Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Transformative Power of Tapestries

 Courtesy of House Beautiful. Photo: Thomas Loof. Interior Design: Elizabeth Tyler Kennedy
A tapestry adds color and texture to an otherwise neutral room.
The most recent edition of House Beautiful got me thinking about tapestries. Few other decorative objects have the capacity to singularly transform a room. These woven hangings also have this magical ability to transcend time periods, so that they look as stunning in a Baroque castle as they do in a modern penthouse. 

Interior: Martyn Lawrence-Bullard, photo: Tim Street-Porter, courtesy of Elle Decor.

In fact, it is precisely the tapestry's adaptability that first led to its popularity. Though tapestries have been around since the Hellenistic period, they experienced a resurgence in 15th century Europe. Royals liked to roll up their favorite tapestries and transport them between residences. Churches devoted various tapestries to different saints, putting them up and taking them down according to the calendar. But besides adding color and texture, for centuries tapestries served another key purpose:  the large weavings, particularly those made of wool, served as a welcome layer of insulation--an important feature, no doubt, in an unheated stone building.

One of the seven tapestries comprising The Hunt of the Unicorn, courtesy of the Cloisters Museum in New York.

When when it comes to tapestries, quality runs the gamut. The key is to look for handwoven versions from France, Belgium or England, comprised of either silk or wool woven on either cotton or linen. Machine made tapestries just don't have the same subtle color variations. Size and condition will affect the estimate, obviously, but, as with rugs, the real factor is the artistry. Some tapestries take your breath away, while others will look generic--even if they are hand done. I am particularly partial to verdure tapestries, so called because they tend to feature foliage and vegetation done in various shades of green. Needlepoint tapestries can be lovely as well, but the name is a bit of a misnomer because they aren't woven on a loom.
designer: Suzanne Rheinstein, photo: Pieter Estersohn, courtesy of Elle Decor

The tapestry's adaptability is evident in another way as well: it is a decorative form that can work in just about any sort of room, from bedroom to front hall. Designers love them, and examples can be spotted throughout the major shelter magazines.

Courtesy of House Beautiful, photo:John Kernick
Susan Zises Green used colors taken from this tapestry throughout the dining room
A stunning 8' x 7' 18th c. French tapestry, at auction in Florida on November 1st, estimate $4,000-6,000.
Lauren King recently used a tapestry in the screening room of her Hollywood home. (Not that this looks like any screening room I've ever seen!) The tapestry hides the screen and can be raised and lowered.

Lauren King's L.A. screening room, courtesy of Architectural Digest.
Because they were originally made there, Europe remains the best place to look for tapestries. Christie's now has an in-house shipping department that can give you international shipping estimates before you bid. An upcoming London sale has several beautiful tapestries, one of which is below.
A simply stunning wool pictorial tapestry. At Christie's London on Nov 1st, estimate ~$3,200-4,800.
When you consider the amount of labor that went into these beauties, the auction estimates are incredibly reasonable, I think, especially since tapestries are often used in lieu of a grouping of oil paintings. Moreover, hang a tapestry and you probably won' t need an expensive Persian rug: a sisal or similar will look cleaner and more modern.

courtesy of Bunny Williams

If estimates for large tapestries exceed your budget, consider looking for well worn ones or fragments. These can be used in a variety of interesting ways. Transforming them into pillows is the most common adaptation. They can also be used to cover furniture. David Easton, for instance, used a tapestry fragment in the center of a suede ottoman, transforming it from bland to beautiful.

Courtesy of Timeless Elegance: The Houses of David Easton.

19th c handwoven tapestry, 58" x 89", at Eldred's in East Dennis, MA on November 5th, estimate $200-300.
   I highly doubt this tapestry is old. It is, however, put to an unconventional use...
King size tapestry headboard, at auction in Tennessee on October 29th, estimate $1,500-2,500.

A Flemish verdure tapestry fragment, at Christie's London on November 16th, estimate ~ $2,400-4,000.

photo: William Waldron, interior design: Suzanne Kasler, courtesy of Elle Decor.

