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Art Deco furniture rules the auction houses and a new sales record was set as the style replaces 18th-century furniture

Prices are rocketing, but perhaps not everything is right in this field with many experts questioning the authenticity of some pieces

The sky seems to be the limit for Art Deco furniture, which last year clocked up record prices in sales in London, New York and Paris (see interview with dealer Barry Friedman, page 72).

Five years ago, Art Deco furniture was still being bought by a fairly elite, avant-garde group of collectors, in particular pop and media stars; now that base has widened considerably as the world’s millionaires look for a stylish alternative to glossy 18th-century furniture. “ Clients for pieces at the top end of the market have doubled to over 100,” says Christie’s specialist Lars Rachen. “The best of Art Deco furniture now equals 18th-century French furniture in price”, he continues.

Collectors are mesmerised by the exotic techniques and materials introduced into Art Deco pieces, the striking colour contrasts, and bold and simple designs. The effect is one of rich opulence combined with a stylish, modernist approach, and the pieces lend themselves equally well to either period or contemporary interiors. This trend was especially noticeable at last year’s Paris Biennale where the Art Deco dealers stole the limelight: their stands were laden with million-dollar pieces by designers such as Eileen Gray, Paul Dupré-Lafon and Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann.

Most recently, Christie’s 20th-century Decorative Arts sale in New York last December achieved prices unheard of a couple of years ago, with the cover lot, a black, semi-circular desk resembling something from “Star Wars” and estimated at $1.7-2 million, selling for $1.87 (£1.27 m): a world auction record not only for Ruhlmann but for any piece of Art Deco furniture. It was bought by an international collector with houses in both the US and Europe.

In the same New York sale, Ruhlmann’s 1925 leather armchair and ottoman (estimate $60-80,000) made $149,000 (£101,000) a huge price considering that only two years ago the same set sold at Christie’s December sale for a third of the price at $51,750. The matching sofa, which had come from Michael Chow’s collection via dealer Anthony Delorenzo (est. $180-200,000), sold for $336,000 (£228,000) to a telephone bidder, while the French designer’s pair of smoker’s tables in black lacquer and bronze (est. $40-50,000) made $259,000 (£176,000) from a telephone bidder. “These prices are far higher than we could ask in the gallery”, said leading French dealer Robert Vallois, who left the sale empty handed.

Lacquer and shagreen appear to be two of the techniques most hotly contested, and a Miami cruise ship executive, a newcomer to the market, scooped up four lacquered panels by Dunard from La Chasse, the Normandie ocean liner for $105,000 (£71,800, est. $90-110,000) while a pair of vases with shagreen inset panels by Clement Rousseau soared over their $24-26,000 estimate to fetch $132,500 (£90,000). An estimate of $1.5-2 million on an Eileen Gray black lacquer screen, however, proved too much to tempt even this crazy market. The screen had been offered at the Paris Biennale by L’Arc en Seine and so was well known, and a slightly smaller version had sold at Sotheby’s last spring for $1.2 million (£815,500 est. $400-600,000).

Such high prices are not only being seen in New York, even if that remains the prime market. In Paris last year Ruhlmann was again the star of a sale organised by Jean-Marcel Camard, the Parisian Art Deco expert who has recently set up his own auction house. This saw a tortoiseshell cabinet make FFr 3.1 million (£302,500, $297,000) and a low table with inlaid shagreen fetch FFr 2.1 million (£205,000, $301,700).

The Victoria and Albert Museum has gone with the flow and has selected Art Deco as its next major exhibition, opening in 2003. This will follow the lines of the successful Art Nouveau exhibition held last summer, taking a global look at Art Deco from 1910 through to 1939. According to curator Ghislaine Wood, “Art Deco is the natural successor to Art Nouveau which was the most popular exhibition ever mounted at the V & A. The show will have a very strong French section but this is a style that really did spread around the world and a lot of the interest will be in looking at Art Deco outside America and the West”.

No other aspect of the 20th-century decorative arts market has kept pace with Art Deco pieces and there is now concern among the leading dealers over the appearance of fakes on the market. We are dealing here with objects which were only made in the 1920s and 30s. At the lower end of the market many of the designs were produced in relatively large numbers. It was a style that was widely copied and imitated from very early on and now the dramatic rise in value is encouraging lesser objects to masquerade as the real thing.

Doubts were raised over the authenticity of some of the pieces in a sale of a private European collection of furniture at Christie’s in London on 19 May last year. Jean-Marcel Camard believes that nearly a third of the items in the sale were either heavily restored or faked. Among the suspect lots were pieces by Jean-Michel Frank, Jules Leleu and Paul Dupré-Lafon. Lots 42 and 43 (right) were two seemingly identical vellum diabolo stools. While lot 42 tripled its estimate to make £91,750, lot 43 sold for £29,375. According to Mr Camard, lot 43 was a fake, easily detectible by its thicker proportions when the two were compared. He also noted the use of modern glue around the shagreen on lot 32, a large shagreen and ivory cabinet which nonetheless at £201,750 ($297,000) made a world record for a piece of furniture by Jules Leleu.

Christie’s expert Adam Chadwick explains: “Reproductions of Art Deco pieces have been made for some time. Some are clearly marked and others are not. The dramatic increase in the price of these works means they will be more closely scrutinised and we hope any incorrect pieces will be weeded out. There are instances where it is impossible to be 100% sure either way and if that is the case, all Christie’s can do is present the pieces and let the market make its own decision”.

There is a bit of a French-British tussle here: the French, under threat from the impending deregulation of their market, are flexing their muscles against what they see as British intrusion into their traditional field. On the other hand, the British experts do admit they have some learning to do in what is still a new market.

A group of highly respected French dealers, including Robert and Cheska Vallois, Jean-Jacques Dutko and Yves Gastou also questioned the authenticity of several pieces in a sale at Sotheby’s on 19 October 2000. Some, by Frank, came from a group bought by a British vendor from a source in Argentina, and were certainly of mediocre quality. The same sale included a Ruhlmann piece stamped with an atelier mark “C”: and yet there are only two Ruhlmann atelier marks known, “A” and “B”.

In both these cases, the market rejected the furniture, which was left on the block.

“The Frank furniture came from South America and on the face of it had a very compelling provenance”, explains Philippe Garnier of Sotheby’s. “The trade, however, were very uncomfortable about the stamps and thought that the quality of the furniture was not good enough for autograph Frank. The question was, had the provenance been romanced and the stamps added as a commercial plus? “We never really got to the bottom of it and as a result that group of property did not sell at all well. The dealers certainly had questions which made us want to find out the answers,” he continues.

“We are dealing with things that have mushroomed in value and the more valuable things become, the more rigorously they are examined,” he concludes.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ruhlmann rules'