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Post-1935 decorative arts, mass produced at exclusive prices

A survey of the decorative arts market

New York

For post-1935 works, the US market breaks down into national segments: Scandinavian, French, Italian and then American. Dealers say that collectors generally focus on one nationality: for example, Swedish glass or Italian furniture.

Judith Jura, who is curating the forthcoming Modernism exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, refers to Scandinavian art as the “warmer side of Modernism”, and this is exceptionally strong. Leading the field is the current Alvar Aalto show at the Museum of Modern Art (until 19 May) and “Finnish modern design: Utopian ideals and everyday realities” (until 12 July) at the Bard Graduate Center for the Decorative Arts.

The plain ceramics of the 1930s-50s thrown and fired by Berndt Friberg in a range of colours and textures are one index of the strength of the Scandinavian market. Prices routinely exceed $4,000 for a small stoneware vase. Glassware is also moving strongly and is hardly inexpensive: a Timo Sarpaneva costs $18,000 at Gansevoort Gallery in New York.

Prices for American mass-produced furnishings are remarkable. At the SoHo Weinberg Gallery, an Eames storage unit made for Herman Miller in 1952 is $14,500. An Aalto “Paimio” arm chair goes for $16,000, when available.

Nancy McClelland of Christie’s divides the twentieth-century into thirty sub-specialities, from European art glass to architectural furniture by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright. French Art Deco designers Ruhlman and Dunand both make high prices. Then American Arts and Crafts also stands alone, with its lofty prices driven up by many a Wall Street trader. Most Arts and Crafts collections were recently formed and there are few goods around: post-war pieces are ripe for picking.

But why is so much on the market right now? Availability and timing says Judith Jura. “It is a twenty-five year cycle. The sellers bought pieces when they were new, and now many are about to enter retirement homes and nursing institutions, so material is being released.”

Since 1981, Christie’s has quadrupled the number of clients and tripled its staff. “With each new sale, we see that a quarter of the buyers are new,” noted Ms McClelland. “The market is now 90% ‘privates’—that is considerably higher than in the majority of departments. It began with people in the visual fields—art directors and such like.”

But who is buying up these mass-produced pieces at “art” prices? One specialist who preferred not to be identified pointed to the Prada crowd, those who sport $3,000 polyester suits.

If the Eighties were when the States lusted after the English country house look, the Nineties are radically different. For those who grew up in the 1950s, Modernism is particularly appealing because loaded with memories. This is a new type of collecting, a relentless quest for mass-produced pieces which could be called “baby boomer” connoisseur-ship and which is spawning a vast middle market.

Denver Art Museum curator Craig Miller is perhaps the only museum specialist in the US developing a major collection of industrial and decorative arts as well as graphics. In the past eight years alone, he has acquired 1,400 Modernist and post-Modernist works for the Colorado museum. Europe on the other hand is far ahead of the US: Germany alone has at least four major design museums and Britain also four. “But when the millennium hits, many museums will be scrambling to form serious collections”, predicts Mr Miller.

He is currently preparing “American design; 2,000”, a comprehensive exhibition of architecture, industrial and decorative design as well as graphics 1975-2,000 that is tentatively scheduled to travel to Milan and China.

Despite the increasing interest in the field, there are surprisingly few reference books. According to Mr Miller, today’s collectors are getting their information from DOMUS, World of Interiors and the little known Echoes, as well as a slew of European coffee-table books.

Tony Delorenzo, a former scrap metal dealer, is the strong man in town for Ruhlman. Since he purchased restaurateur Michael Chow’s collection of 108 pieces, he controls this market. With a 12,000 square-foot warehouse downtown loaded with vintage furniture, predominantly French, he wholesales. Pont Neuf and Leleuy furnishings, priced from $5,000 to $35,000, are popular. There is so much post-1935 French furniture in the US and such strong demand in France that Mr Delorenzo routinely ships some fifty pieces a year back there.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Mass produced at exclusive prices'