Art Market Italy: Gianni Colombo

'Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959-1980,' exhibition view at Robilant+Voena, London, Oct. 2 – Nov. 20, 2015. Courtesy Robilant+Voena

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BY SILVIA ANNA BARRILA
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‘Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959-1980,’ exhibition view at Robilant+Voena, London, Oct. 2 – Nov. 20, 2015. Courtesy Robilant+Voena

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MILAN, Italy – On Jan. 1, 1937 in Milan, Gianni Colombo was born into to a family of entrepreneurs. He had two brothers, one of whom, Cesare, became a major designer in the 1960s under the pseudonym of Joe Colombo.

He started creating art in 1955, and in the second half of the 1950s attended the Academy of Brera. He began experimenting with materials and languages, from ceramics to graphic design, from photography to cinema. In 1959 he exhibited at the first Galleria Azimuth, a derivation of the magazine founded by Manzoni and Castellani.

'Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959-1980,' exhibition view at Robilant+Voena, London, Oct. 2 – Nov. 20, 2015. Courtesy Robilant+Voena
‘Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959-1980,’ exhibition view at Robilant+Voena, London, Oct. 2 – Nov. 20, 2015. Courtesy Robilant+Voena

In Milan that year Colombo founded the T Group, along with Giovanni Anceschi, Davide Boriani and Gabriele De Vecchi (they were joined in the following year by Grazia Varisco). “T” stood for time, because their works were united by the introduction of a fourth dimension: the time variable. It is the affirmation of kinetic and programmed art in Italy, an art in which the work is constantly evolving thanks to automatisms introduced by the artist. The change of the artwork may be caused either by mechanisms inserted by the artist in the work; or by the viewer, to whom the artist asks to be active and take action on the work; or by the light and its reflections.

The exhibitions of the group – the first one dated to 1960 and took place at Galleria Pater in Milan – were called “Miriorama” (thousand images). They were numbered to emphasize the continuity among them. Already in the first exhibition, some themes emerged which were important to Colombo in its entire production: “space; time as movement and becoming; and the provocation of a psycho-physical reaction in the viewer through surprise.”

The first kinetic works of Columbo were the Changing Surfaces (Superfici in variazione) and the Interchangeable Reliefs (Rilievi intermutabili), whose formal appearance changes as a result of the intervention of the viewer. Pulsating Structures were paintings formed by rectangles of polystyrene that pulsated through an electromechanical animation. Colombo also experimented with Plexiglas and the transformation of light and color in the Chromostructures (Cromostrutture).

'Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959-1980,' exhibition view at Robilant+Voena, London, Oct. 2 – Nov. 20, 2015. Courtesy Robilant+Voena
‘Gianni Colombo: The Body and the Space 1959-1980,’ exhibition view at Robilant+Voena, London, Oct. 2 – Nov. 20, 2015. Courtesy Robilant+Voena

In 1962, Colombo began his experiments on geometric shapes with the series of Rotoplastik and Fluid Structures (Strutturazioni fluide). They were conceived as multiple objects produced with industrial techniques. In the beginning of the 1960s he worked with his brother, and together they won the gold medal for design at the 13th Milan Triennale for a lamp designed for the company Oluce. In 1964 there was the last “Miriorama” exhibition, and since then Colombo began to focus on space, which was conceived as a place of solicitation of perceptual, sensory and behavioral reactions in the viewer. Colombo built his first viable environment in 1964 in Paris at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs on the occasion of “Nouvelle Tendance.”
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Various international exhibitions followed, leading to the official consecration of Colombo’s environmental spaces in Italy and in Europe. In 1965 he participated in Documenta in Kassel; in 1967 he showed in Graz and Foligno; and in the following year he was awarded first prize at the Venice Biennale. In the same year he presented his first Elastic Space (Spazio Elastico), a pulsating environment that involves the audience with imaginative paths. This is best known environment among those made by Colombo.

Since 1970, he collaborated with artist Vincenzo Agnetti and exhibited at Studio Marconi in Milan, at the Verona gallery Studio La Città and at Milan’s Triennale. He also exhibited in Austria, Germany, Holland and also at the Sydney Biennale.

In the 1980s, he started working on a series of environmental spaces called Architectures cacogoniometriche, presented on the occasion of a solo exhibition at the Stedelijk Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Netherlands (1981), at the exhibition “Italian Art 1960-1982” at the Hayward Gallery in London (1982) and at PAC in Milan (1984). In the late 1980s and early 1990s, he worked on other environments: the Catastrofetture, in which he deformed the classic architectural elements through the screen of a computer; the Curved Space (Spazio curvo), built with plastic pipes and electric motors; and the Spazio diagoniometrico, made with large cones of photographic paper about 3 meters high, moved by electric motors.

He died on Feb. 3, 1993.

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In recent years, Colombo’s work has been brought back to the spotlight thanks to major exhibitions and it was revalued on the art market. In 2009 there were major retrospectives at Castello di Rivoli in Turin and at Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich. In 2013-2014 his work was included in the exhibition “Zero in South America” in Brazil and in the exhibition “ZERO: Countdown to Tomorrow, 1950s-60s” at the Guggenheim in New York. There were also several gallery exhibitions: in 2013 at Greene Naftali in New York, in 2015 at Monica De Cardenas and A arte Invernizzi in Milan, and at Robilant+Voena in London. In the same year his work was presented at Art Basel both in Basel (in the Unlimited section) and in Miami Beach (in the Survey section). His prices have increased both in galleries and at auction. Last October at Christie’s in London a Pulsating Structure from 1959 was sold for €428,000. Last November at Dorotheum an Elastic Space from 1975 was sold for €180,000; the same work in 2008 was sold at Sotheby’s in Milan for €43,450.
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SilviaAnnaBarrilaAbout Silvia Anna Barrila

Silvia Anna Barilla is an Italian fine arts journalist and regular contributor to the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 ORE (ArtEconomy24). She also writes about art, design, lifestyle and society for a number of Italian and international magazines, including DAMn Magazine and ICON (Mondadori). She is based in Milan and Berlin.
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Chinese huanghuali furniture: precious wood, elegant design

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BY KARLA KLEIN ALBERTSON
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This unusual Chinese huanghuali armchair with silver inlay and a canvas seat dates to the late 16th or early 17th century.
Thanks to an ingenious mechanism, the rare seating form folds up for easy transport, perfect for leisure activities or a battlefield campaign tent.
Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

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So rare that it rivals gems and precious metals in value, huanghuali, a type of rosewood, was among the tropical hardwoods found in old-growth forests in the extreme south of the Chinese Empire.

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In the 16th and 17th centuries, toward the end of the great Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the highly desirable wood was used for elegant furniture forms – chairs, stools, tables and graceful canopy beds.

In the 21st century, genuine Ming huanghuali designs have been keenly sought after, especially by wealthy Asian collectors. Adding to the market scramble is that fact that many of the best pieces have long been ensconced in the permanent collections of major museums, East and West. As values climbed, modern reproductions of rosewood from Southeast Asia and Africa began to appear on the market. To guarantee the age of their purchases, discriminating buyers pursued pieces with long histories and impeccable provenance from established Western collections.

This 16th century huanghuali canopy bed with silk gauze is actually an intimate room setting. Within the enclosure, the occupant could entertain friends with tea or issue orders to servants before arising for the day. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri
This 16th century huanghuali canopy bed with silk gauze is actually an intimate room setting. Within the enclosure, the occupant could entertain friends with tea or issue orders to servants before arising for the day. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

When well-vetted examples have appeared on the market, the prices realized have been spectacular. Early in 2015, Christie’s in New York offered the collections of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929-2014) in a series of sales. A New York art dealer, Hatfield had a dedicated interest in Chinese antiquities and was the author of Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties (1970). In the March 18 sale of “Masterworks” from The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, an important set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Ming dynasty, 17th century, sold for $9,685,000, far beyond the $800,000/$1.2 million estimate.

While bidding today flows from Asia across the Pacific, 20th century Western scholars played key roles in the appreciation and preservation of huanghuali wood artifacts, eventually contributing to the popularity such furniture enjoys at present. German-American academic Gustav Ecke (1896-1971) took up a teaching post at a Chinese university in the 1920s. A growing interest in his cultural surroundings led him to work with fellow scholars to record historic architecture and classical furniture. He was especially fascinated by the clean lines of Ming-style hardwood examples, which many families were selling off during the difficult circumstances of the period. His important volume, Chinese Domestic Furniture in Photographs and Measured Drawings, is a classic reference in the field.

This important set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Ming Dynasty, 17th century, sold at Christie’s New York in March 2015 for $9,685,000. The elegant chairs were among the ‘Masterworks’ in the renowned collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, who had acquired them before 1971. Courtesy Christie’s New York
This important set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Ming Dynasty, 17th century, sold at Christie’s New York in March 2015 for $9,685,000. The elegant chairs were among the ‘Masterworks’ in the renowned collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, who had acquired them before 1971. Courtesy Christie’s New York

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., has one of the greatest collections of Chinese art and antiquities in the world, thanks to the efforts of its early curator and eventual director, Laurence Sickman (1907-1988). Trained at Harvard, the scholar traveled around China in the 1930s, during a time of great political unrest, buying up treasures and shipping them back to the United States. Among them were paintings purchased from the last Chinese Emperor Pu-Yi, who had taken personal possessions with him when he fled Peking (modern Beijing). The collection contains excellent examples of huanghuali furniture, including a spectacular 16th century canopy bed from which a Chinese lady once held court.

In a discussion with Style Century, Dr. Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art at the museum, explained why huanghuali is so prized: “It’s very precious because the wood itself is wonderful. What family it belongs to botanically – there’s some debate about that. You can call it a member of the rosewood family. In 17th-century science, they did not have the botanical classifications we have now, but they knew the qualities of the honey-colored wood with a beautiful grain, not nearly as in-your-face as the rosewood used in Western furniture.”

A massive and rare huanghuali recessed-leg painting table from China’s 17th century Ming dynasty sold for $3,525,000 in 2015 as part of the Ellsworth ‘Masterworks’ sale. The form has been widely copied through the centuries, but only a period table of this excellence would merit such an exceptional price. Courtesy Christie’s New York
A massive and rare huanghuali recessed-leg painting table from China’s 17th century Ming dynasty sold for $3,525,000 in 2015 as part of the Ellsworth ‘Masterworks’ sale. The form has been widely copied through the centuries, but only a period table of this excellence would merit such an exceptional price. Courtesy Christie’s New York

“Huanghuali wood actually comes from areas right in the very far south of China, on the borders with Southeast Asia, so it’s a tropical hardwood. It’s very hard and takes this wonderful polish, so it was valued for its intrinsic qualities, the wonderful color, patina, and subtle grain – and then of course for its rarity as well. Although there are earlier references, it only becomes popular in the mid-second half of the 16th century; there’s an alliterative quote from an official who says in his youth he didn’t see much of it, but now it’s become very fashionable. Supplies ran out in the early 18th century, and you don’t really get huanghuali again until the 20th century, when new supplies were found in Southeast Asia.”