I close with one more famous tapestry, the "Boar and Bear Hunt," part of the Devonshire Hunting tapestries (Flemish, mid-15th century, at the Victoria & Albert museum, London). Happy hunting to you as well--auction hunting, that is!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Trusty Compote: The Little Black Dress of Centerpieces

courtesy of Martha Stewart 
 Two compotes of differing heights help turn three pumpkins into an interesting focal point

Compotes are very useful--not the poached fruit variety, though those are tasty, certainly;  I'm talking about those long stemmed dishes. Once you notice them, you start seeing them on centerpieces everywhere. This is because they are incredibly handy--especially for those of us who are creatively challenged.

courtesy of Martha Stewart 
 Again, one compote helps vary the height of the centerpiece, making it more interesting

Case in point, the two shots from Martha Stewart, above. Without the compotes, what would you have? Three pumpkins of approximately the same size. Yawn. But add a compote and you suddenly have a charming focal point. Best of all, trusty compotes can be used again and again, for every holiday and celebration.

Sterling silver compote, at auction in PA on October 24th, estimate $250-400.
If you're going to get one compote, make it a silver one. Sterling sliver compotes are usually weighted for added heft and stability and make a wonderful heirloom piece. Silver plated compotes are a very affordable way to dress up a table. Several nice examples are coming up at Dargate Auction Galleries in McKee Rocks, PA on October 24th. Note the vastly different estimates here. By and large, the estimates for sterling items are driven by the value of the weight of the silver, though design quality matters as well, of course.

Two sterling compotes, at auction in PA on October 24th, estimate $60-80.
courtesy of Martha Stewart 
 Silver compotes, combined with silver pumpkins makes for a surprisingly elegant Halloween display.
Three fluted sterling compotes,
at Alex Cooper in Towsand, Maryland on October 24th, estimate $200-300.

courtesy: House Beautiful
 Bronze, gilt-bronze, glass and simple white porcelain work well too: anything that is neutral enough to coordinate with a variety of place settings and decorations. Above, designer Eddie Ross has stacked two contemporary milk glass compotes on top of one another to create a visually arresting centerpiece. Below, a Tiffany Studios bronze compote is not in the best condition, which makes it perfect for more rustic displays containing natural elements such as pine cones or pomegranates.

Bronze Tiffany Studios compote, at auction in Portland on October 24th,, estimate $150-250.
The word compote is French in origin and taken from the word composte, meaning mixture. At auction, you may come across items that appear very similar to compotes and are referred to as tazza or tazze (plural), the Italian word for cup. Though the words are often used interchangeably (as is the case below), with tazze, the bowl part is typically flatter, more like a plate, than with a compote.

Sterling silver tazza, at auction in Naples Florida on October 22nd, estimate $550-650.

Either item is so versatile, its use is truly limited only by your imagination. You can use them as serving dishes, naturally--their original purpose--but you'll probably have more fun with them as display stands.

courtesy of Martha Stewart 
 Compotes? Tazze? Whatever you call them, these stands make this interesting display stand even of a standout.

The creative talents at Martha Stewart seem to love compotes just as much as I do and their editorial pages are often filled with creative ways to use them.

Gorgeous crystal and gilt metal centerpiece compote, at auction in Naples on
October 22nd, estimate $300-500.
Perhaps my favorite compote trick that I picked up in the pages of Martha Stewart Living is as a support stand for mini trees. Two great examples appear below. (These aren't as hard as they look: the key elements are a cone shaped piece of Styrofoam and a hot glue gun.) But however you choose to use them, be sure to bid on some compotes soon--your holiday table will be better because of it!
courtesy of Martha Stewart
Two red glass compotes hold mini pine cone trees, for a beautiful but simple centerpiece.

Mini apples and princess pine are transformed into something quite memorable.
Learn how to make these trees for your compotes in Martha Stewart's Decorating for the Holidays.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Lessons in Auctions: The White Hot Chinese Market (aka Sell Aunt Edna's Rhino Horn Right Now!)

