Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Crazy for...Art Deco

photo: Durston Saylor
Art Deco is timeless. This 2001 living room by Michael Rosenberg & Leonard Kowalski
 looks as chic today as the day it was designed. Courtesy of Architectural Digest.
Over the weekend, I saw the new Woody Allen movie, Midnight in Paris, in which the protagonist, played by Owen Wilson, gets magically transported back to his favorite era, Paris in the 1920s: an intoxicating time to be sure, a moment when the arts flourished across all media. If you've never read Heminingway's, A Moveable Feast, I strongly encourage you to: it's a series of delightful essays about that city, that era. In one of them, Hemingway takes an improbable road trip with F. Scott Fitzgerald: buy the book for that essay alone.
Long, lean lines abound in this Glenn Gissler designed, 1960s redux.
Ah, but we're talking today about Art Deco, the distinct aesthetic movement that began in Paris at that time. Art Deco caught on like wild fire, viewed, as it was, as the essence of urbanity, modernity, tres au courant. So pervasive was its reach and strong its grasp, in fact, that its influence managed to continue on through the thirties and early forties--this despite the vastly changing cultural and political landscape.
A Jan Showers designed entrance hall.

What is Art Deco? Art Deco is streamlined shapes and geometric figures. It is steel and lacquer, chrome and shagreen. It is the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center. It is elegant, sophisticated and timeless. It blends well (see the Bunny Williams living room in the previous post, in which she seamlessly blends Art Deco chairs with pieces from other eras). Where can you get Art Deco?

Glad you asked. Because I'm now about to let you in on a little secret. Now, I seriously hesitated to tell you about this, I must confess, even though I love you, my dearlings, I really do, because this auction house is, well... hands down, one of my absolute favorites, and not just mine; this "find" was discovered long ago by dealers and is routinely mined by them. The $1,200 chairs I saw online that later appeared for $8,400 at a Greenwich antiques dealer? They were from here. It's been discovered, but that doesn't mean it isn't still an amazing place for great deals. So...without further ado, I bring you several pieces of Art Deco, and I bring you Kamelot Auctions, in Philadelphia.
1930s brass bed, at auction at Kamelot Auctions on June 11th, starting bid $500.
Just email the auctioneer to make sure you understand all the dimensions.
 And don't be put off by odd shapes: custom made mattresses are cheaper than ever thanks to, I'm not kidding, the proliferation of RV's, which frequently demand custom sizing.
Art Deco balcony railing. This would look great hanging above a sofa or bed,
at Kamelot, on June 11th, starting bid $400.
Kamelot is fun to browse even if you're not in the market for anything, which we all know we auction addicts love to do. That's because it has plenty of weird stuff along with the good stuff. It has the best photos of any auction house, so you really, really get a great feel for what something looks like (but not scale: always, always check scale against items you have at home). You can bid live or leave absentee bids for Kamelot at Live Auctioneers, which I recommend over leaving an absentee bid with the auction house itself, because, for some inexplicable reason, they post the current bid right underneath the photo. Privacy is key to capturing your treasures, so either bid with Kamelot via telephone, bid live online, or leave bids with L.A..
This Andre Arbus style game table has gorgeous wood and an elegant leather top,
at auction June 11th, starting bid $1,000.

It doesn't get more iconic Art Deco than these club chairs,
auctioned by Kamelot on June 11th, starting bid $1,000.
Of course, Kamelot isn't the only place with fabulous Art Deco pieces. Below, is an assemblage of other soigne snags I found pour toi, and a few things that would blend well with this style. So go, bid and be happy!