Mackenzie notes the crucial role Westerners played in popularizing huanghuali styles in the 20th century. At the beginning of that century, Chinese collecting was focused on antique black and red lacquered furniture, which had been highly prized by emperors and nobles in the early dynasties. He says, “Our fascination with huanghuali is the result of Western taste, even though the Chinese are paying astronomical prices for it. It’s the result of foreigners living in Beijing including Laurence Sickman, who appreciated huanghuali because of its Modernist feel.”

This pair of antique Chinese huanghuali stools, sold by the Neal Auction Co. for $58,000 in 2012, benefitted from an interesting back story. They once belonged to New Orleans collector Irene S. Chandler, who had purchased them from a dealer in Hong Kong during a 1953-1954 visit to Asia. Similar examples appear in publications by Ellsworth and Ecke. Courtesy Neal Auction Co., New Orleans.
This pair of antique Chinese huanghuali stools, sold by the Neal Auction Co. for $58,000 in 2012, benefitted from an interesting back story. They once belonged to New Orleans collector Irene S. Chandler, who had purchased them from a dealer in Hong Kong during a 1953-1954 visit to Asia. Similar examples appear in publications by Ellsworth and Ecke. Courtesy Neal Auction Co., New Orleans.

“There was a shift in Western taste which began earlier with the Bauhaus. Western visitors, responding to that, discovered huanghuali furniture as something that was modern before Bauhaus. It was the lightness of form, the efficiency of construction which used no nails, occasionally there are wooden pins – all put together with very accurately cut joints and therefore theoretically the pieces could be dismantled for transportation. I was looking at the construction of some of our chairs. The wood is not bent – it’s just carved out of solid wood. They spared no expense in that regard. They look light, but they’re incredibly solid. These visiting western scholars and curators appreciated this furniture for the qualities we still celebrate today – the wonderful design and efficiency of construction.”

The Chinese market demand for hardwood furniture in Ming Dynasty styles has stimulated the efforts of workshops, principally in Asia, which attempt to reproduce classical forms that will pass as period examples. Sources for huanghuali and similar types of rosewood have been discovered in Southeast Asia, notably Vietnam, and Africa. Whether the removal of such wood is ethical varies from site to site. Savvy buyers have learned to distinguish the more recently cut wood from older patinas. As mentioned above, serious collectors prefer to buy from early, established collections in the West. Catalog entries frequently note when and where lots were acquired. On the other hand, some of the recent reproductions are attractive and well-made. They can bring substantial prices from buyers who want the look and the appearance of this remarkable Asian hardwood.
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MARKET DEVELOPMENTS FOR CHINESE FURNITURE

Fluctuations in the Chinese stock market and the rate of growth for their economy have auction houses guessing. Buyers have always been selective, even capricious, in their choices. Will Chinese collectors now retreat from the record prices they have set in recent years? Astonishing amounts have been paid not only for Chinese antiquities but for masterpieces of Western art. The November purchase of Modigliani’s Nu couche at Christie’s – $170,405,000, the most ever paid for an artist’s work – by the Long Museum in Shanghai would suggest that competition for the best pieces will continue.

This antique pair of Chinese carved huanghuali wood armchairs with intricately carved backsplat and curvilinear arms ending in a scrolled flourish brought $43,760 at I.M. Chait in 2013. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.
This antique pair of Chinese carved huanghuali wood armchairs with intricately carved backsplat and curvilinear arms ending in a scrolled flourish brought $43,760 at I.M. Chait in 2013. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.

Style Century talked with two West Coast auction houses that have strong sales of Chinese art, including antique and more modern huanghuali furniture. Redge Martin, CEO of Clars Auction Gallery in Oakland, Calif., offered these thoughts: “The market is still stronger at the high end than it was 20 or 30 years ago. If you get in the right pieces, the Chinese are still buying, but what you’ve lost is all the speculators and middlemen buying the lesser value stuff.” He noted that a pair of huanghuali chairs had brought around $25,000 in September 2015.

He continued, “In general, what we’re seeing is that the market is wising up; it’s getting more focused. Five or six years ago, the Chinese market was red hot; it also was in a bubble. They were buying everything – everything was getting bid way up. Even things that weren’t that old – certainly not ancient – were getting high bids.” To illustrate his point, Martin referred to a large collection of modern huanghuali wood furniture in traditional Ming styles that they came from a Nevada consignment several years ago. Expectations were modest because the examples were relatively new, but cabinets with $500-$1,000 estimates brought $40,000. The furniture from the estate sold for over $3 million in the highly successful sales, in part because dealers were buying up huanghuali in the speculative mood of the times.

Although not antique, this pair of large, Chinese Ming-style huanghuali stacked wood cabinets of tall rectangular form, 94 inches high – sold for $33,500 at Chait in 2014. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Although not antique, this pair of large, Chinese Ming-style huanghuali stacked wood cabinets of tall rectangular form, 94 inches high – sold for $33,500 at Chait in 2014. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.

Martin concluded, “What’s happened in the last couple years is that the market has cooled down to some extent. It’s gone in two directions – for average items and reproductions, the market has fallen back to normal. For the really high end, high quality items, the market remains very hot. In China, there are a fair number of billionaires and multimillionaires that have money and want the items, but they’re more selective. When we get into the exceptional, the market is still very, very good for those pieces.”

Jake Chait spoke from I.M. Chait Gallery, Beverly Hills, Calif., a firm that has specialized in Asian art and antiques for more than 40 years: “In the market, there are constant changes. Some pieces of furniture sell high, some sell low. If you’re considering the 17th-century huanghuali chairs sold at Christie’s, yes, the top-tier stuff usually maintains its value or fluctuates slightly depending on the world economy, because there are only so many people around who can afford that kind of thing. That doesn’t apply to all furniture in general. If you take more-common Chinese furniture, made out of elmwood or something like that, that’s been steadily going down in the market for a long time.”

A modern Chinese-style table and four chairs of Vietnamese huanghuali, the humpback stretcher apron accented with ruyi head spacers, sold for a strong hammer price of $150,000 at Clars in 2014. Clars Auction Gallery, Oakland, Calif.
A modern Chinese-style table and four chairs of Vietnamese huanghuali, the humpback stretcher apron accented with ruyi head spacers, sold for a strong hammer price of $150,000 at Clars in 2014. Clars Auction Gallery, Oakland, Calif.

“What’s been happening in the Asian art world, when something sells for a lot of money – such as the Ming Dynasty huanghuali pieces – people begin to make things like it. It’s nice to have something like it, if you can’t have the actual thing. Some things are completely unobtainable because the only examples in existence are in museums or private collections that will never go up for sale. People start making things ‘in the style of’ – they’re still really nice, they’re rosewood and well-carved, but they’re just not of the period. We, of course, have buyers all over the world, but I’d say it’s predominately Asian buyers. Furniture, new or old, if it’s well-executed and a good rare wood like rosewood, will still probably sell in today’s market.”
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karlakleinalbertsonAbout Karla Klein Albertson

Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.
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Alberto Giacometti: Redefining the human figure

Alberto Giacometti, "Place", 1948-1949, Bronze, 21 × 63.5 × 44 cm, Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung, Depositum in der Öffentlichen Kunstsammlung Basel, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich, Foto: Martin P. Bühler, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel On show at "Future Present", from Jun.13, 2015 to Jan.31, 2016

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BY SILVIA ANNA BARRILA
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Alberto Giacometti, “Place”, 1948-1949, Bronze, 21 × 63.5 × 44 cm, Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung, Depositum in der Öffentlichen Kunstsammlung Basel, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich, Foto: Martin P. Bühler, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel

On show at “Future Present” through Jan. 31, 2016

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MILAN, Italy – Born in Borgonovo di Stampa in Switzerland in 1901, Alberto Giacometti became one of the most important sculptors of the 20th century.

Son of the post-impressionist painter Giovanni Giacometti, Alberto Giacometti soon showed his interest and talent for art. His father and the Swiss artist Cuno Amiet were two influential figures in his early training.

Giacometti studied painting at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and sculpture and drawing at the Ecole des Arts et Métiers in Geneva, from 1919 to 1920. In 1920-21 Giacometti went to Italy, where he appreciated the work of Giotto and Tintoretto. In 1922 he settled in Paris, where he became interested in Cubism and Primitivism. In the mid-1920s he opened a studio with his brother Diego, who worked as his assistant. During these years he tried many approaches.

In the late 1920s Giacometti was attracted to the Surrealists, a group he joined in 1931 and in which he remained until being expelled in 1935. Nevertheless, visionary themes kept recurring in his works, together with metaphorical objects and assemblages. His sculptures often recalled games and architectural models. In those years, Giacometti used the motif of the cage, which allowed him to define space.

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Alberto Giacometti, “Standing Woman”, 1948 (cast 1949), Painted bronze, 65 3/8 x 6 1/2 x 13 1/2″, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, James Thrall Soby Bequest © 2015 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

On show at “Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figure and the Second World War” at The Museum of Modern Art in New York through Mar. 20, 2016

In the early 1930s Giacometti also produced functional objects such as lamps and vases, which were sold by avant-garde interior designer Jean-Michel Frank. In 1939, a couple from Argentina commissioned him to design tables, fireplaces and chandeliers, which were shown in Paris before being shipped to Buenos Aires.

Giacometti abandoned the Surrealism and abstraction in the late 1930s to return to the human figure and its representation in space. One issue that remained central during his career was the representation of the head and, in particular, of the eyes. During the 1930s he explored various directions, using as models his brother Diego, his friend and muse Isabel Rawsthorne, the model Rita Gueyfier and others.

During World War II, Giacometti was in Switzerland, where he conceived the idea of the slender figures, which represent his famous sculptures of the postwar period. In comparison to the imagination and playfulness of Surrealism, these works reflect the suffering and trauma of war, and the anxiety and alienation that followed in the postwar period.
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Starting with the intention of representing perspective within the illusion of space, Giacometti found the solution in the elongated proportions of his figures. His sculptures became an artistic reference point for the philosophical currents of existentialism and phenomenology, and for the representation of man alone in the universe and unable to communicate.

The importance of Giacometti in art history is reflected in the art market. His sculpture “L’Homme qui marche I” (The Walking Man I), made in 1961, was auctioned by Sotheby’s London in February 2010 for $103.7 million, becoming the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction (this record was surpassed in May of the same year by “Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur” (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust), a Picasso painting that sold for $106 million). It was also the most expensive sculpture ever sold at auction until May 2015, when another of Giacometti’s sculptures, “L’Homme au doigt” (Pointing Man), from an edition of six produced in 1947, changed hands for $141.3 million at Christie’s in New York. The work had remained in the same collection for 45 years.

Giacometti’s works are in major museum and private collections in the world, including the MoMA (where his 1948 work “Standing Woman” is currently exhibited in the show “Soldier, Spectre, Shaman: The Figures and the Second World War” through March 20, 2016), the Pompidou, the Tate, the Kunsthaus Zürich, the Fondation Beyeler, and the Schaulager (where his 1948-49 work “Place,” is on view in the show “Future Present,” running through Jan. 31, 2016). More than 5,000 works by Giacometti are kept in the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris.