19th Century carved Rhinoceros horn. At Brunk on September 24th.
Estimate $60,000-$80,000. Hammer: $220,000.

The Chinese. They own a lot of our debt and, increasingly, a lot of our old antiques.
Well, actually, they were their antiques first. Now, they are just buying them back--for breathtaking prices.

While it might seem strange at first, the auction market has trends. In the eighties, for example, French furniture was tres chic up and down Park Avenue, now it's cooled off considerably and no one thinks that market, given our increasingly casual lifestyles, is coming back any time soon. Victorian furniture sells for bargain basement prices and has earned the derisive nickname among decorators as "big brown furniture". Even Chippendale and Georgian pieces, long considered timeless classics, are incredibly well priced these days, with the originals often selling for thousands less than their contemporary knock offs.
Chinese Republican period vase (circa 1930).
At Skinner for their October 2nd sale. Estimate: $200-300. Hammer price: $1,300.

 But on the flip side, of both the market and the globe, is Asian furniture and decorative objects. The Asian market is hot in general but the Chinese market is ON FIRE right now. The country is getting richer and more sophisticated. Hong Kong auction houses, such as Christie's and Sotheby's, have familiarized the wealthy elite with both the process and advantages of buying at auction. Increasingly, Chinese buyers are bidding online directly at U.S. auction houses, setting record prices wherever they go.
20th century painted fan. At Skinner on October 2nd. Estimate: $100-150. Hammer price: $1,000.

Case in point, Sunday's Asian Works auction at Skinner. The Boston based auction house has long been considered one of the best in the country, employing numerous well-established specialists. In other words: Skinner's estimates are generally an accurate range of what the item is worth at wholesale. On Sunday's sale, however, many items completely jumped the fence.

Chinese 19th century brush pot. Sold at Skinner on October 2nd.
Estimate: $200-300. Hammer price: $700.

And this isn't just happening at Skinner. Record sales and a seemingly insatiable demand have inspired many auction houses to frantically add Asian art sales to their calendars. Skinner now has three Asian sales a year. Leslie Hindman, the Chicago auction house, held an Asian art sale in May, 2011 that was expected to bring in $1 million in revenue, according to a July article on CNBC. The actual result: $4.2 million with 80% of the lots going directly to China. The article, by Jay Carney, goes on to quote Hindman as saying, “Jade that we thought would bring $6,000 to $8,000 was bringing $50,000.” Not surprisingly, the auction house has another Asian sale on the calendar for October. Christie's New York branch had three Chinese themed sales on September 15th-16th: ceramics, jade and a private collection that together generated a total of $60 million in sales, making it one of their most profitable two day stretches of the year.
Rare blue and white Ming moon flask.
Sold at Christie's on September 15th, 2011. Estimate: $500,000 -
$700,000. Price (Including Premium): $2,658,500.

Even smaller markets in which one might not expect the same level of international interest, such as Brunk Auctions in Ashville, North Carolina (highly regarded but even so), are benefiting. In September, a carved rhino horn (pictured up top) estimated at $60,000-80,000 sold for $220,000. And in January, there was this carpet...
Imperial Chinese carpet, circa 1900. Sold at Brunk on January 8th, 2011.
Estimate: $12,000-$18,000. Hammer price: $180,000.
Are these prices too good to last? Many familiar with the wine auction market seem to think so (To wit: "Bordeaux Bubble in China" from Time). I must confess that I agree: prices in this category have simply shot up too much, too quickly--just like all those uninhabited condo developments found in many a Chinese city. And so, my advice, my dearlings, is this: for those of you sitting on a collection of premium Chinese artifacts that you are thinking of selling "soon," don't push your luck. Otherwise...well, you probably won't end up feeling like a shareholder of LEH on September 16th--more like one of those flower breeders in that country with all the clogs.

THIS IS NOT A GUMMY BEAR: rare white jade water pot.
At Christie's on Sept 15th. Estimate: $120,000-$180,000.
Sale Price (including premium): $2,098,500.