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Forum: Artists and Exhibitions 20th-Century Sales

By Wendy Moonan

December 29, 2006

The results of the 12 auctions of 20th-century decorative arts this month were mixed.

"All in all there was too much on the market at one time, and things were too aggressively estimated," said Barbara Deisroth, a private consultant. "If there is a lesson here, it's that putting high estimates on pieces doesn't mean those pieces will achieve those prices."

Business also may have been hurt because the auctions followed Design Miami, a small fair of 17 prominent international design galleries, which was held during Art Basel Miami Beach. What follows is a chronological rundown of some of the results.

The total reached by Los Angeles Modern Auctions on Dec. 3 of Dr. Basia Gingold's furniture designed by the architect R. M. Schindler was an unremarkable $298,650. (It was estimated at $284,400 to $418,300.) The Wolfsonian-Florida International University Museum in Miami bought a display cabinet, and the Art Institute of Chicago bought four pieces: a side chair with a built-in radio cabinet, both from about 1945, a pair of triangular end tables, from about 1943, and a hand-colored rendering of a medical office building.

Peter Loughery, the owner of LA Modern, said the publicity that the sale generated may have scared off buyers. "Afterwards collectors told me they thought prices would go sky high and so didn't participate," he said.

The Dec. 14 sale at Phillips de Pury & Company in New York totaled $3.7 million, below the low estimate of $3.8 million. Bauhaus-era pieces were the big winners. A rare tea glass that was designed by Josef Albers, estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, sold for $268,000. An early Barcelona chair by Mies van der Rohe sold for $100,800 (estimate: $40,000 to $60,000).

The total for the three sales of 20th-century design at Sotheby's was $18.8 million, just above the presale high estimate of $18.7 million.

"The sale was an improvement on last December and similar to what we did in December 2003 and 2004," said James Zemaitis, the specialist at Sotheby's. "Each sale was driven by one monster masterwork that a half dozen people fought for."

The Krosnick sale of George Nakashima pieces totaled $2.6 million (against a high estimate of $1.9). The Two Red Roses Foundation, a private museum in Florida, bought the "Arlyn" dining table for a record $822,400. "Nakashima is the one American blue chip designer of the 20th century," Mr. Zemaitis said. "He is the only one on the level of such prewar giants as Ruhlmann and Rateau."

The American Renaissance sale totaled $6.9 million. An 11-piece dining suite that Greene & Greene had designed in about 1908 for the Freeman A. Ford house in Pasadena, Calif., sold for $2.1 million, a record for Greene & Greene at auction. (The high estimate was $600,000.) "The suite descended through the family and had never been on the market," Mr. Zemaitis said.

A Tiffany Studios "Tulip" table lamp made about 1900 sold for $486,400, against a high estimate of $300,000.

The various owners' sale totaled $9.3 million. The New York dealer French & Company bought the top lot, a life-size bronze sculpture of a baboon by Rembrandt Bugatti, for a staggering $2.2 million (against a high estimate of $800,000).

Bonhams's 20th-century sale in New York on Dec. 16 totaled $1.6 million. A Tiffany "Dragonfly" lamp on a cattail base from a private collection brought $260,250, more than twice its estimate.

Christie's six sales of 20th-century works achieved $23.7 million. The sale of Daum glass, from the collection of Dr. Simon Pinhas, totaled $2.76 million. Ms. Deisroth, the consultant, was not surprised it did well. "He was a beloved man," she said. "The sale had the right estimates and the results were good."

The Tiffany sale totaled $5.9 million. McClelland & Rachen, the New York art advisers, bought the top lot, a "Magnolia" leaded-glass and bronze floor lamp made about 1920 for $1.47 million, just under the high estimate of $1.5 million.

A private collection of pieces by French designers G. Argy-Rousseau and René Lalique totaled only $2.9 million. "The estimates were very aggressive," Ms. Deisroth said.

The sale of works from the New York gallery Historical Design reached $3.88 million, including some crazy prices. "The Baby Bootlegger," a two-foot-long red marble sculpture of a speedboat by Michel Karch, sold for $132,000, against a high estimate of $35,000. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought an Adolf Loos clock for $90,000, against a high estimate of $60,000.

The various owners sale reached $5.66 million. The biggest surprise? A European dealer bought a silver claret jug designed by Carlo Bugatti in 1907 for $688,000, against a high estimate of $180,000. The sale of mirrors and other works by the 1950s Parisian designer Line Vautrin achieved a solid $2.64 million.