In 2016, the art world celebrates 115 years since Giacometti’s birth and marks 50 years since his death in 1961. However, time stands still when considering the undisputedly unique qualities of his sculptures, which have assured an enduring legacy.

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Alberto Giacometti, “Place”, 1948-1949, Bronze, 21 × 63.5 × 44 cm, Emanuel Hoffmann-Stiftung, Depositum in der Öffentlichen Kunstsammlung Basel, © Succession Alberto Giacometti / 2015, ProLitteris, Zurich, Foto: Martin P. Bühler, Öffentliche Kunstsammlung Basel

On show at “Future Present”, from Jun.13, 2015 to Jan.31, 2016

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SilviaAnnaBarrilaAbout Silvia Anna Barrila

Silvia Anna Barilla is an Italian fine arts journalist and regular contributor to the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 ORE (ArtEconomy24). She also writes about art, design, lifestyle and society for a number of Italian and international magazines, including DAMn Magazine and ICON (Mondadori). She is based in Milan and Berlin.
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Hermes: Handbags with a distinguished history

This Special Order Horseshoe 35cm Shiny Electric Blue Birkin in Porosus Crocodile, the most desirable material, brought $81,250 at a 2015 Heritage New York Valentine Signature Auction. Courtesy Heritage Auctions

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Detail of Hermes Special Order Horseshoe 35cm Shiny Electric Blue Birkin in Porosus Crocodile.
Courtesy Heritage Auctions

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Cleopatra had all the luxury goods the ancient world could offer – but the Queen of the Nile did not have to carry her own stuff.

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Handbags arose when women took charge of their own lives and had to have their personal possessions on call wherever they travelled. A superhero backpack will do the job, but elegant women want a well-designed carryall that compliments their sense of style.

The Hermes family built a reputation in the 19th century for its sought-after saddlery, made to order for aristocratic riders. Established in 1837, the leather goods workshop first made harnesses and bridles for carriages. In 1880, Charles-Emile Hermes moved the firm to the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore and added a line of saddles. The flagship store remains at that location today, and the Equestrian line still offers equipment for the horse, the rider, and the stable.

Gilding the lily, this Shiny Fuchsia Porosus Crocodile Birkin 35cm has a catch and padlock of 18K white gold, studded with diamonds. The over-the-top handbag sold for $222,928 (HK $1,720,000) in a 2015 Christie’s Hong Kong sale. Courtesy Christie’s
Gilding the lily, this Shiny Fuchsia Porosus Crocodile Birkin 35cm has a catch and padlock of 18K white gold, studded with diamonds. The over-the-top handbag sold for $222,928 (HK $1,720,000) in a 2015 Christie’s Hong Kong sale. Courtesy Christie’s

By the 1920s, their offerings in fitted cases and carrying bags for sporting events were expanded to include the production of ladies handbags. The sac a depeches – later known as the “Kelly Bag” for its association with Grace Kelly – was introduced in 1935 and the famous and fashionable silk scarves in 1937. Hermes Paris today, while still based on leather goods, has stores throughout the world which offer everything from jewelry to fragrances to home goods and a website with the familiar cart to fill.

A vintage bag from 1982, the Sac Himalaya is a rare special creation from Hermes. The leathers in vibrant colors include red ostrich, emerald alligator, violet suede, and black calf. Courtesy Heritage Auctions
A vintage bag from 1982, the Sac Himalaya is a rare special creation from Hermes. The leathers in vibrant colors include red ostrich, emerald alligator, violet suede, and black calf. Courtesy Heritage Auctions

The five-figure auction market for Hermes handbags, however, has developed in response to the demand for certain models, unattainable through normal channels due to the restrictions put in place by the exclusive company. Max Brownawell, Senior Specialist in Luxury Accessories for Heritage, explains: “With certain styles – Birkins and Kellys being the best known – people can’t just walk into Hermes and buy them. Hermes has very restrictive selling policies. If you want to go in and buy a Birkin, you have to be a long-standing client. You would have to have a relationship with a salesperson, and they would have to offer it to you. That’s what’s interesting about the Hermes market. Buyers will spend two to three times the store price in order to avoid the whole game at Hermes, of having to develop a relationship and wait to be offered a bag.”

A Specialist’s Pick at Christie’s, this 18cm Constance Marquetry model suits the fashion trend for a smaller bag, worn hands-free. A neat H clasp, inlaid with bright lizard, contrasts with the surrounding burgundy alligator. Courtesy Christie’s
A Specialist’s Pick at Christie’s, this 18cm Constance Marquetry model suits the fashion trend for a smaller bag, worn hands-free. A neat H clasp, inlaid with bright lizard, contrasts with the surrounding burgundy alligator. Courtesy Christie’s

A little more information on the celebrated names the handbags carry. In a 2013 Marie Claire article, “Hermes: History of the Iconic Brand in Numbers” by Fiona Raisbeck, she wrote about the Kelly: “Hermès kicked off the craze for naming handbag styles after celebrities. In 1956 a picture of Grace Kelly showed the silver screen icon using her Hermès Sac à dépêches bag to shield herself from a scrum of paparazzi photographers and so the style was renamed the Kelly. Each Kelly bag, like most Hermès designs, takes from 12 up to 18 hours to make.”
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Hermes’ most desirable bag, the Birkin, is named after English actress and singer Jane Mallory Birkin, OBE (b. 1946). Based in France for much of her life, her fascinating career has included record albums and appearances in many important independent films, although late night television fans will recognize her from a role in the Agatha Christie film “Death on the Nile” (1978). Many projects were completed during her liaison with the multi-talented Serge Gainsbourg, which produced their actress daughter Charlotte. But in 1981, a chance plane-seat encounter with Hermes head Jean-Louis Dumas led him to design a new leather carryall, big enough for weekend supplies, and now the handbag is better known than its first owner.

This Special Order Horseshoe 35cm Shiny Electric Blue Birkin in Porosus Crocodile, the most desirable material, brought $81,250 at a 2015 Heritage New York Valentine Signature Auction. Courtesy Heritage Auctions
This Special Order Horseshoe 35cm Shiny Electric Blue Birkin in Porosus Crocodile, the most desirable material, brought $81,250 at a 2015 Heritage New York Valentine Signature Auction. Courtesy Heritage Auctions

The Hermes Birkin, which comes in various sizes, distinctive colors, and leather combinations, is what wealthy women want most and, right now, the best way to acquire a new, mint-in-box example is through major auction houses. Expect to pay five-figure prices, some bring even more. Christie’s acquires bags in confidence for private clients, has set up a regular “Handbag Store” on the website, schedules online auctions, and now offers live catalogued sales. Two have been held in Hong Kong, one in Paris, and the first New York “Handbags and Accessories” sale will occur on December 11, 2015.

Special order Hermes Birkins attract collectors’ interest – here a 30cm Horseshoe Stamp Shiny Vert Emeraude and Bleu Izmir Nilo Crocodile example from 2014. Courtesy Christie’s
Special order Hermes Birkins attract collectors’ interest – here a 30cm Horseshoe Stamp Shiny Vert Emeraude and Bleu Izmir Nilo Crocodile example from 2014. Courtesy Christie’s

Unlike other categories of vintage clothing and jewelry, this is a market driven by rarity and brand name, not by age or provenance. Hermes leads the way, with a measure of participation by other top firms such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Heritage’s Brownawell outlines how it works: “About 90% of our Luxury Accessories Signature Auctions by value is in Hermes. The things we look for the most in consignments are bags that are brand new, straight from the store. Those are what bidders really like, those achieve the highest bids. We have printed catalogues at these sales; that’s one of our principal tools for bringing in bidders – and they’re gorgeous, we work very hard on them. With bags, it’s actually one of the few areas where provenance doesn’t mean much. Unless it’s Jane Birkin’s Birkin or Grace Kelly’s Kelly, the provenance doesn’t actually add that much value.”

The 35 cm Picnic Kelly in leather and wicker with Palladium hardware was part of a 2011 Hermes Limited Edition. Courtesy Heritage Auctions
The 35 cm Picnic Kelly in leather and wicker with Palladium hardware was part of a 2011 Hermes Limited Edition. Courtesy Heritage Auctions

Caitlin Donovan, Christie’s Specialist in Handbags and Accessories, says, “Most of the bags in our live auctions will be pristine, in their boxes with the original protective plastic on the hardware. We do have a number of vintage pieces in wonderful condition. There’s a different market for a vintage Kelly than there is for a brand new pristine Birkin. Hermes bags are made so well, they’re made to last. That’s a testament to the firm’s equestrian heritage – they made saddles and bridles. They were made to be used, not sit on a shelf in someone’s incredible closet. They still have that attention to detail and quality in the bags. You see examples from the 1970s and they look brand new. The stitching is intact and the leather has a beautiful patina, the dyeing is so even, it doesn’t fade over time.”

The diminutive bag Hermes called Quelle Idole – a play on Kelly Doll – was a playful production which now has a life of its own. An smiling orange Gulliver leather example, Taipei Limited Edition 2009, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for $97,207 in 2015. (HK $750,000). Courtesy Christie’s
The diminutive bag Hermes called Quelle Idole – a play on Kelly Doll – was a playful production which now has a life of its own. An smiling orange Gulliver leather example, Taipei Limited Edition 2009, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong for $97,207 in 2015. (HK $750,000). Courtesy Christie’s

Donovan sees a developing demand for Hermes bags in smaller sizes as clients replace larger Birkins with 30 cm or even 25 cm ones: “People are going back to the idea of smaller, ladylike bags. There’s a trend across the entire bag market. We’re the only female-centered category in the auction world, and, although they are an investment, at its core the market is based on fashions which change. Independently wealthy women realize that if they’re going to spend $40,000 on a crocodile Birkin, in a couple of years they can probably get most of that back. They are one of the few items that couples prestige in the present with investment value for the future.”
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karlakleinalbertsonAbout Karla Klein Albertson

Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.
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Tiffany glass continues to make lighting magical

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BY KARLA KLEIN ALBERTSON
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Tropical landscape window, attributed to artist Agnes Northrop circa 1910, in the Neustadt Collection exhibition at Winterthur.
The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, Queens, N.Y.

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Tiffany lamps are magical artifacts in the collecting world. Illuminate one, and all the creative passion that went into its conception electrifies the viewer today.

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This transmitted passion has been the catalyst for great collections formed in the past. Many of the jewel-like lamps are now on display in museums for all to enjoy. But other notable collections have come back on the market, giving today’s appreciative buyers a chance to live with those heart-stopping displays of colored light.