I love lions, I think its because I'm obsessed with my cats
but I can't bear cat art. This bronze lion fits the bill nicely, at New Orleans Auction Galleries on
June 4th, starting bid $80.
Tired of your little black dress? Add some Art Deco extravagance, such as this cute teeny pin, above,
at auction from Cordier Antiques & Auctions via Auction Zip on June 11th, minimum bid, $70.
...or this pretty linked circle sparkler (great anniversary present!),
at auction at Skinner, Inc. on June 14th, starting bid $1,000.
This enamel vase has a build in frog insert, allowing you to do more with less.
At auction on June 4th from Joan's Museum of Glass and Ceramics in Maine via Auction Zip,
 minimum bid, $50.
I feel as if I can see the Chrysler Building in this Durgin-Gorham sterling silver fruit bowl,
at auction at New Orleans Auction Galleries on June 5th, minimum bid $250.
This Karl Springer shagreen covered table is from the seventies,
but its influence? Pure twenties. At Rago in New Jersey on June 12th,
starting bid, $1,000.
I have a soft spot for kitsch, and Erte and Louis Icart are
two boudoir artists extraordinaire. The Erte above is a silkscreen,
at auction at Maynard's in Vancouver via Auction Zip on June 7th,
minimum bid, CAD 200.

And I'm really quite obsessed with this Erte, entitled, Mystere, because she looks like she just might be a very beleaguered (but elegant), wife and mother saying, "Silence! I demand silence!"
At auction at Cordier Antiques and Auctions in Pennsylvania  on June 12th
 via Auction Zip, minimum bid, $300.
Louis Icart's works are both beautiful and campy. What's not to love about that?
And, like Erte, he's eminently collectible, so your print is unlikely to ever lose value. Icart, "Dreaming," At Cordier in Pennsylvania via Auction Zip on June 12th, minimum bid, $1,000.
New Orleans Auction Galleries (great auction house!), also has these
fantastic walnut center tables, at auction June 5th, starting bid $1,000.
What a pretty father's day gift (to make up for all those ties)!
This dramatic archer is up for bidding from Mid-Hudson Auction Gallery on June 4th,
minimum bid $150. (It says "terra cotta." Looks like bronze. Email to check)

And finally, the height of chic: Karges parlor chairs at addict-loving estimates:
at the Potomack Companyin Alexandria, Virginia via Auction Zip on June 11th, minimum bid, $400.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Good Buy Friday: Upholstered Furniture

photo: Vincente Wolf
In Learning to See: Bringing the World Around You Into Your Home,
designer Vincente Wolf shows how a traditional sofa can look fantastic in a  modern setting.
Okay, so I'm a bit tardy. Internet issues. No matter: there is still time to take advantage of lots of good buys at auction because...well, there are always lots of good buys! Last Friday, we focused on weird chairs. Another absolutely great thing to buy at auction is upholstered furniture. Yes, sofas and club chairs can be a fantastic deal, enabling you to get a George Smith, Baker or other very well made plush perch for less than you'd pay at Pottery Barn. Insiders know this, of course, but why this isn't the first step for all first time home buyers is a giant mystery to me. Here are some of the mental impediments I come across and my answers to them:

1.  I don't like the fabric. Of course you don't. You will almost never like the fabric of the upholstered piece. Besides, even if you did it's probably worn, and, well, yes, someone else has probably spread out on it with the newspaper at some point and not much else. But not to worry: you are going to recover it!

Let's begin with a classic: down filled, John Oetgen sofa (read: expensive!)
 at auction on May 30th, starting bid $75 (yes, that's correct).
A classic three seater such as this one is the lynchpin of many amazing looks,
such as this Bunny Williams living room, below.

photo:Fritz von der Schulenberg
Courtesy of Bunny Williams' Point of View: Three Decades of Decorating Elegant and Comfortable Houses.
2. But recovering the couch will be expensive. Um, yes, it will probably cost a lot more than the couch did (especially if you're buying the couch at auction). But you are always paying for the upholstery anyway, is the thing, whether it's built in to the sticker price or not. Now, at least you get to choose your fabric from a vast array of sources. To save money, figure out the approximate yardage you need (there are lots of fabric estimators on the internet), and then go to a discount fabric store and see what you find. Upholsters carry fabric, and there are lots of discount fabric purveyors on the internet. By the way, the upholsterer will pick up and deliver heavy items of furniture straight to your door.
photo:Lisa Romerein
Designers, such as Michael S. Smith, above...
...and Mary McDonald love the sofa at the end of the bed trick.
...try it with this style, at auction in North Carolina on
 May 30th, starting bid, $250.

