery R & Co., who wrote the introduction to Brazil Modern and who downplays the difficulty of importing/ exporting rosewood furniture. "The ban on exports only ended in the 1980s, but it took some time to change," he says. "That's why you don't see these pieces."
There’s also the fact that much of this furniture was created in limited editions, or even as one-off pieces. "They were never produced in series like industrial design was supposed to be," says Lima, the professor. While that’s exciting—there’s certainly an allure to knowing your furniture is one-of-a-kind—it also means that there’s less chance to build a market: When 100 versions of the same chair have already sold, it's fairly easy to determine how much the 101st chair should sell for. If only one chair has sold, determining an appropriate price is a lot harder. "There's enough material to make a market, it's just going to take some time to come out [of private ownership]," said Meyers, the gallery owner.
There are a few bright spots. Tenreiro’s three-legged chairs, for instance, are highly sought-after. In 2008, one with a high estimate of $80,000 sold for $92,500 at Sotheby’s. The next year (in the depths of the financial crisis, let’s not forget), another sold for $80,500 at Phillips New York, just above its low estimate. Meyers says the field is growing. "I have clients globally for his work, it's continuous," he says. "He is the unsung genius."
Superlatives aside, the prices are, in the context of the furniture market, often surprisingly low. A Captain's Chair by Gillon sold for $4,344 at the Dorotheum auction house in Vienna last year; the Chieftains Chair by Finn Juhl, of a similar size with similar materials and general construction, sells new at Design Within Reach for $17,175.
A word of caution for prospective buyers ready to scoop up the next Brazilian modernist furniture they see: Simply existing as a (comparative) deal is no guarantee that the object will someday explode in value. “I don’t know if it’s going to blow up in five years,” says Phillip's Roddy. “Everything goes in waves.”