Floral themes with precise renderings of different blossoms were popular for both lamp shades and windows. The Apple Blossom lamp has Tiffany Studios marks on the shade and slender tree-form base. The arched window was originally installed in a home in Fife, Scotland. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions
Floral themes with precise renderings of different blossoms were popular for both lamp shades and windows. The Apple Blossom lamp has Tiffany Studios marks on the shade and slender tree-form base. The arched window was originally installed in a home in Fife, Scotland. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions

Allen Michaan and his auction firm in Alameda, California, were chosen to handle the sale of one of the greatest assemblages of Tiffany creations ever amassed, the Garden Museum Collection from Japan.

“Tiffany is something that is so extraordinary in its beauty and its value – it will always be very popular,” said Michaan. “Whenever there is a downturn in the market, it comes back stronger than ever before. The glass is tremendous – unrivalled anywhere – amazing stuff. Art speaks to something within our souls, if one is lucky enough to have that aesthetic appreciation. While that exists, collectors will continue to pursue beautiful things for their environment.”

The Venetian/9th Century lamp with its intricate shade and base complements Tiffany desk accessories. Part of the 2012 auction of the Garden Museum Collection from Japan, this example brought $112,100 at Michaan’s. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions
The Venetian/9th Century lamp with its intricate shade and base complements Tiffany desk accessories. Part of the 2012 auction of the Garden Museum Collection from Japan, this example brought $112,100 at Michaan’s. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions

This landmark collection was assembled by Japanese real estate magnate Takeo Horiuchi with the expert advice of decorative arts scholar Alastair Duncan, formerly a specialist for Christie’s. Duncan prepared an enduring record of the entire collection before its dispersal. Horiuchi not only bought the best lamps, he was drawn to every aesthetic medium that Tiffany explored. The massive volume, Louis C. Tiffany: The Garden Museum Collection covers the entire creative output of the inspired designer from paintings and furniture to mosaics and windows to silver and jewelry. The prolific illustrations of the collection are reinforced by vintage photographs of Tiffany, his family, and the artists and craftsmen of Tiffany Studios.

Perfectly suited to the shade’s shape, dragonflies were a popular motif that Tiffany adapted to several lamp designs. From the Malakoff collection, this example has the desirable dropped heads that extend below the bottom rim of the shade and brought $245,000 at Christie’s in December 2014. Courtesy Christie’s
Perfectly suited to the shade’s shape, dragonflies were a popular motif that Tiffany adapted to several lamp designs. From the Malakoff collection, this example has the desirable dropped heads that extend below the bottom rim of the shade and brought $245,000 at Christie’s in December 2014. Courtesy Christie’s

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was born into a privileged and successful family. His father, Charles L. Tiffany (1812-1902), had left Connecticut in the 1830s to open a luxury goods store featuring fine jewelry and silver in Manhattan. Every couple who visits the Tiffany website today can see legacy photos of the “King of Diamonds” and his 19th century showroom. Although Charles sent his son to military academies, Louis came out determined to be a painter. His talent is demonstrated by the late 19th century oils and watercolors inspired by his travels, including some excellent Orientalist views of Algiers with emphatic light and shadow.

Introduced around 1900, the Cobweb or Spiderweb lamp was one of Tiffany’s most intricate designs. The broad mosaic-decorated base originally held combustible fuel while later examples were illuminated with three electric lightbulbs. Difficult to produce and expensive to purchase when made – a steep $500 – the design is at the top of any collector’s wish list. Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Introduced around 1900, the Cobweb or Spiderweb lamp was one of Tiffany’s most intricate designs. The broad mosaic-decorated base originally held combustible fuel while later examples were illuminated with three electric lightbulbs. Difficult to produce and expensive to purchase when made – a steep $500 – the design is at the top of any collector’s wish list. Courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

A turning point came in the 1870s when Louis C. Tiffany became fascinated with the properties of glass, an interest that he expressed in architectural windows for domestic and ecclesiastical properties, glass-shaded lamps, and formulas for art glass. Drawing on influences classical and exotic, Tiffany developed a well-defined aesthetic style and became sought after as an interior designer, a career where he could put his love of glass into play. In 1882, President Chester Arthur asked Tiffany to spruce up the White House, for which he created gas light fixtures and a fabulous stained glass screen wall for the Entrance Hall. Sadly, there can be no time machine tour of all the rooms he decorated. Vintage photos exist, but President Theodore Roosevelt changed everything out again when came to office.

In the Tiffany workshop, crews of craftsmen transformed artists’ designs into paintings in glass. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions
In the Tiffany workshop, crews of craftsmen transformed artists’ designs into paintings in glass. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions

Tiffany’s first lamps were made in the late 1890s, some still using combustible fuels. He had his own glassmaking company by this time. In 1902, he named his multibranched firm Tiffany Studios, while he also served as design director for the family Tiffany & Co. brand. Tiffany Studios had their own showroom at 45th and Madison in New York. A vintage photograph from the early 20th century shows a varied display of windows, hanging light fixtures, and lamps integrated into elaborate desk and table settings. Other early images show teams of men and woman assembling thousands of pieces of glass into lamps and windows.

Tiffany used wisteria flower patterns for lamps of various sizes as well as large landscape windows. Glass colors vary from shade to shade. Collectors value examples with vivid hues of deep purple, blue and green. Courtesy Christie’s
Tiffany used wisteria flower patterns for lamps of various sizes as well as large landscape windows. Glass colors vary from shade to shade. Collectors value examples with vivid hues of deep purple, blue and green. Courtesy Christie’s

While Tiffany designed some lamps himself, he employed many talented artists including favorite Clara Driscoll, creator of the popular dragonfly designs and head of his Women’s Glass Cutting Department. In 1904, The New York Daily News named her as one of the few American women earning over $10,000 a year. Alastair Duncan illustrated the Garden Museum example of her dragonfly and Water Lily lamp with a mosaic base, noting that it was once owned by Barbra Streisand. Sold for $90 at the time of its manufacture, the 16-inch lamp would have been in vogue on a writing desk or dressing table in a well-to-do household. Although out of style by the time Louis C. Tiffany died in 1933, the lamps almost immediately began a climb back into fashion driven by serious dealers and collectors, a fascinating tale that Duncan chronicles in his introductory chapter. Enthusiasts included celebrities like Streisand, and major auction houses began to organize sales around the lighting.

In addition to table models, Tiffany made hanging shades for ceiling fixtures. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, New York
In addition to table models, Tiffany made hanging shades for ceiling fixtures. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, New York
A detail of the Poinsettia shade, circa 1902, reveals the subtle coloration within individual glass pieces achieved by the firm’s artists. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, New York
A detail of the Poinsettia shade, circa 1902, reveals the subtle coloration within individual glass pieces achieved by the firm’s artists. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, New York

Hugh F. McKean and his wife, Jeannette, were among those passionate collectors and became the saviors of architectural material from Tiffany’s estate, Laurelton Hall, now on view at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. In his book on The “Lost” Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany, McKean opens the chapter on “Lamps” by writing about the artist’s love of light, color and glass: “When all things are considered, his lamps were an inevitable development in his career. … Lamps were one art form that offered an opportunity to satisfy all three desires. … Obviously the shades were made on an assembly line basis, and obviously Tiffany viewed the matter with sensible satisfaction because a lot of beauty was going into American homes and a lot of sales were being entered in his books.”

More lamps, windows and elements from Laurelton Hall on Oyster Bay are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Tiffany’s home base. Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the MMA curator of American Decorative Arts, has explored the designer’s multifaceted creativity in Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Louis Comfort Tiffany and Laurelton Hall: An Artist’s Country Estate. She also contributed to another important resource for collectors, The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

On view elsewhere in New York are highlights from one of the earliest modern collections of Tiffany lamps and windows. In 1935, when less prescient collectors were occupied elsewhere, Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife, Hildegard, bought their first Tiffany lamp – a Daffodil design – when it was just “secondhand,” not antique.

Lindsy Parrott, director/curator of the Neustadt Collection, said, ”Because he started collecting so incredibly early, at a time when these things were much more affordable, he was able to get so many superb examples, not just lesser examples that were in his price range. He had such incredible vision and foresight to recognize the beauty that these works of art possessed when they were being tossed out because tastes had changed so much. You just have to hang onto these things and be patient because they will come back around.”
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Dr. Neustadt gave part of his collection to the New-York Historical Society. A new installation of the lamps will open in 2016, but all examples can be viewed online. The rest remain with the Neustadt Foundation.

Parrott added, “We are a museum but we don’t have a formal building. We have a partnership with the Queens Museum, where we have this new gallery that opened two years ago. We’ve reinstalled portions of the collection there and we present changing exhibitions in that space, currently ‘Shade Garden: Floral Lamps from the Tiffany Studios.’

Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife, Hildegard, were pioneering collectors of Tiffany glass. On exhibit at Winterthur, ‘Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light’ presents five windows and 19 lamps, including this Begonia reading lamp. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, New York
Dr. Egon Neustadt and his wife, Hildegard, were pioneering collectors of Tiffany glass. On exhibit at Winterthur, ‘Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light’ presents five windows and 19 lamps, including this Begonia reading lamp. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, New York

“Then we also share our collection with a broader audience; these traveling exhibitions allow us to expand the discussion beyond admiration of the individual objects and began to talk about connoisseurship. We have this collection with such extraordinary depth and breadth, even multiples of a single lamp design. We can really begin to talk about what makes a good Tiffany lamp and what makes an extraordinary Tiffany lamp.”

The latest touring exhibition, “Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light” features 19 lamps and five windows, on display at the Winterthur Museum through Jan. 3, 2016. A series of lectures accompanies the exhibition, and the museum has put together a companion show, “Tiffany: The Color of Luxury,” with objects drawn from their own collections.

Christie’s New York has long held the world record for a Tiffany lamp at auction. The Pink Lotus lamp sold for $2.8 million in December 1997. The leaded glass outer shade with a continuous frieze of water lilies is open at the top to reveal a set of eight small Favrile glass shades within. Only three examples of the form (h. 34 3/4 inches) are known. Carolyn Pastel, senior specialist in 20th Century Decorative Art and Design, talked to Style Century about the current market for Tiffany lamps: “They’re not all equal. Tiffany had a tremendous output. You have a lot of material to potentially collect from Tiffany at various price points.”

Louis Comfort Tiffany developed groundbreaking techniques for working and coloring glass with progressive shading. This Magnolia window, which once graced a domestic setting, brought $177,000 in 2012. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions
Louis Comfort Tiffany developed groundbreaking techniques for working and coloring glass with progressive shading. This Magnolia window, which once graced a domestic setting, brought $177,000 in 2012. Garden Museum Collection, Michaan’s Auctions

What determines value? She continued: “In terms of collecting, you are looking at rarities, for sure. Top works, such as the Wisteria lamp, are very sought after. There was definitely limited production because it was a very difficult piece to make. Do we have the exact number? – no, but over time you can make a general assessment of how many were made. For the Lotus lamp, we know only a few were ever made. On the other hand, many Dragonfly lamps were produced because that design was tremendously popular. There are variations in the size of the shade as well as the dragonfly.”