...or this Georgian cutie, at auction in California on June 4th,
 starting bid $150.
3. Shipping will be expensive. Yes, which is why I recommend buying upholstered furniture from local auction houses. Because that way you also get to sit on the piece first, which is very important, as well as check its overall condition. You want to make sure, as best you can, that the couch is well made. One indication is the weight: a well made sofa is heavy because it is comprised of thicker pieces of high quality wood. If you can't figure out what wood it's made of, see if someone at the auction house can help you. You do not want a frame made of pine or other soft woods, you want oak or a similar hard wood. Another is the support: you want to lift up the cushion (assuming its loose), press down and feel it spring back: in other words, it's got springs in the seat, not just elastic strap webbing, which is the cheapest of all options. (You can often tell this more clearly by getting on your knees and looking under the sofa.) Keep in mind that cushions can be restuffed so they're all down/ poly down/ whatever you prefer, so that is somewhat of a cosmetic problem, though it will add to the refurbishment cost.
If you like this couch, in a room by Miles Redd...
...then consider this Florence Knoll sofa,
 up for bidding in New Jersey on June 12th, starting bid $1,200,
 or the Warren Platner sofa, opening at $2,500 below.
(where did you think all those NoHo stores got their mid-century modern?)

4. I'm worried about bedbugs and other pests. I'm worried too, we all are-- and, trust me, that includes the auction house. All I can tell you is it would be a disaster for an auction house to get infested with pests and pass them on to their clientele, so they are probably going to be pickier than you are. In any case, my suggestion is to go to reputable houses for your upholstered furniture. Many of you will be shocked when you see how inexpensive these pieces can be at places like Christie's. And, while there is no reason pests can't invade 5th avenue buildings--they can and they have--well, let's just say I still like my odds there.

Club chairs, likes these in a room by Miles Redd,
 are a furnishing staple...
For whatever it's worth, I've bought lots of upholstered pieces over the years and never had a single problem... except picking out the fabric! I've saved a ton of money along the way and gotten great pieces that I never would have been able to afford otherwise. One final tip is to never rule out furniture suites: two or three pieces often go for less than one. (This is because many buyers are just looking for one thing and get tunnel vision. More on buying mixed lots to come: for now, just remember that more can sometimes cost less!) So please, get off the couch and go bid on a better one!
...snag a pair at Christie's, New York, on June 21st,
estimate $1,000-$1,500 (but no reserve; these well made beauties
could go for much, much less!)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Instant Collection: Silhouettes

photo: Simon Upton
A Kara Walker silhouette adorns Lisa Fine's Paris apartment, courtesy of Elle Decor.
Silhouettes are striking. They just are. After several long posts, I won't go into the history of them, which is well chronicled, I'll just briefly say that silhouettes first came into fashion in 18th century France, and quickly became popular with both rich and poor as an attractive alternative to the more expensive and labor intensive traditional painted portrait.
Group of six American and British silhouettes,
up for auction on May 28th.

Highly collectable, silhouettes are often displayed in groups and auctioned off in a similar fashion. As a result, they make an ideal inaugural subject for Instant Collection: one of my sometimes series where I highlight things that, with one wine, a collection make. There is always at least one nice lot of silhouettes up for auction, it seems. This lot of six British and American silhouettes, above, caught my eye. It's up for bidding at Brunk Auctions in North Carolina on May 28th with a starting bid of $150. (While you're on the site, look around; Brunk always has a lot of great things!)

