Art market

Ritzy auction prices for homespun objects: American Arts and Crafts design receives boost in popularity from Barbra Streisand

“At least thirty collectors are spending $200,000-500,000 a year at auction” on this branch of the decorative arts


New York

In the battle for market share in twentieth-century decorative arts, Christie’s November sales have given the auction house a significant lead, with their four auctions last month achieving $13.7 million (presale est. $16.6-23.3 million). The centrepiece of their series was the Barbra Streisand collection of American Arts and Crafts, with works from Gustav Stickley to Frank Lloyd Wright, considered the most important collection of its kind to come to market.

The saleroom was packed with serious collectors, decorators and Streisand fans. The top lot of the sale, Stickley’s massive oak sideboard from 1902, had been purchased by Ms Streisand at Christie’s in 1988. Previously sold for $362,000, this time the object scored a world record for any piece of American Arts and Crafts furniture when it jumped 60% in price, selling for $596,500 to an American private collector.

For the past decade or so, the actress and singer has been a buyer of arts and crafts furniture and in that time has been a faithful client of Nancy A. McClelland, Christie’s international head of twentieth-century decorative arts. So why has she suddenly decided to dispense with her collection? “She recently sold her home of thirty-five years in Holmby Hills,” explained Ms McClelland. The singer has also shifted her focus from European decorative arts to exclusively eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Americana and her Malibu house is furnished entirely with such examples.

After years in dusty obscurity, American Arts and Crafts started to attract new attention in the Seventies, when a few exhibitions were mounted in museums around the country. By the early Eighties, a number of collectors began to emerge, among them Wall Street traders and other thirty-somethings.

What was the appeal of this heavy, plain furniture to children of the 1960s? After the factory-made Mediterranean, motel-like Formica and Danish modern furnishings many of them grew up with, perhaps the solidity and simplicity of Arts and Crafts seemed more authentic. In any event, they bought heavily, and examples in the salerooms became scarce.

Currently a new group of buyers is coveting Arts and Crafts, aged thirty-five to forty-five, Wall Street-fuelled and educated. “The number of clients has doubled,” says Ms McClelland, “At least thirty collectors are spending $200,000-500,000 a year at auction”.

Arts and Crafts collectors tend to seek out early examples, but the scarcity of fresh material has pushed them also into buying pieces from adjacent design fields, such as mid-century modern. The staggering results achieved at Christie’s East sale of Important Design on 27 November attest to this trend. At the Saturday sale, an Eames moulded plywood sculpture (est. $80,000-120,000) was purchased for $365,500 by an American collector who resides in the UK and collects Arts and Crafts, said Ms McClelland. Other records include: a Carlo Mollino upholstered armchair (est. $50,000-70,000) sold for $129,000, a Noguchi sofa (est. $50,000-70,000), for $107,000, a Shira Kuramata acrylic chair (est.$50,000-70,000); and a Gio Ponti mirrored glass, wood and gilt bronze cabinet (est.$20,000-30,000) for $79,500.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Ritzy prices for homespun objects'