Good condition is important as well. Cracks may exist, but they should not be distracting to the eye. Exact colors vary from shade to shade, and buyers can be choosy about which hues they prefer.

Pastel emphasizes the importance of a lamp’s past history: “What you’re seeing now with the Tiffany market is that provenance is really becoming more important for collectors. You want to go back as far as you possibly can – when was it inherited, what’s the story behind it – as many details as possible. The Lotus lamp was quite amazing, it had been owned by the Wrigley family – that added a layer of interest and intrigue. There is a constant flow of new interest for this icon of American art.”

Cherished in great collections over the past 80 years, Tiffany lamps stand poised to arouse the passions of a millennial generation.

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts The Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries of Art Nouveau and Art Deco – Tiffany installation Photo: Travis Fullerton ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
The Sydney and Frances Lewis Galleries of Art Nouveau and Art Deco – Tiffany installation
Photo: Travis Fullerton ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

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karlakleinalbertsonAbout Karla Klein Albertson

Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.
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Piero Fornasetti: Inspired jester of the decorative arts

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BY KARLA KLEIN ALBERTSON
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Inspired by a photo of the Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri (1875-1944), Fornasetti created hundreds of porcelain plates –
a series he called ‘Tema e Variazioni’ – decorated with surrealistic and trompe l’oeil variations on her beautiful face.
The plates turn up frequently at sales and remain an affordable approach to the designer. Courtesy Uniques.

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Only a collage of images can truly capture the genius of Italian designer Piero Fornasetti (1913-1988) – pictures succeed where words fail.

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A quick search online produces a fountain of decorated forms. At first glance, casual viewers may think they know what Fornasetti was all about. His work seems recognizable and identifiable, particularly his beautiful face-morphing “Tema e Variazioni” plates or furniture decorated with architectural prints. But, like a classic jester, he pops up at a different artistic point with a new trick – there is always a clever form or an inspired pattern yet to discover.

Fornasetti was born just before World War I in Milan, a northern Italian town near the Swiss border that produced many gifted designers destined for international recognition. After briefly studying painting in his native city, he used a grant to travel to Africa. The artist absorbed and transformed many influences – classic to modern historical styles, mind-bending surrealism, the lure of exotic scenery, and a 20th century fondness for vivid colors. When he began to paint, he created scenes not on canvas but on silk scarves, which he exhibited at the Milan Triennale in 1933.

Fornasetti designed a brilliant construction for the bedroom in this trompe l’oeil ‘Architettura’ double trumeau. The case piece with transfer-printed decoration was commissioned from the firm’s Milan store in 1966. Courtesy Phillips.
Fornasetti designed a brilliant construction for the bedroom in this trompe l’oeil ‘Architettura’ double trumeau. The case piece with transfer-printed decoration was commissioned from the firm’s Milan store in 1966. Courtesy Phillips.

While fashion accessories might not seem a quick path to fame, his imaginative take on scarves attracted the interest of Gio Ponti (1891-1979), more than 20 years his senior, who was the leading figure in the Italian design world at the time. Ponti showcased some of the younger artist’s work in his influential magazine Domus and the two began to collaborate on diverse projects. In 1950, the duo decorated the venerable Casino in San Remo on the Ligurian Riviera; they still have a “Food Corner Gio Ponti” there.

They also teamed up on interior design for the celebrated Italian luxury liner S.S. Andrea Doria launched in June 1951 from the Genoa shipyards. The liner famously sank off the coast of Massachusetts after a collision in July 1956, but vintage photographs record their successful public room and cabin designs, irretrievably lost to collectors. More accessible, the two designers created the “Architettura” furniture line which featured Ponti-conceived forms with surface decoration in characteristic Fornasetti style, examples of which they exhibited at the Triennale in 1951.

Fornasetti furnished Villa Varenna, his family’s vacation home on Lake Como, with a mixture of antiques and his own fanciful designs. This lithographic transfer-printed wood wardrobe with an 18th century garden pattern overall was a unique creation, made for his personal bedroom circa 1954. It sold at Phillips New York for $179,000 in 2013. Courtesy Phillips.
Fornasetti furnished Villa Varenna, his family’s vacation home on Lake Como, with a mixture of antiques and his own fanciful designs. This lithographic transfer-printed wood wardrobe with an 18th century garden pattern overall was a unique creation, made for his personal bedroom circa 1954. It sold at Phillips New York for $179,000 in 2013. Courtesy Phillips.

Domenico Raimondo, Senior International Specialist in Design for Phillips, London and New York, has handled important pieces by both Fornasetti and Ponti and noted the influence the older master had on the younger partner: “Ponti was incredibly generous, he helped everybody, and he had a keen eye for anything that was new and unusual. Where other designers closed themselves off into the elitist world of private commissions for the very wealthy, Ponti – as a genius – understood that industry was the future. In addition to amazing commissions, he made prototypes for mass-produced pieces so that ordinary people had something beautiful to live with.”

Fornasetti chose to follow this path as well, creating many designs that could be replicated and owned by everyone, while still at times creating unique objects.
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Because Fornasetti was such a prolific and diverse designer, collectors must navigate a minefield of past and present production. And – with the help of experts – must learn to distinguish between the genuine article and lookalikes and to separate plentiful from rare examples. Raimondo said, “It depends how you want to shape up your collection. If you look at the forms and the variety of decoration in the mass-produced pieces, that’s one way; if you want to have unique pieces, that is another. There are some early pieces and rare pieces available.”

This illuminated trumeau with writing surface and drawers below is covered with an exotic ‘Gran Coromandel’ scene in gold on a red ground. One of a production of five, the work is marked with the artist’s logo and Fornasetti/Milano inside the top drawer. Courtesy Phillips.
This illuminated trumeau with writing surface and drawers below is covered with an exotic ‘Gran Coromandel’ scene in gold on a red ground. One of a production of five, the work is marked with the artist’s logo and Fornasetti/Milano inside the top drawer. Courtesy Phillips.

When the designer died in 1988, Suzanne Slesin offered this tribute in the New York Times: “Mr. Fornasetti’s fanciful pieces were always witty and imaginative. In his motifs, he favored Piranesi-like engravings, the sun, moon and stars, playing cards, animals and surrealistic images.” And she offered this market note: “But recently, there has been a renewed interest in his work and his trompe l’oeil motifs have inspired new fabrics and home furnishing accessories…Collectors are seeking out the vintage Fornasetti pieces in avant-garde modern furniture boutiques and at auction.”

Inspired by a photo of the Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri (1875-1944), Fornasetti created hundreds of porcelain plates – a series he called ‘Tema e Variazioni’ – decorated with surrealistic and trompe l’oeil variations on her beautiful face. The plates turn up frequently at sales and remain an affordable approach to the designer. Courtesy Uniques.
Inspired by a photo of the Italian soprano Lina Cavalieri (1875-1944), Fornasetti created hundreds of porcelain plates – a series he called ‘Tema e Variazioni’ – decorated with surrealistic and trompe l’oeil variations on her beautiful face. The plates turn up frequently at sales and remain an affordable approach to the designer. Courtesy Uniques.

Interest continued to grow over the next 25 years, and his major pieces can bring six figures at sale in the United States and Europe. “Fornasetti style” pieces made during the designer’s lifetime and in the years since his death range from faithful replicas of important furnishings to reissues of porcelain plate designs to Fornasetti-like architectural prints applied to all sorts of objects large and small. This raises the value of authenticated pieces made during his lifetime, especially unique examples and one-off commissions.

 Folding screens presented a perfect surface for Fornasetti’s inspired imagery; patterns range from the historical to the metaphysical. From an edition of 10, this 1954 design depicting ‘Battaglia Navale’ – a naval battle – was sold for $20,000 by Wright in 2014. Courtesy Wright Auctions.

Folding screens presented a perfect surface for Fornasetti’s inspired imagery; patterns range from the historical to the metaphysical. From an edition of 10, this 1954 design depicting ‘Battaglia Navale’ – a naval battle – was sold for $20,000 by Wright in 2014. Courtesy Wright Auctions.

Domenico Raimondo cited one such piece, an “Architettura” double trumeau covered with transfer-printed decoration, which was commissioned from Fornasetti’s Milan store in 1966; it brought $104,500 at Phillips New York in 2014: “An amazing piece, and a great example of something that a serious collector should go for, because the design is unique and wasn’t repeated again. It’s incredibly architectural – not just because of the decoration but because of the actual form. With Fornasetti, the decoration takes over and becomes something else – there’s a metaphysical aspect to it. I think he was an absolute genius.”

Fascinated by faces, the designer set them on a pair of brass-bound mirrors, circa 1950. One bears the identifying label ‘Fornasetti Milano Made in Italy.’ Courtesy Wright Auctions.
Fascinated by faces, the designer set them on a pair of brass-bound mirrors, circa 1950. One bears the identifying label ‘Fornasetti Milano Made in Italy.’ Courtesy Wright Auctions.

Barnaba Fornasetti, the designer’s son, worked with his father during his lifetime and has become the keeper of the flame since his death. Consulting extensive archives, he is able to authenticate individual works auction houses, dealers and collectors; this fact is often noted in catalog entries. The best visual introduction to the senior Fornasetti’s creative production is a tour of the innovative website created by Barnaba, www.fornasetti.com. Stop for a moment on the spellbinding animated home page, view a history with musical accompaniment, or check the lists of vendors for vintage and evolving Fornasetti family design. The best printed reference is a comprehensive volume Fornasetti: The Complete Universe, put together by Barnaba, which contains over 2,800 illustrations of the prolific designer’s work.

Fornasetti’s approach to practical seating – around 20 examples of this rare high stool were made of rubberized steel and nylon cord. This pair turned up at a Wright Important Design sale in 2013. Courtesy Wright Auctions.
Fornasetti’s approach to practical seating – around 20 examples of this rare high stool were made of rubberized steel and nylon cord. This pair turned up at a Wright Important Design sale in 2013. Courtesy Wright Auctions.

Also on the website are images of exhibitions devoted to the designer, including a large show on view at the Triennale Design Museum in Milan Nov. 13, 2013 to Feb. 9, 2014 and the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris March 11, 2015 to June 14, 2015. The English language catalog of the recent exhibition, Piero Fornasetti: Practical Madness edited by Patrick Mauries, is available from Sept. 8, 2015.
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karlakleinalbertsonAbout Karla Klein Albertson

Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.
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Gio Ponti: Grand thinker of Italian design

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During the early ’50s, Ponti explored the concept of an oval table on three legs with a rounded underside and a sculptural void in the center.
Only a few examples with subtle variations were made, including this coffee table of Italian walnut, lacquered wood. Courtesy Wright.

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Perhaps it is the very soil of northern Italy, but the region has produced so many artists who can do so many things wonderfully well.

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Certainly Renaissance men continue to arise, and Gio Ponti (1891-1979) – architect, designer, publisher and professor – was born into the already industrialized culture of late-19th century Milan.

