The evolution of categories within auction houses: Design
Marina Dias Teixeira
27 Apr 2020, 10:29 am
Since its 12th edition in 2016, SP-Arte presents to its public a sector dedicated exclusively to Design. The sector, which expands with each edition, gives the deserved prominence to pieces of modern and contemporary furniture, works by architects and independent designers. Over the years, classic pieces of modernist and signature design, as well as reeditions and contemporary design productions have been gaining more and more attention among collectors.
To understand how this category entered the art market, we talked to Simon Andrews, Design Specialist at the renowned auction house Christie’s. Simon, who has been an active participant in the history of design collecting since its beginnings in the mid-1990s, shares with us the highlights of this fascinating timeline, and the role played by auction houses in formalizing this market.
How was the evolution of Design at Christie’s over the years?
Simon Andrews: We started the first Design sales at Christie’s in London in 1996. Although examples of postwar furniture and lighting, or Italian or Scandinavian glass had been sold with us since the early 1980s, this had always been in mixed-content sales that also included Art Nouveau and Art Deco. So by creating these new sales, we were able to identify and stimulate a new market. At that time, Design was still seen as a niche interest. In the twenty-five years since those early sales, the market has gathered momentum and diversified – not only through auctions and specialised dealers, but also through the importance of art fairs, such as SP-Arte, that continue to bring new understanding on areas of the subject.
Could you share a memorable episode in the history of the category within big auction houses?
SA: There have been many – I very much enjoyed the very early days of the first auctions, when there was much to discover. Of course this was before the internet, and so finding interesting objects was very much detective work, or was the consequence of luck or chance. Another very significant moment was the sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent & Pierre Bergé, in Paris 2009. Probably the most important collection of Art Deco to ever come to market, and which set the world record price for a piece of 20th century furniture: the Fauteuil aux dragons armchair by Eileen Gray sold for € 21 million, a price roughly equivalent to the superb Mondrian painting in the same sale. What was so important about this result, is that it proved that Design could be as valuable to collectors as Impressionist, Modern or Contemporary Art.
In your experience, which pieces achieved unexpected sales records at auction?
SA: Strong, exceptional prices at auction have the power to change the course of the market. As auctioneers, or specialists, we are always looking for objects that have the right combination of special ingredients, and this can be rarity or uniqueness, or objects that are in superb condition, or have a particular story to tell. Very often the most interesting results can happen when an object arrives on the market at the ‘right time’, when the appetite and interest is at its strongest. A good example of this was when, in 2005 in New York, we sold a unique 1949 dining table by the Italian designer Carlo Mollino. We had placed an estimate of $150 – 200,000, but this was rapidly surpassed and the table finally sold to an astounded audience, for $3.8 million, setting a record price for any item of post-war Design, a record which still stands to this day. Of course this is an exceptional price for an exceptional item, and most of the works that we handle for sale will be in the $20,000 – 200,000 region. But the principle remains the same – for rare works in excellent condition and with superb provenance, there will always be a strong market – and this is as true of an item at $20,000 as it is at $2 million.
What are your personal highlights for pieces belonging to the category?
SA: As Design specialist for Christie’s for over twenty-five years I am fortunate to say that there have been many highlights – over the years we have set the record prices for 20thC Design, for Post-War Design, for any item of 20thC furniture, and for any item of 20thC glass. But this is the very apex of the market, these pieces are extremely rare, very often of museum-quality, the values will be in the hundreds of thousands and so beyond the reach of most collectors or enthusiasts. In many ways, what interests me more is the evolution and growth in the market, as it becomes understood and appreciated by more people. You have to remember that it was not so long ago, for auction house specialists such as myself and also for many of the dealers that now exhibit at fairs such as SP-Arte and elsewhere in the world, that Design was considered experimental to collectors, whereas today it is considered very acceptable, and almost mainstream. So, for me the personal highlight is less about individual objects, but rather about the shared commitment and enthusiasm that has helped this interest grow into an international market.
What are the challenges of the category within the art market?
SA: There are two ‘challenges’, one is conceptual and the other is physical – but really these might not be challenges at all, and might by turn be reinterpreted as strengths to our market. So the first, conceptual ‘challenge’, is that the design market is so broad. We deal with many different types of objects – chairs, lighting, textiles, jewelry; from many different eras – the 1930s / 50s / 80s / contemporary; from many different countries – from Brazil to France to Finland. It is human nature to want to categorize, and the art market is no different. But in many ways the Design market resists categorization, because it has the potential to be so diverse and ranging. So, in my opinion, this is a strength rather than a challenge, because it means that as design enthusiasts, we can be very versatile in our interests. The second challenge is real, and that is the physical nature of the objects. Generally, collectors will want to live with and to use the pieces – so often there is a limit to how much furniture can be used in the home, especially for large pieces. Artworks such as paintings can be easily shipped and transported across the world, and are easy to store, so here is a major difference to the market in Design furniture. Rather it is important to consider the similarities between the art and the design markets: quality, rarity, provenance and innovation. These are the key factors common to both markets, and importantly in both there is always the chance to make exciting discoveries, both for historic artists and designers as well as those contemporary.
How is the performance of the category in online auctions ?
SA: You will need to ask me this question again in twelve month’s time, as the online world is changing very fast at the moment. Traditionally, with Design, our online sales tended to concentrate on smaller items, such as lighting, jewelry, glass or ceramics that were portable and easy to ship. We generally resisted putting larger items, such as furniture, into online sales because the logistics were more complicated. But the future is clear, and I am quite certain that although we will never lose the theatre of high-profile live auctions for certain important categories, or sales, that an important part of our future lies online. Quite simply, online democratises access 24/7 – this is true of all businesses, of almost all retail – and the antiques business will be no different. So really, it is about adapting to technology, and to consumer / collector behaviour. But for me, personally, nothing will ever substitute the thrill of discovering an exciting object ‘in the wild’.
Would you pick a work available on SP-Arte 365?
I greatly respect Hugo França’s work – the Marupa bench has a timelessness that is simultaneously both ancient and modern. In this work, it is hard to know where Mankind starts and where Nature ends, and this, to me, is one of the essential and unique characteristics of Brazilian design.
About Simon Andrews
As International Senior Specialist for Christie’s, Simon Andrews collaborates with the international department’s selling sites in Paris, New York and London, working with consignors, collectors and curators to enhance the international Design market. With prior US-based experience as a modern design dealer and antique furniture restorer, Simon joined Christie’s London in 1994 and in 1996 initiated the series of Design sales that have served to provide foundation to current market trends. As an internationally-recognised expert in his field, Simon has served on the authenticating committees of major art and design fairs, in addition to lecturing widely and publishing essays on modernist and mid-century design.