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Decorative arts market report: The field is booming, fuelled by museum buying and style-hounds

"Sold to the person in the Prada suit"

Yesterday’s leftover furnishings have become today's treasures throughout this city. More than 40 galleries and stores are now devoted to mid-century Modernism and beyond, and prices are soaring.

“Twenty years ago, prices were negligible and there were only two dealers focusing on this period,” says Roger Prigent of Malmaison, located on the Upper East Side. Now he points to 10 serious dealers, including Barry Friedman, Miquel Saco, L’Arc en Seine, Delorenzo, Louis Bofferding, Liz O'Brien and Maison Gerard. Smaller league dealers are cropping up throughout the downtown areas of Tribeca, SoHo and NoHo.

As for prices, consider a severe oak dining table by André Arbus from 1936 at Malmaison. It carries a surprising $45,000 price tag; two decades ago, it would have brought a mere $800. The reason is linked to the boom in Art Deco masters such as Ruhlmann: when these hit six and seven figures, collectors moved on to French pieces from the 30s and 40s.

Now, they are moving on again, and furniture from the 50s and 60s is racking up hefty prices. Dealer Liz O'Brien cites a 1960 Robsjohn-Gibbings dining room table and eight chairs, looking for $115,000. “Five years ago, the group would have cost $25,000 and a decade ago, a fraction of that,” says Ms O'Brien from her Fifth Avenue gallery. In addition to soaring prices, dealers report that sales volume, is also taking a giant hike, fuelled by decorators such as Robert Couturier and Peter Marino who are heavily into this period.

Another boom is in speciality art fairs. Sixteen years ago, New York show organiser Sanford Smith launched the nation's first Modernism show and since then he has watched similar events mushroom across the country. “Knock-off fairs on the past century’s art and design can now be seen in Los Angeles, Miami and Winnetka,” says Smith.

Museum exhibitions are also spurring the market. This month, Colorado’s Denver Art Museum opens “US design, 1972-2000”, the first show devoted to that period (see What’s On p.7). It is a five-year effort by curator Craig Miller, previously with the Metropolitan Museum. “More and more museums are collecting and since the 60s the trajectory has been to buy later and later pieces,” says David McFadden, American Craft Museum curator. Today, he believes there are more than 50 museums establishing important collections. "It's a runaway phenomenon," he says. “When Modernism was a new idea in the late 60s, Mickey Wolfson (the power behind Florida's Wolfsonian) and John Waddell (the influential Metropolitan Museum of Art donor) were almost alone in collecting top pieces," says Mr McFadden. "Now there is another generation of 30-50 years old who are collecting broadly, from tabletop items to major furniture."

Curators and dealers alike are seeing an emphasis on domestic interiors and 9/11 was a catalyst in rethinking value systems, says Mr Miller.

The field has begun to catch the attention of the Hollywood brat pack as well as trendy fashionistas. Collectors include Madonna, Brad Pitt and the German Wolfgang Joop, and hip Chelsea art district hot spots as the restaurant Bottino boasts more than a 100 vintage Charles Eames chairs while Lot 61 is filled with 1950s sofas from a psychiatric hospital. Because volume has risen, as have prices and the growing base of sophisticated buyers, dealers are increasingly specialising. Nick Brown of Camden, Maine sells predominantly Warren MacArthur's creations in aluminium while Manhattan's Louis Bofferding handles Jansen and other 20th-century decorators

Precisely who is the private collector? “The average middle-class professional interested in design, who buys Prada suits,” says Mr Miller.

Dealers are not the only to benefit from the boom in mid-century decorative arts: the auction houses have found it to be a rich vein as well. Only five years ago, mid century modernism was seriously neglected, and pickers flocked to the lesser auction houses, such as the scruffy, downtown Tepper, to snap up cast-off George Nelson and Jean Royère furnishings. All that has changed, with Fifth Avenue's Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, no less, now taking first place in market share in this category.

The firm’s 12 December sale dedicated to 20-21st-century Design reaped $2.1 million and beat out Christie's and Sotheby's. Considering that Phillips’ first sale in this area was only in 2000, the rise is meteoric. Four records, including a Vernor Panton 1965 set of six chairs (est. $9/12,000), which sold for a hefty $63,000, were established.

Part of Phillips’ success is due to bringing Alexander Payne, formerly of Bonhams, over from London. He pioneered this speciality, captured major collections, and shattered records, while his highly informative but stylish catalogues set the standard in this area. Only last summer, Phillips also brought in James Zemaitis, previously with Christie's and Artnet. "What 's new is we are attracting the contemporary art crowd," says Mr Zemaitis of the December sale in which the top five lots went to such collectors.

Other auction house players include Doyles, which only four years ago initiated 20th-century art and design sales twice annually And now such sales attract a higher rate of new buyers than any other category," says Louis LeWebre, marketing director at the Upper East Side auction house. Freeman's of Philadelphia, long considered a sleepy town in terms of a hip crowd, has branched out, too. In May 2000, it inaugurated 20th century sales and its 18 November 2001 auction included furniture by the late Japanese-American designer George Nakashima, who is considered a native son as he had lived in nearby Bucks County.

The star lot was his burled walnut dining table (est. $10/12,000), which sold for $37,750. "It's put us on the map and that sale alone attracted 35% new buyers," says James Buckley, Freeman's executive vice president.

On the West coast, Peter Loughrey reigns supreme in this area. Only four years ago, he formed LA Modern Auctions (LAMA). Although a shoestring operation, his sales set records and attracted entire new crops of buyers and his sales volume doubled yearly, going from $300,000 to $3.5 million. Then ten months ago, Butterfields picked up LAMA for cash plus Ebay stock.

What is new and different about this quirky field? “Most record prices are coming from very determined general buyers, not collectors,” says Mr Loughrey. “They may have seen an Arne Jacobsen egg chair only on the cover of In Style magazine (a glossy movie star monthly), but they're willing to fight for it.” He attributes this phenomenon, in an area where provenance is negligible, to the wide availability of liquid capital among 30- and 40-something collectors.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Sold to the person in the Prada suit'