After service in World War I, Ponti completed his architecture degree. Although he continued to explore the creative possibilities of large-scale construction throughout his lifetime, he did not merely settle for working in a traditional architectural firm. Instead, he immediately branched out into industrial design in all its myriad forms, from power plants to fashionable lighting to the dishes on the family table.

These silver-plated candlesticks in the Fleche or Arrow pattern (H. 10 in) were manufactured circa 1933 by the French firm of Christofle, with which Ponti collaborated for over 40 years. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.
These silver-plated candlesticks in the Fleche or Arrow pattern (H. 10 in) were manufactured circa 1933 by the French firm of Christofle, with which Ponti collaborated for over 40 years. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Auctioneer Rico Baca of Palm Beach Modern Auctions has handled many examples of Ponti’s furniture and decorative arts. In an interview with Style Century he explained: “All designers and architects – if they are talented – their creativity really transcends a single milieu. Their minds work a certain way, so if they look at calculators and think the design is poor, they immediately design a new calculator. They produce designs because they have a way of looking at things. When they design coffee tables or silver, it’s just an extension of how they see the world.”

One of Ponti’s best-known creations, the ‘Superleggera’ side chair was designed 1955-1957 and manufactured by Cassina in Italy. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.
One of Ponti’s best-known creations, the ‘Superleggera’ side chair was designed 1955-1957 and manufactured by Cassina in Italy. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

Collectors of Gio Ponti works have a dazzling array of choices resulting from a prolific career that spanned six decades. At the top of the pyramid are the completed architectural projects that belong to the world, such as the 1956 Pirelli skyscraper in Milan or the 1971 North Building of the Denver Art Museum. His charming book illustrations and theatrical production sketches for La Scala are pure art. His furniture output ranges from unique studio pieces to mass-produced designs for homes to innovative furnishings for hotels and ocean liners. He exercised his creativity on diverse types of decorative arts – porcelain for Richard-Ginori, silver for Christofle and Reed and Barton, glass for Venini, even bathroom fixtures and fabrics.

Another popular seating design from the 1950s, Ponti’s ‘Distex’ armchair by Cassina was widely distributed in Europe and elsewhere. Examples of the streamlined seating form frequently turn up at auction. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.
Another popular seating design from the 1950s, Ponti’s ‘Distex’ armchair by Cassina was widely distributed in Europe and elsewhere. Examples of the streamlined seating form frequently turn up at auction. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.

As he worked, he shared his thoughts with other artists in many media, a practice that made his stylistic innovations even more influential. Richard Wright, who has handled many important Ponti works in his specialty design sales, noted, “He was extremely generous – the grand thinker of Italian design for the first half of the 20th century. He was more than an architect, he was everything. From the 1920s to the 1970s, Ponti really helped to create a new vision for Italian furniture design. He founded Domus magazine – incredibly important – you can’t underestimate what he did for Italian design in general.”

Ponti experimented with a design for a grid-structured circular coffee table throughout his career. There are rare early examples made of wood. By the 1950s, it had evolved into an enameled metal ‘Harlequin’ table illustrated in a mid-decade issue of ‘Domus.’ Colors change from blue and yellow to red and yellow as the viewer walks around the table. Courtesy Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
Ponti experimented with a design for a grid-structured circular coffee table throughout his career. There are rare early examples made of wood. By the 1950s, it had evolved into an enameled metal ‘Harlequin’ table illustrated in a mid-decade issue of ‘Domus.’ Colors change from blue and yellow to red and yellow as the viewer walks around the table. Courtesy Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

Yet another way to facilitate an interchange of ideas, Ponti began Domus – the title is the Latin word for house or home – in 1928, and it became Europe’s most influential publication on architecture and design. It is still in existence today. He edited the magazine until 1941, set up a new publication called Stile, then returned in 1947 to edit Domus until his death in 1979. He also influenced future generations as a professor on the architecture faculty of Milan Polytechnic from 1936 to 1961.

In the late 1940s, Ponti had a fruitful partnership with Paolo Venini and his Murano glassworks. In addition to colorful glass bottles and vessels he called ‘divertimenti,’ he created this iconic 12-arm chandelier. This example was owned by Ponti and installed at his vacation home in Liguria. As the Wright auction catalog noted: ‘Theatrical but not overly extravagant, amusing but also wholly functional, this chandelier exhibits a refinement that is distinctly Ponti.’ Courtesy Wright.
In the late 1940s, Ponti had a fruitful partnership with Paolo Venini and his Murano glassworks. In addition to colorful glass bottles and vessels he called ‘divertimenti,’ he created this iconic 12-arm chandelier. This example was owned by Ponti and installed at his vacation home in Liguria. As the Wright auction catalog noted: ‘Theatrical but not overly extravagant, amusing but also wholly functional, this chandelier exhibits a refinement that is distinctly Ponti.’ Courtesy Wright.

Wright continued, “The big divide is the custom furniture compared to the production furniture. The very best pieces are custom and have a documented provenance. The custom pieces obviously bring much more money, because of the higher level of craftsmanship. They are unique or very rare. The best ones we handled came out of South America, where he did homes for Italian ex-pats. That was very exciting material; we had the original drawings. We handled some pieces he did for his daughter Lisa Ponti. Those unique, one-off works coming directly from the family which commissioned them are at the top.”

In the 1950s, Ponti created furniture designs for M. Singer & Sons, New York-Chicago. This Italian walnut cabinet with eight drawers (W. 72 in) appears in the firm’s catalogs from that era. Courtesy Wright.
In the 1950s, Ponti created furniture designs for M. Singer & Sons, New York-Chicago. This Italian walnut cabinet with eight drawers (W. 72 in) appears in the firm’s catalogs from that era.
Courtesy Wright.

More affordable are the special designs – beds, tables, chests – which he created for specific hotel or cruise ship projects but were produced on a large scale. So Wright assures collectors, “You can engage with Ponti at a lot of different levels. There are ceramics that he designed in the 1920s and 1930s for Ginori. … There are some widely produced furniture designs that he did for Singer & Sons … He did glass, he did some silver. He collaborated with Paolo Polli. He did wonderful little animals in copper and enamel. Some of those are relatively inexpensive.”
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Rico Baca concurred, “With all those unique pieces, the most important thing is that they have to be treated as art. When you start to talk about art, you need to consider provenance, and if there’s no provenance, the value is much less. Of course, we try to do the research work for the buyers prior to the sale. There’s a client who only wants the real thing – for status and for investment. They feel comfortable spending $75,000 on a desk because they know that it’s worth that. One of my favorites was that harlequin coffee table we sold, because when you would walk around the piece, different angles revealed a different group of colors. We’re always looking for one-off items by Ponti or things that have stellar provenance. When those come in – you see the items in person and touch them – there’s a special feeling and a distinctive style to the whole piece.”

This administrator’s desk of fruitwood, laminate, beech and brass, circa 1950, accompanied by a certificate from the Ponti archives, was sold at Palm Beach Modern in 2013. Courtesy Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
This administrator’s desk of fruitwood, laminate, beech and brass, circa 1950, accompanied by a certificate from the Ponti archives, was sold at Palm Beach Modern in 2013. Courtesy Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

Fortunately for collectors, Ponti’s descendants have produced a definitive reference and an on-going archive against which individual pieces can be verified. Auction catalog entries for unique or custom pieces should include a confirmation, such as “Sold with a certificate of expertise from the Gio Ponti archives.” Gio Ponti: The Complete Work, 1923-1978 by the designer’s daughter Lisa Licitra Ponti contains a comprehensive survey of the architecture and design he created. A well-known art and architecture critic, she collaborated with her father from 1940 until his death in 1979. The book description notes: “The entire photographic archive of Ponti’s studio, together with his unpublished writings, were made available for the first time for the preparation of this book. There are many new photographs of his work and a broad selection of his letters, diaries and essays. A biographical profile, bibliography, and chronologies of works, exhibitions and sales round out this stunning book.” Although pricey, copies of the English translation do come on the market.

A Ponti design for a floating rosewood and chromed steel desk was part of a group of furniture commercially produced by Rima in Padua, Italy. Courtesy Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
A Ponti design for a floating rosewood and chromed steel desk was part of a group of furniture commercially produced by Rima in Padua, Italy. Courtesy Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

In the mid-1980s, Lisa Ponti reorganized the Ponti Archives, which are located in the Milan building designed by Gio Ponti, where he lived and worked. And since 1996, grandson Salvatore Licitra has continued to maintain the data collection. Best of all, much of the information is now available online in English and can be accessed by anyone at www.gioponti.org/en/archives. The archives are visual and a researcher can scroll through architecture and design grouped chronologically. Around 1930, for example, we see lighting and furniture for Fontana Arte, table utensils for Krupp, a stately house in Milan, a luxury cabin on an ocean liner, and a funeral chapel side by side. Also online, there is a biography, news, a store section, and a description of 99,900 letters – sent and received – which have been indexed at the archives.

In addition to his daughter’s comprehensive survey, there are dozens of books and exhibition catalogs devoted to Gio Ponti’s works – in Italian and English – which examine particular areas of his long career. Notable among them is a book of essays by Ponti himself titled In Praise of Architecture; copies of the English translation of the Italian original can be found through used booksellers.
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karlakleinalbertsonAbout Karla Klein Albertson

Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.
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In 1971, the Denver Art Museum opened what is now known as the North Building, designed by Italian architect Gio Ponti (1891-1979) and Denver-based James Sudler Associates. The structure remains the only completed project in the United States by this Italian master of modern design. Courtesy Denver Art Museum.
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Rediscovering Pirandello

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Landscape by Fausto Pirandello. Courtesy Galleria Russo.

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Fausto Pirandello was born in Rome in 1899, the son of famous playwright and Nobel Laureate Luigi Pirandello, and Antonietta Portolano.

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He began his artistic training with Felice Carena after World War I. His first signed works date back to the early 1920s, and his public debut took place in 1925 at the third Roman Biennial, where he showed a picture of bathers, a theme he revisited frequently throughout his career. Although he lived in Rome, his family was Sicilian, and his long stays in Sicily influenced his color palette, with the warm colors of its sun-drenched land, the blinding light and the blue sea.

Compared to the classicism of his teacher, his painting is more expressionist, characterized by diagonal compositions and a sparse representation of reality. He was associated with the Roman school, a painting movement of the 1930s that aimed to overcome the conventionalism of the “Novecento” movement through wild and expressionist painting.

In 1926 he participated in the Venice Biennale, where he returned regularly from 1932 to 1942. From 1928 to 1930, he was in Paris, where he frequented Italian artists such as De Chirico and De Pisis. In 1929 in Paris, he mounted his first solo exhibition, at the Galerie Vildrac. In 1930 he exhibited in Vienna and, in the following year, in Rome, where he remained until his death in 1975.

Fausto Pirandello, Autoritratto con tavolozza, 1946, olio su tavola, cm 60x41, Courtesy Galleria Russo
Fausto Pirandello, Autoritratto con tavolozza, 1946, olio su tavola, cm 60×41, Courtesy Galleria Russo.