I'll close with some designer eye candy. First up, Alessandra Branca adjoins a pair of silhouettes with ribbons, furthering emphasizing their graphic design.

photo: Thibault Jeanson
An Alessandra Branca designed bedroom, courtesy of Elle Decor.

Below, a Michael Smith rendering of a gentleman's bathroom (excuse the gutter crease!), taken from his wonderful book, Houses, illustrates how a silhouette collection can elegantly enhance a room.

drawing: Mark Matusak
English style bathroom, courtesy of Michael S. Smith, Houses.

photo: William Waldron
Ernest de la Torre's silhouette hangs in a bedroom of his own design,
 courtesy of Elle Decor.
A single silhouette provides striking contrast in the stunning bedroom of designer Ernest de la Torre and landscape designer Kris Haberman. Incidentally, there's no reason you can't start your silhouette collection with a profile you know and love: your own!

Contemporary silhouette by artist Barbara Ensor,
courtesy of House Beautiful .

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lessons in Auctions: Understanding Estimates

This vase had an estimate of $600-$800,
 but sold for $3,250. Misappraised? Misguided bidders? You decide.

Auction estimates are a curious thing. Oh, not by definition; the definition of estimate, in fact, is pretty straight forward: the anticipated hammer price of an item, not including the buyer's premium. I'm talking in practice, for in practice, estimates can take weird little twists and turns. What auction addict hasn't encountered this scenario? You leave a high absentee bid--cause you want it--for something, then log in later, gleefully expecting to schlep it home soon, only to see that the darn thing went for several times the high end of the estimate. What happened? And how can you avoid that happening again?

Title and estimate for a Jacques Villon drawing,
at auction at Christie's, New York, on June 21st
Before we get to that, let's talk about how estimates are derived to begin with. The bigger, more established auction houses have specialists in different departments:  consign a English glass compote at Leslie Hindman in Chicago or Doyle in New York, say, and chances are it will be examined by someone with a background in that collectible. This is absolutely true at Sotheby's and Christie's, where the array of specialists is really quite mind blowing ("maritime pictures," "gold boxes and vertu").

But that's the big places. Smaller auction houses rely on generalists, sometimes even just one, to appraise items. Now, these men and women may have great eyes and know an impressive amount about an impressive array of goodies, but, well...mistakes are occasionally made.

Yet, sometimes, even if a skilled specialist has come up with a very accurate estimate, the final hammer price is vastly different. Why? Here are a few things that can throw a wrench in the bidding process:

1. Uniqueness - Items that are one of a kind, or even simply unusual, are harder to price, since there are fewer true comparables. They also can have tremendous appeal to collectors, who can develop a "now or never" mentality. And an item doesn't have to look singular to be singular: the usual palette might be slightly tweaked, say, or the animal's foot could be subtly different.

2. Provenance - Don't underestimate the celeb factor. Auction houses often tout estate sales of the powerful and glamourous because doing so boosts media attention and hammer prices. It can work, but usually only if the item is clearly identified with the celebrity: the piano of a famous musician, for instance, or a personal photograph. The exception is when the celeb is known as a real tastemaker, such as Yves Saint Laurent. In those instances, even a toothpick could have cache and a higher hammer price.

This pagoda had an estimate of $3,500-5,000
but sold for $8,000. Is it because pagodas
 are the new black?
3. Seasonality - I was selling diamond necklace at Sotheby's one time, and the specialist wisely encouraged me to wait for the December sale. Why? Because December equals panicked people with long shopping lists. Two desperate but well off bankers will think nothing of engaging in a bidding war that jacks the price of a glittery piece up well beyond the estimate--they know they are still paying a fraction of what they'd pay on Madison Avenue. The same concept applies to outdoor garden pieces and so on. Generally, you want to buy off peak and sell peak, so plan accordingly.

