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Decorative arts sales shift to Chicago

New York vies with London for nineteenth- and twentieth-century decorative arts sales, but Chicago is coming on quickly

New York

Sotheby’s twentieth-century decorative arts director Barbara Diesroth surveys her four massive bookcases of reference works and then pronounces authoritatively: “There’s a fundamental change taking place in post-1940s decorative arts.” While Nancy McClelland, Christie’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century decorative arts director, may see New York as a treasure trove of twentieth-century works vying with London for preeminence, Ms Diesroth has cleverly engineered a change that ultimately may affect the entire market in this area.

On 16 May Sotheby’s will conduct its first major twentieth-century decorative arts sale in Chicago, merging prints and sculpture with furnishings. “We firmly believe that Chicago is the appropriate centre for post-war furniture”, says Ms Diesroth, and so Sotheby’s is shipping an enormous number of lots from the East Coast to its Midwest operations base, the former Leslie Hindman auctioneers which they acquired in June 1997.

Why is she betting on Chicago when last year in New York Christie’s totalled $12.5 million in sales of twentieth-century decorative arts, Sotheby’s $14.6 million and Phillips $2.2 million? “Because Chicago is the birthplace of modern architecture and theory”, explains Ms Diesroth, “and there is a greater sensibility there toward post-1940 works.”

The true masters of modern American architecture—Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe—practised in Chicago and their work continues to be considered a rich legacy there.

Sotheby’s expert in Chicago Marcus M. Tremonto points to the sales of furniture by the Chicago designer, Samuel Marx, whom he considers a latter-day Jean Michel Frank. “At our April 1995 sale, a Marx desk went for $6,500; then last year a similar piece hit $22,000.” This month’s sale features a rare Richard Meier dining table with chairs of 1982 estimated at $45,000, but expected to go for a far steeper price.

The sale also includes the Hal Meltzer collection of more than 200 lots of Italian and Swedish glass, as well as ceramics. There is an Artisti Barovier Mosaica glass vase at $40,000-60,000 and Orrefors Aeriel glass vase designed by Edvin Ohrsterom, also at $40,000-60,000. The collection as a whole is expected to bring $600,000-800,000.

But while Sotheby’s is betting on Chicago, Christie’s is mounting a Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) sale of more than 200 lots in Los Angeles on 16 May. His surreal furnishings typified by graphic trompe l’oeil are expected to total $500,000-700,000.

Doyle’s has also jumped into the market. This 24 June, the auction house, which has allied with Bonhams, will hold its first Modernist sale. “We looked at the attendance for our Modernist lectures—standing room only at every single one, and we knew immediately”, explained Eric Silver, Doyle’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century furniture specialist.

With Phillips’s 9 June sale of twentieth-century decorative art including a substantial modern design section, and Christie’s East sales on the same day and 11 June at Park Avenue, June, generally considered a slow month, could just pick up on Modernism.

Originally appeared in the Art Newspaper as 'Shift to Chicago'