His first solo show in Italy was in 1931, at the Galleria di Roma, and two years later he had a solo show in Milan at the Galleria Milano. This is the period during which he created several important works now housed in museums such as Pompidou (Interno di mattina, 1931) and Museo del Novecento (Il Remo e la pala). In 1935, Pirandello exhibited a number of works at the second Roman Quadrennial, including Il bagno and Pioggia d’oro, today held in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna di Roma, along with the portrait of his brother Stefano Pirandello (1930) and portrait of his father Luigi Pirandello (1936). Among those who collected his works in those years were Corrado Alvaro, Ercole Maselli and Telesio Interlandi in Rome; and Margherita Sarfatti and Arturo Martini in Milan.

Pirandello paintings from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s are in highest demand today, although works from the 1920s are all but impossible to find in the marketplace. His favorite theme was the human figure, which he depicted in a monumental and dramatic way.
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At the end of the 1930s and 1940s Pirandello showed in important group exhibitions in Italy and abroad, including Vienna, San Francisco, Paris, London, Pittsburgh and New York, and received important recognition. He won third prize at the Rome Quadrennial in 1939 and first prize at the second Mostra dello Sport in 1940. In 1942 he exhibited for the first time at the Galleria Gian Ferrari of Milan, where he returned to exhibit frequently. The gallery has played an important role in the artist’s career and published his catalog.

Also after the war, Pirandello continued to exhibit frequently, both in Italy and abroad. In 1955 he had a solo show in New York at the gallery of Catherine Viviano. But in those years of veering between abstraction and figuration, between form and content, Pirandello searched for a perfect balance. His intention was to reduce the picture to light and color, but he never forgot the nature and the objective reality, toward which he went back in the 1960s.

Despite his career and recognition in life, today his work is undervalued. One may find works of interesting pictorial value for around 50,000 euros.

“The market for Italian artists very often does not correspond to their true artistic value because of various, complex reasons,” said Fabrizio Russo, owner of Galleria Russo in Rome. “Pirandello’s market reached its peak about five years ago, but it was later affected by the crisis that has affected many artists who are not supported at the international level. Today, finally, there is a new turnaround.”

The market for Pirandello is mainly Italian, but is emerging at the international level, particularly in Great Britain “thanks to the foresight of the large international auction houses that have not hesitated to insert works by the artist in the prestigious evening sales in London,” added Russo. Also contributing to this rediscovery is the important exhibition that the Estorick Collection, a collection of Italian art in London, devoted to his work (July 8 to Sept. 6, 2015).

Fausto Pirandello, I pastori, 1934, olio su tavola, cm 75x103, Courtesy Galleria Russo
Fausto Pirandello, I pastori, 1934, olio su tavola, cm 75×103, Courtesy Galleria Russo.

But what is Fausto Pirandello’s significance within the panoramic history of art? “He was, in my opinion, an absolute genius, who has been able to anticipate international artists like first Lucian Freud and then Jenny Saville,” replied Fabrizio Russo. “The apparent disharmony of the form, a deliberately rough material, and the highly dramatic atmosphere of his compositions place him without any doubt among the most interesting international expressionists.”

The family of Fabrizio Russo began working with Pirandello in the 1950s, and this collaboration went on until his death, as evidenced by several catalogs of solo exhibitions. Fabrizio Russo started to handle Pirandello’s work in the first year of his gallery, 1984.

The work of Fausto Pirandello is protected by a foundation established in 2011 by his son Pierluigi and daughter-in-law Giovanna Pirandello. The foundation, which has 19 works by Pirandello, strives to preserve both the works and an important photographic and documentary archive about the artist. It also promotes the knowledge of Pirandello through exhibitions, conferences and publications in Italy and abroad.
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SilviaAnnaBarrilaAbout Silvia Anna Barrila

Silvia Anna Barilla is an Italian fine arts journalist and regular contributor to the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 ORE (ArtEconomy24). She also writes about art, design, lifestyle and society for a number of Italian and international magazines, including DAMn Magazine and ICON (Mondadori). She is based in Milan and Berlin.
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Giuseppe Chiari: Illustrated music

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BY SILVIA ANNA BARRILA
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Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Collage 8 carte,’ 1981, collage on canvas, 27.6in x 39.4in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art.

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PARIS – Born in Florence in 1926, Giuseppe Chiari studied engineering before beginning his career as a pianist. He gave concerts characterized by an experimental approach and influenced by jazz and by the avant-garde compositions of American John Cage.

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“In the early 1960s, Giuseppe Chiari did what might be defined as his artistic statement by putting a pair of scissors on his piano at the end of a concert,” said Michele Casamonti, gallery-owner of Tornabuoni Art in Paris. His gallery has represented Giuseppe Chiari at the international level since the 1980s, when Casamonti’s father, Roberto Casamonti, founder of Tornabuoni Arte in Florence, met the artist, began to collect his work and then became his friend and art dealer.

“From this act, it came out what Chiari called ‘action music,’ a musical movement that combined traditional instruments with objects and sounds from the everyday life,” said Michele Casamonti.

Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Autoritratto,’ 1992, photocopy on paper on canvas, 19.9in x 11.8in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Autoritratto,’ 1992, photocopy on paper on canvas, 19.9in x 11.8in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

Giuseppe Chiari’s art aimed at the reunion of the arts and at overcoming the barriers between music, theater and visual arts. In practice, this meant the creation of works composed of painted scores that make the music not only audible, but also visible and intuitively perceivable by anyone who watches the works. In addition to his performances and the painted scores, Chiari worked also with collage – both on paper and on the instruments – and with writing. He produced several artists’ books, as well, such as Music without counterpoint, from 1969, or Method to play, from 1976.

In 1962 he participated in the exhibition “Fluxus Festspiele internationale Neuester Musik” in Wiesbaden, Germany, and became part of the Fluxus group. This gave an international dimension to his production and encouraged his experimentation in the direction of anti-technique and anti-art. The following year, Chiari became a member of Group 70 in Florence, whose experimentations were interdisciplinary and lead to the so-called “Visual poetry.”

Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Opera importante,’ 1990, ink on paper, 11.8in x 16.5 in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Opera importante,’ 1990, ink on paper, 11.8in x 16.5 in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

“The year 1972 was a milestone in the career of Giuseppe Chiari,” said Casamonti, “with the first of his three participations in the Venice Biennale and his presence at Documenta in Kassel. But Giuseppe Chiari himself stated that the most memorable moment in his artistic career was simply his improvisation on the piano at Museo Pecci in Prato in 1990.”

Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Fluxus,’ 1992, ink on paper, 11.4in x 7.9in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Fluxus,’ 1992, ink on paper, 11.4in x 7.9in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

But where does the importance of Giuseppe Chiari in the history of art come?

“Chiari was, together with Maurizio Nannucci, one of only two Italian artists belonging to the Fluxus movement, which was at the forefront of international art from the 1960s to 1990s,” said Casamonti. “Giuseppe Chiari was also a pioneer of ‘action music.’ He transformed his concerts in performances, which were more often presented in galleries and museums, than in concert halls. Chiari proposed a new approach to language, in which the arts meet the senses; an intuitive and expressive language that he wanted to make accessible to all. He was an artist who knew how to play with the codes of art, making it interdisciplinary.”
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From the point of view of the market, Chiari’s position is not easy, given the importance of performance in his production and the conceptual value of his works. Chiari also believed that culture should not be bought or sold, so he often gave away his works, or sold them at low prices. Only after his death, which happened in Florence in 2007, the market has turned its attention to this artist, but much remains to be done until he is rightly recognized. At auction his works are sold to a few thousand euros, while in private sales his works achieve tens of thousands of euro.

“Chiari’s value is very underestimated, especially when compared to the value of the works of other members of Fluxus – like Beuys, Spoerri, and even Nannucci,” Casamonti said. “While he was alive, the musical performances raised greater enthusiasm, while today I would say the public feels more affinity for his scores, which are expressively painted and blemished. Perhaps because, through colors and movement, Chiari allows the viewer to feel the music with his eyes, rather than make it illegible, even if the person cannot read the notes. I think that it is this almost instinctive understanding of the work that attracts the audience.”

Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Mormorii della foresta in blu,’ 1988, gouache on sheet music on wood, 59in x 42.5in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Mormorii della foresta in blu,’ 1988, gouache on sheet music on wood, 59in x 42.5in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Colori,’ 1974, mixed media on staff paper on canvas, 45.5in x 12.6 in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art
Giuseppe Chiari, ‘Colori,’ 1974, mixed media on staff paper on canvas, 45.5in x 12.6 in. Courtesy Tornabuoni Art

The international market of Chiari is still not very developed, although his works are also preserved at MoMA in New York and at Museo Cantonale d’Arte in Lugano. “The demand today remains mainly restricted to Italy. Maybe because Chiari did not like to travel, apart from when he traveled for his performances,” said Casamonti.

The most complete catalog of Chiari’s work was published by Tornabuoni Arte in 2012 in collaboration with the archive of Giuseppe and Victoria Chiari from Florence. Tornabuoni Art in Paris is dedicating an exhibition to Giuseppe Chiari through Sept. 30.
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SilviaAnnaBarrilaAbout Silvia Anna Barrila

Silvia Anna Barilla is an Italian fine arts journalist and regular contributor to the Italian financial newspaper Il Sole 24 ORE (ArtEconomy24). She also writes about art, design, lifestyle and society for a number of Italian and international magazines, including DAMn Magazine and ICON (Mondadori). She is based in Milan and Berlin.
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Jade: Why some will pay any price to own it

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A pair of thinly-carved and polished spinach green jade bowls – D. 8 ¾ inches – sold at a 2015 Gianguan Auction in New York for $48,400. On the recessed base was a Yongzheng six-character reign mark, Qing Dynasty. Courtesy: Gianguan Auctions.

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Jade is at the center of a story of money and magic that goes back over 8,000 years.

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In China, its use dates back to the Neolithic period, between 6000 and 5000 B.C. The mysterious bi discs and cong vessels found in burials of this period testify to its ritual significance. Confucius (551-479 B.C.) said, “The wise have likened jade to virtue” and went on to link its various strengths to human qualities. Difficult to find, almost impossible to work with tools, the mineral’s pull on the heartstrings began early. Then and now, jade displayed the owner’s wealth and also served as a protective talisman to ensure longevity and good fortune.

After 10 years of headline-grabbing prices, the market for Chinese jade – both objects and jewelry – remains complex and difficult to navigate. Buyers who appear discriminating and highly selective at one moment can be maddeningly capricious at others. Museum criteria are not always valid. Neither age nor appearance nor history guarantees a sale. Emotion may trump reason on the auction floor. When a particular object speaks to more than one bidder – when they must have it in their life – rational estimates are left far behind.
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Beginning in the 17th century and continuing into the 20th, Europeans, and later Americans, formed collections of Chinese art, including jade. Much of what they gathered entered the permanent collections of museums. As part of the centennial celebration of their Asian Art department, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized “A Passion for Jade: The Heber Bishop Collection,” a 2015-2016 exhibition of a hundred examples. When the patron of the arts donated his jades to the museum in 1902, it was considered so important that the Metropolitan re-created Heber’s ornate ballroom as a gallery to display the collection.

