Shopping: the rush for art deco

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As composer Cole Porter’s wife, Linda, in the recently opened film De-Lovely, Ashley Judd sports a veritable vault’s worth of art deco jewellery: delicate platinum bracelets set with sparkling diamonds and sapphires; vintage Verdura; vintage Chanel pieces. Even Judd’s handbags are largely 1920s Van Cleef Arpels. But here’s the thing: she doesn’t look remotely dated.

Rather, she’s right in sync with today’s fascination for art deco in just about every manner and guise. Maybe it’s the yin to high-tech’s yang, but, spurred on by a bunch of museum shows, the stylised geometries of the early 20th century are having a moment.

London’s V&A Museum’s Art Deco: 1910-1939, an exploration of the style as a global phenomenon, moved first to the Toronto Royal Ontario Museum and then San Francisco Legion of Honor before heading on to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts where it is capturing record audiences. So far, close to 800,000 have strolled through.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan the Metropolitan Museum of Art has just closed Ruhlmann: Genius of Art Deco, a show devoted to the legendary designer, but after a brief hop over a Great Lake, the exhibit re-opened at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Then, so as to not deprive its visitors, the Met extended the exhibition Art Deco: Paris, which includes furniture by designers Sue et Mare and silver by Puiforcat, until February.

Straight down to Miami, and the Bass Museum of Art is hosting Paris Moderne: Art Deco Works from the Musee d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris until January 16.

Not surprisingly, this kind of haute museum accolade is affecting prices. “We’ve only seen the prices for deco jewellery rise and rise,” says Daphne Lingon, Christie’s New York jewellery expert, pointing to the sale of tobacco heiress Doris Duke’s baubles.

Her art deco diamond bracelet, while only expected to reach $350,000- $500,000, skyrocketed up to $1.2m at its June auction. Comparatively speaking, deco is on a roar while demure little cultured pearls are in a slump, says Lingon. Certain to spark bidding at Christie’s New York jewellery sale on October 12 is a 1925 emerald and diamond sautoire by Tiffany, expected to reach $150,000-$180,000.

Similarly, anything by the Sicilian jeweller Fulco di Verdura (who as it happens was a close personal friend of Cole and Linda Porter, and whose white enamel cuff was a Judd accessory) has been priced through the roof. Case in point: a pair of Verdura Maltese cross brooches made for Chanel and owned by style maven Diana Vreeland, being offered by Christie’s New York, and estimated at $80,000-$120,000. Ward Landrigan, who heads the Verdura firm on Fifth Avenue, says he has witnessed a frenzy of sales for the iconic pieces.

It’s the same story over at jeweller Fred Leighton. Even “diamond dress clips and brooches, which were a mainstay of a woman’s wardrobe in the 20s, are popular, too,” says Rebecca Selva, at Leighton. But it’s not only Americans who are passionate about the mementoes from the roaring 20s. At the 22nd Paris Biennale des Antiquaires, which closed September 28, collectors fought over the furnishings of Armand Albert Rateau created for couturier Jeanne Lanvin back in 1920, which were showcased by Left Bank dealer Bob and Cheska Vallois.

“Everything sold within days of the Biennale opening,” says Cheska Vallois. Among the choice items were floor lamps with elegant swan figures in bronze, and prices were reportedly in the {XEU}500,000 range. “But we could have sold the pieces four times over.”

Indeed, hordes of decorators from Manhattan’s Peter Marino and Thierry Despont to London’s John Stefanidis are demanding deco furniture, reports London dealer Claude Ciancimino, who specialises in deco furnishings. “With the prices for Michel Frank and Ruhlmann gigantic now, even Jacques Adnet examples and no-name furniture is rising in cost,” says Ciancimino.

Across the pond, deco furnishings dealer Gerard Widdershoven of Maison Gerard in Greenwich Village, who has specialised in the period for close to 30 years, notes that “with an increasingly sophisticated client base, more collectors are demanding an important provenance”.

Interestingly, Gerard says the overwhelming majority of collectors come from the world of finance. “They appreciate the investment qualities of great deco.” But for dealers, there is a disheartening aspect about the deco rush. “It means dealers must spend more for the material,” says Widdershoven.

Still, why the sudden passion? For one thing, French deco symbolises an era of urban elegance and incredible craftsmanship that is lost today (also, it is true, bathtub gin, decadence and overwhelming financial upheaval). Parisian deco masters such as Rateau and Ruhlmann worked for the reigning families of France - industrialists Renault and aristocrats Vicomte and Vicomtesse de Noailles - and as a result the material is loaded with a super rich potency. That deeply embedded sense of luxury is a powerful draw, says Jared Goss, co-curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Ruhlmann exhibition. “That between the wars time was about a pared down design sensibility,” says Goff. “Today, we’re accustomed to streamlining, so deco appeals to the contemporary eye.”

It certainly works for the landmarked Waldorf=Astoria Hotel (yes, they use the = sign), which was designed by Schultze Weaver, built in 1931 and is frequently solidly booked.

The apartments in the Waldorf Towers (the Porters lived in one and it was subsequently occupied by Frank Sinatra) are still in constant demand. Recently, says Patrick Hall, Waldorf Towers’ executive director, “we’ve signed more leases on the Towers apartments than in record memory.”

Of course, taking up residence in such art deco splendour is very expensive. Leases run from $17,000 up to $88,000 for a four-bedroom apartment monthly. On the other hand, it does include twice daily housekeeping, which is de rigueur for maintaining the glamour quotient.

Brook Mason is a correspondent for Art Antiques

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