Paris, perhaps inevitably, has always dominated the art deco market. It was here that the impeccably crafted, streamlined furniture and decorative arts so expressive of the machine age were manufactured. It was here that they were presented at the seminal 1925 Exposition International des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes that gave the style its name.
The city still boasts the lion’s share of specialist deco dealers and, along with Monte Carlo, has staged the sales that have shaped the market. It was the auction of the furniture amassed by couturier Jacques Doucet (1853-1929) that in effect launched the art deco revival in 1972.
Few realised it at the time but the 1970s and 1980s were the years of bounty, when top-quality art deco material was plentiful on the French market. The estate of the great Paris-based, Irish-born designer Eileen Gray was dispersed in 1980, as were the contents of the Palace of Indore, commissioned in 1930 by the eponymous maharaja. By the time of the record-breaking €59.7m sale of the collection of Claude and Simone Dray at Christie’s in Paris in 2006, where a pair of Rateau jardinières fetched €4.1m, €1m-plus prices had become the new reality for great art deco.
The equally successful sale of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé collection in February 2009 saw that Rateau record eclipsed when Gray’s unique “Dragons” armchair of 1917-19 changed hands for an astounding €21.9m. When the 500-lot Gourdon collection was offered in Paris two years later, it did not seem to matter that much of the material had been on the market so recently. Another 13 auction records were set, not least for Emile-Jacques Ruhlman’s “Chaise longue on skis” (€2.9m) created for the aforementioned maharaja and declared a trésor national by the French.
What does come to auction is fought over ever more aggressively. Last month, a Christie’s Paris sale saw several art deco pieces double or triple their estimates. A set of austere and graphic glass, mirror and patinated iron doors from around 1928 by Louis Barillet (another exhibitor at the 1925 Exposition) sold to an American collector for a record €529,000.
Now though, New York, not Paris, is the venue for the sale of a pioneering collection, and the location of a new art deco gallery founded by another passionate collector who, this time, has chosen to turn dealer.
On December 12 and 13, Christie’s is offering the exceptional collection begun in the 1970s by flamboyant bon vivant Steven A Greenberg, who died earlier this year. Comprising over 200 lots, the collection is expected to realise over $15m. It is the most important offering of art deco in New York since the contents of the Philip Johnson town house on East 52nd Street, the property of British antiquities dealer Robin Symes, soared over estimate to sell for $4.3m in 1989.
Appropriately for a city famed for its art deco skyline and marble- and onyx-clad lobbies, it was in his office in one such art deco landmark – 30 Rockefeller Plaza – that Greenberg first presented his collection, an evocation of the brittle glamour that was, for the privileged, the Paris of the 1920s and 1930s. For what captivated Greenberg (and, for that matter, his friend Andy Warhol, another early American deco aficionado) was a lush opulence of materials and motifs.
Greenberg focused on the work of just three great designers: the inimitable ébéniste Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the highly stylised neoclassical graphic art of Jean Dupas and the glorious lacquer of Jean Dunand. In pride of place in his office was a great Ruhlmann fan-shaped desk in gleaming black lacquer and nickel-plated brass, witness to the sleek, minimalist lines and judicious use of modern industrial materials that characterised his late designs. The original 1929 model made €2.3m at the Gourdon sale (the owner had paid $1.8m for the piece in 2000). This version, made for a French industrialist in 1932, comes with an estimate of $2m-$3m.
Dunand dominates this sale, with lacquers and dinanderie – the elaborate hand-working of non-precious metal objects finished with subtle patinas or with inlays of contrasting metals or eggshell. His asymmetric inlaid geometries decorate everything from lipstick holders (estimate $1,500-$2,000) and large vases to a remarkable avant-garde low table with “Suprematist” decoration of 1923 ($600,000-$800,000).
Dupas is best remembered for his decoration of the great 1930s French ocean liners. Here is a domestic-scale version of two panels from the “Chariot of Poseidon” murals in the Normandie, the most spectacular ship of them all, executed in shimmering verre eglomisé with gold, silver and palladium leaf ($100,000-$150,000).
Other makers take an occasional bow, among them Gray, whose lacquered six-panel screen of 1922-25 is a highlight ($1.5m-$2.5m). Paul Brandt’s bold lacquer cigarette case, again inlaid with eggshell ($15,000-$20,000), previously belonged to Andy Warhol.
Dr Stephen Kelly has chosen the evening before the Greenberg sale to launch his gallery on the top three floors of his 1915 town house at 154 East 71st Street. The ophthalmologist has been collecting museum-quality art deco for 30 years and, as he nears retirement, has decided to turn his passion into a second career. Everything is beautifully presented – and for sale (even the Diebenkorns and Jasper Johns). Typical of the highlights are a Sèvres vase lamp by Ruhlmann made in 1927 for the liner Ile de France ($2.5m) and a giltwood daybed ($250,000) made for Jeanne Lanvin by Armand Rateau, 1928-30.
Here too is a penchant for tactile materials such as shagreen, parchment, ivory, alabaster and exotic figured woods. Alongside the furniture is period sculpture and painting, ceramics and crystal. Ample vitrines are dedicated to gift items such as vintage silver travel accessories and silver and enamel cufflinks. Prices from $150.
Christie’s New York, tel: +1212 636 2000, www.christies.com
Kelly Gallery, New York, 154 East 71st St, tel: +1212 744 4954, www.kellygalleryny.com
Design Masters, Phillips de Pury, New York, Dec 11, www.phillipsdepury.com
Important 20th Century Design, Sotheby’s, New York, Dec