4. Trends- Coco Chanel made coromandel screens chic. Mid-century, they fell out of favor, and now, they're back again, in no small part due to White House decorator Michael Smith's frequent and innovative use of them. Pagodas are another hot item: these days, they're towering above every single console in Elle Decor it seems. A few years ago it was bird cages. Appraisers' data can be slow to catch up to such fast moving trends; be aware of what's coveted and bid accordingly.

5. Caution Appraisers don't like to get in trouble. Sometimes (and this happens more frequently with generalists), they'll err on the side of caution and describe something as Rococo "style," say, when it's really Rococo. Sharp-eyed bidders often know the difference, and that's reflected in the final hammer price. 

This "Venetian style" chair had an
 estimate of $300-$500, but sold for $3,200. Unique? Um, certainly.
But such a discrepancy also suggests it was the real deal.

6. Irrational Exuberance -  Sometimes, there are just people who really, really want something. Period.

Hopefully, my dearlings, these little tips help. Just remember: at the end of the day, buying at auction is not an exact science and that's part of the fun of it!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Crazy for...Blanc de Chine

photo: Melanie Acevedo
Part of Mary McDonald's collection of blanc de Chine,
as seen in Mary McDonald: Interiors: The Allure of Style.
Blanc de Chine, a french term meaning "China white," refers to all white porcelain from Dehua, an area in the Fujain province in China.

A (I promise you) Brief History

Porcelain is a mixture of clay, feldspar and flint that can be fired at high temperatures, rendering it somewhat translucent, in addition to being smoother and more durable than many other ceramics.  The Chinese invented it (which is why we refer to those plates in our cupboards the way that we do), precisely when is a matter of debate, but the country was definitely exporting porcelain to the Middle East by the Tang Dynasty (618-906). In the 16th century, when trade finally opened up in other parts of the globe, the European upper classes got a glimpse of porcelain for the first time and "Chinamania" ensued. (It took them several decades to successfully produce their own, which finally happened in 1707 in Meissen, Germany, but Meissen, my dearlings, is a topic for a different time)
photo: Melanie Acevedo
A guanyin from Mary McDonald: Interiors: The Allure of Style.
Dehua porcelain, long cherished for its excellent quality, has a high percent of iron oxide. The result is a whiter product, an attribute the Dehua producers were savvily exploiting in the form of all white porcelain by the time of the Ming Dynasty (1365-1644). White, the color of both filial piety and mourning in China, is frequently associated with devotional items, so most of this porcelain was produced for the domestic market. But then, Japanese buddhists also began coveting the simple forms, and the French coined such an elegant name for it, and the rest is history. (Incidentally, where would we auction addicts be without the French: eglomise, papier mache, chinoiserie, trompe l'oeil grisaille?)
17.5" Chinese Quan Yin,
at auction June 12th.

Today, the most common blanc de Chine items at auction are guanyin, or Quan Yin, the bodhisattva associated with compassion in South Eastern Buddhism, such as the one, left, at auction at DuMouchelles in Detroit on June 12th, with a starting bid of $90, or the seated guanyin, below, at auction on June 9th, through Leslie Hindman in Chicago, with a starting bid of $250.
Guanyin on a kylin,
at auction June 9th.
Buddha available at auction on May 30th.
Buddhas, are also common. The Buddha at left is available at auction on May 30th at The Slawinski Auction Company in Scotts Valley, California, with a starting bid of $150.

Set of porcelain available for bid on June 5th.
You'll also find cups and bowls, like this set of porcelain, above, which is up for bidding at Michaan's Auctions in Alameda, California, on June 5th, starting bid, $100.

Hirado figures, sold at auction for $825
at S&S Auctions in New Jersey on May 16th.

Japanese blanc de Chine, often from Hirado, can be distinguished from its Chinese counterpart by its mostly closed base, below.

European blanc de Chine goes farther afield, literally: birds, flowers and animals are common subjects.

Just as whites can be surprisingly different, so can blanc de Chine. The most prized color is ivory white, Europeans traditionally favored a rosy white, and bluish white is also popular. Enjoy the white out.