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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Arts and Crafts and the 20th Century Design Sales

The market for Arts and Crafts has been especially volatile in the past few years.  While it is easy to blame everything on the global economic crisis, and tempting to pretend as though a rebound towards stability and predictability is imminent, the recent New York sales show a market that refuses to be either stable or predictable.


For the most part, Christie's seems to have abandoned their interest in Arts and Crafts--their most recent sale (December 17th) only yielded 2 items:
1. a Stickley three door oak and glass cabinet that sold for 25,000, and
2. a pair of Thomas Jeckyl andirons  that went for 56,250


By contrast, Sotheby's offered many more arts and crafts lots, and priced them fairly aggressively.  Broadly speaking, 35 of the first 37 lots of the sale could be termed arts and crafts.  Excepting the Manship Vase and Augustus Saint Gaudens box, the selection was a standard who's who of the movement and offered Stickley furniture, Elizabeth Copeland's silver work, Grueby pottery, and Dirk Van Erp Lamps and metal pieces.  These are the types of things that always sell at arts and crafts auctions, and usually do well too.  If you needed to form a blue chip index for the movement, these are the names and the types of objects you would pick.


Unfortunately, as the economist and Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminded readers in Fooled by Randomness, past performance is not a reliable predictor of the future, despite what market gurus and consultants believe.  Describing what he calls "a more severe aspect of naive empiricism," Taleb reminds readers that "[one] can use data to disprove a proposition, never to prove one.  [One] can use history to refute a statement, never to confirm it."(Taleb 119)  Thus, even though history might indicate to you that you can sell an Overbeck vase comfortably (or perhaps optimistically) for $80-120K,  or a Grueby Daffodil Vase for $50-70K, history sometimes makes little difference to the present moment.  In part, it seems as though the success of the movement at auction is part of the problem, since high prices now form a barrier for those looking to begin collecting.  Ironically, the high prices have been largely due to a few major collectors who, as their own collections grow, have less need for pieces, and higher standards for acquiring them.  How else does one explain why a Marblehead Potteries vase with roses fails to sell in 2011 even with an estimate of 30-50K, when just last fall David Rago sold a similar example (with better design) for $134,200?  Rago's estimate of 25-35K on that vase, combined with the stronger design, seemed to encourage competition in the bidding room.  If this indicates anything, the take away might be that the high end of the market remains strong but finicky, and that past performance needs to be treated with a bit more suspicion. 


Take for example Lot 14 an "important and rare landscape motto plaque" made by Marblehead Potteries which was estimated at $60-80K and sold for 68.5K (with the buyers premium).  Just 5 years ago Sotheby's offered a similar example, estimated at 25-35K which sold for $90K.  More buyers?  Better estimates?  Who knows?  The lesson, if there is one in this, is that one shouldn't rely upon past performances to craft high reserves and estimates in a market that appears to be unpredictable.


Was there good news in any of these sales?  Of course.  The market for Tiffany remains strong, as evident in both the major sales this past month.  Sotheby's did $4.6 million on 53 lots, Christies total was slightly higher (4.8 million) but keep in mind that sale had more than 3 times the lots that Sotheby's offered.  There were some surprises in modern design as well.  The star of the auction season was Francois-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008) whose group of 10 sheep at Christies went for more than 12 times the low estimate of 600,000 to reach a staggering sum of $7,474,500 when the bidding had finished.  An elegant and rare teapot by Naum Slutzky breezed easily past its estimate of 60-80K at Sotheby's to reach a final price of $374,500.


Late 19th and 20th Century design gets a break for a while, as the season shifts (as it does every January) to the Americana sales.  With nice offerings by both major houses, it should be a good indicator of the overall health of the market as we roll into the new year.

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