Prized Nakashima Works Keep Soaring in Value

December 22, 2006

New York, NY -- There are several auctions of modern design in March and June, but the sales in December are probably the best barometer of the market. This year collectors of American craft movement furniture, in particular, are looking forward to Sotheby's Dec. 15 sale of about 70 works by George Nakashima that Dr. Arthur Krosnick and his wife, Evelyn, commissioned for their home in Princeton, N.J.

"It's going to be the event of the season," said Robert Aibel, owner of the Moderne Gallery in Philadelphia, which specializes in Nakashima works, and the author of the introduction to the Sotheby's catalog. "The sale has one of the 10 most important lots of 20th-century furniture ever to come up at auction," he said.

Mr. Aibel was referring to a 91-inch redwood dining room table called the "Arlyn" (a melding of Arthur and Evelyn) from 1988; it is expected to sell for $300,000 to $500,000. "It's the most important piece he ever made for a private house," Mr. Aibel said. "In fact, this sale is all masterworks, in many cases the best pieces he ever did."

Dr. Krosnick became Mr. Nakashima's doctor in the early 1960s, and their families became so close that they celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together.

"There are three great collections of Nakashimas: the Rockefellers', the Nakashima Studio's and the Krosnicks'," said James Zemaitis, a specialist at Sotheby's. "This is the best one that is ever going to come on the market. It's the one moment where you are getting an entire environment." The sale is estimated to bring $1.3 to $1.9 million.

American craft furniture is on a roll, popular among architects, decorators and contemporary-art collectors. Another test of its fashionableness may come on Dec. 8, when Design Miami/Basel opens a three-day selling exhibition in conjunction with the annual Art Basel/Miami fair. Philippe Denys of Brussels, for example, one of the 18 design galleries there, will show a Nakashima walnut chaise from 1951.

Prices of American craft furniture are on the rise. Last month Sollo/Rago Modern Auctions in Lambertville, N.J., set some records in the field. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, paid $312,000 for a screen that Wharton Esherick carved by hand in 1927; it was the highest auction price for any Esherick work. ("It stands in a unique place in Esherick's career," Mr. Aibel noted. "It's very early.")

Leigh Keno, a New York dealer of Americana, bought the next two most expensive Esherick works at that sale: a dining table for $156,000 and a cabinet for $90,000.

"There were some great pieces in that sale; the message is that outstanding pieces will bring outstanding prices," Mr. Aibel said. "Prices for normal things are more normal."