In the late 20th and early 21st century, Asian collectors began competing in the international market to buy back jade objects that emerged from Western private collections, a trend that has driven up values. In March 2015 in the New York Asian sales, Christie’s presented the collection of noted American dealer/collector/scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in multiple parts with a separate catalog devoted to Qing Dynasty ceramics, glass and jade carvings. Among the “top ten” were a diminutive green and russet jade seal, Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) that sold for $221,000 (est. $4,000-$6,000), three strands of archaic jade beads, $209,000 (est. $6,000-$8,000), and a jade cong, Eastern Zhou Dynasty, 7th-6th century B.C., for $161,000 (est. $30,000-$50,000).

This Imperial Chinese whitish-celadon jade mountain, early 18th century, sold for $195,200 at I.M. Chait, Beverly Hills, in 2009. The scene of two sages on a pathway near plum blossom trees beneath an incised and gilt poem would have been an object of contemplation in a scholar’s study. Courtesy: I.M. Chait.
This Imperial Chinese whitish-celadon jade mountain, early 18th century, sold for $195,200 at I.M. Chait, Beverly Hills, in 2009. The scene of two sages on a pathway near plum blossom trees beneath an incised and gilt poem would have been an object of contemplation in a scholar’s study. Courtesy: I.M. Chait

Mary Ann Lum of Gianguan Auctions in New York City says, “At one time, they were cut off from the market, but the Chinese are very active now in the last ten years. The whole market changed, and the Chinese are enjoying their power as consumers of luxury goods – sometimes it distorts the market. Because of the name Ellsworth, a thousand Chinese from Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou flew in on private jets, just to buy a piece from his collection. He had beautiful stuff.” She continued, “If your grandfather was a traveler or soldier or missionary and brought back jade, these people have things that might be worth half a million dollars because the Chinese are buying it.”

An essential accessory for a scholar’s desk, this brushpot of brilliant green spinach jade, a type of nephrite, is decorated with a mountain forest scene featuring scholars playing chess. The large cylinder, with a earlier Spink & Son Ltd. label on base, sold for $75,000 at an I.M. Chait auction in 2012. Courtesy: I.M. Chait.
An essential accessory for a scholar’s desk, this brushpot of brilliant green spinach jade, a type of nephrite, is decorated with a mountain forest scene featuring scholars playing chess. The large cylinder, with a earlier Spink & Son Ltd. label on base, sold for $75,000 at an I.M. Chait auction in 2012.
Courtesy: I.M. Chait

In this volatile market, when collectors are asking, ‘What can I buy and what should I sell?’ it becomes increasingly important to know the facts about jade. Before consigning or bidding, study the origin, history, varieties and style of jade production. There are two important varieties of jade: nephrite, found in China and Central Asia, which was used for most of the archaeological, historic, and antique jade objects made in China; and jadeite, imported from Burma beginning in the late 18th century, which is a precious stone used principally for fine jewelry. The Chinese word for jade – yu – is vague and refers to either material as well as several other hard stones.

Variations in color on a piece of nephrite jade often inspired craftsmen; this unusual stone became light and dark cats playing while a rust-colored bat flutters at one end. The Qing dynasty sculpture is one example from a large collection formed by Avery Brundage (1887-1975), which became the foundation of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Courtesy: Asian Art Museum.
Variations in color on a piece of nephrite jade often inspired craftsmen; this unusual stone became light and dark cats playing while a rust-colored bat flutters at one end. The Qing dynasty sculpture is one example from a large collection formed by Avery Brundage (1887-1975), which became the foundation of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Courtesy: Asian Art Museum

A more technical analysis is provided by the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin: “Jadeite is a sodium-rich aluminous pyroxene; nephrite is a fine-grained, calcium-rich, magnesium, iron, aluminous amphibole. All jade is composed of fine-grained, highly intergrown, interlocking … crystals of one of both of these minerals. Though neither mineral is very hard (6-7), jade is one of the toughest gem minerals known because of the intergrown nature of the individual crystals.“ The challenge of working with these difficult minerals merely enhanced their value and attraction for wealthy patrons.

This very fine pure white Hetian jade representation of Lingzhi, a naturally occurring fungus that is said to ensure longevity, brought $54,450 at a Gianguan Auction in 2015. The skillful Qing Dynasty sculpture – L. 15 ½ inches – also includes a small dragon and other long-life symbols. Courtesy: Gianguan Auctions.
This very fine pure white Hetian jade representation of Lingzhi, a naturally occurring fungus that is said to ensure longevity, brought $54,450 at a Gianguan Auction in 2015. The skillful Qing Dynasty sculpture – L. 15 ½ inches – also includes a small dragon and other long-life symbols. Courtesy: Gianguan Auctions

Delving deeper, the department notes, “…jadeite jade is quite rare and in its emerald-green, translucent form is referred to as Imperial Jade or ‘gem jade’. A small amount of Cr [chromium] in jadeite accounts for the color of imperial jade.” This article deals principally with antique nephrite artifacts, because the jadeite jewelry market hinges on the quality of the individual precious stones, regardless of age. In 2014, a string of exceptionally large, perfectly matched jadeite beads with a ruby and diamond Cartier clasp, once the property of American heiress Barbara Hutton, sold for $27.44 million in Hong Kong [at Sotheby’s], more than doubling its estimate.

At Neal in 2014, a yellow jade baluster vase group with a dragon figure and attached open pot - H. 5 inches – sold for $98,587, far beyond its modest $3,000-$5,000 estimate. Provenance added value – the artifact, probably 18th century, came from the Reisfeld Collection in New Orleans and bore an old label from Spink & Son. Courtesy: Neal Auction Galleries.
At Neal in 2014, a yellow jade baluster vase group with a dragon figure and attached open pot – H. 5 inches – sold for $98,587, far beyond its modest $3,000-$5,000 estimate. Provenance added value – the artifact, probably 18th century, came from the Reisfeld Collection in New Orleans and bore an old label from Spink & Son. Courtesy: Neal Auction Galleries.

Great American museum collections of jade are a source of scholarly research illustrated with important examples. Industrialist Avery Brundage (1887-1975) was president of the International Olympic Committee for 20 years and a determined collector of jade objects. When he gave his collection to the City of San Francisco, the Asian Art Museum was created to display it. The unique properties of jade, cited in the geological analysis above, directly influence how jade objects are created.

Although market descriptions often refer to jade “carvings,” the Asian Art Museum provides the following “how it was done” information for visitors: “Jade cannot be carved. Because of its hardness, it can rarely be shaped by chiseling or chipping but must be worn away by abrasion with tools and hard sand pastes. This is a process that requires immense patience – even with modern machinery…. Because the process was so labor-intensive and time-consuming, jades reflected the ability of a ruling elite to command resources, and therefore came to symbolize power, status, and prestige.” The difficulty of working jade makes the results achieved by craftsmen even more remarkable.

Collectors interested in exploring the museum’s collection further can turn to Later Chinese Jades: Ming Dynasty to Early Twentieth Century (2007) by Terese Tse Bartholomew, Michael Knight and He Li, which contains 400 individual object entries. The volume focuses on a particular period: “Nearly a decade in the making, this will become the definitive guide to Chinese jades from the Ming dynasty through the early twentieth century. This was a particularly rich period in jade production. As this book reveals—based on the most current scholarship—many jade objects previously thought to be of ancient manufacture were actually produced in these later periods.” For example, the museum owns a very pale green nephrite vessel with handle, made in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty, which copies a bronze jia wine vessel from the much older Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 B.C.).

Christie’s multi-part 2015 sale of the Asian collection of noted dealer/collector/scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth included a separate catalogue devoted to Qing Dynasty ceramics, glass and jade carvings. Among the Top Ten was this diminutive green and russet jade seal – less than an inch in diameter - on a string of cylindrical beads, which sold for $221,000 (est. $4,000-$6,000) to a private buyer after competitive bidding. Courtesy: Christie’s New York.
Christie’s multi-part 2015 sale of the Asian collection of noted dealer/collector/scholar Robert Hatfield Ellsworth included a separate catalogue devoted to Qing Dynasty ceramics, glass and jade carvings. Among the Top Ten was this diminutive green and russet jade seal – less than an inch in diameter – on a string of cylindrical beads, which sold for $221,000 (est. $4,000-$6,000) to a private buyer after competitive bidding. Courtesy: Christie’s New York.

Although “jade green” is a common description, both minerals come in a range of colors, which occur because of the presence of trace elements. Nephrite can be pure white, soft yellow, pale to bright green, deep spinach green, violet, or brown with varied mottling and mixtures. Coloration often suggested subject matter to craftsmen; the light and dark cats illustrated emerged from a particularly interesting piece of stone. Bright green, transparent or translucent jadeite has always been in demand for jewelry, but the mineral also comes in other colors including white, violet, and orange. Unfortunately, jade colors can be enhanced with dyes. Auction houses will often require that jade consignments be submitted to GIA – Gemological Institute of America – for testing to rule out tampering. Just as later Chinese artists copied earlier jade styles, clever artisans today make reproductions of popular styles and periods, so it makes sense to buy only from reputable specialists.

Another excellent source of information on the jade market comes from auction house experts such as Jake Chait of I.M. Chait in Beverly Hills, California: “I’ve been doing this most of my life – watching auctions since I was a little kid. I remember stories my dad told me of early sales of jade. In the 21st century, we’ll see some of the same pieces come up at Christie’s or Sotheby’s and sell for half a million dollars. I’m only 32, but during my lifetime, I’ve watched the evolution of prices. Ultimately, it’s going to be the great-color, beautifully carved older pieces that are going to bring the big money. The genuine Qianlong Emperor period (1711-1799) pieces and any kind of jade that is Imperial quality. You also have some archaic jade that is bringing strong prices nowadays.”

Chait suggested that collectors might want to focus on a certain time period, a certain source location or a certain kind of jade: “I like scholars’ objects, personally. I like the detail and the intricacy and I like the whole idea behind them, each thing has its specific purpose. When I design my auction estimates, I try to price things where I feel they will be attractive to buyers and encourage competition at an auction. If the estimates are too high, you price everybody out. If it’s too low, they will think there’s something wrong with the lot. You want to find that correct place. You never know who’s going to be bidding, you never know who is going to show up in person or online. Bidding at auction is exciting, you get caught up in the moment – there’s a reason it’s called ‘auction fever.’ It’s hard to restrain yourself from making one more bid, one more raise of the hand.”
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karlakleinalbertsonAbout Karla Klein Albertson

Karla Klein Albertson focuses on the decorative arts, from excavated antiquities to contemporary pop-culture icons. She currently writes the Ceramics Collector column and exhibition features for Auction Central News, covers shows and auctions for the Maine Antique Digest, and authors the Antiques column in The Philadelphia Inquirer. She holds a master’s degree in classical archaeology from Bryn Mawr College.
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