CHICAGO, October 7, 2008. Like the orchestra playing on the deck as the Titanic made its final descent, Wright Auctions of Chicago gamely held their Modern Design auction of mid to late twentieth century furnishings and art in the midst of the global economic tsunami that’s engulfing us all. (Dow down 500 that day!) With even the rich feeling the pain of evaporating investments, some diehard collectors practiced retail therapy by opening their thinning wallets to pry loose their last few dollars. (Brother, can you spare an Eames LCW chair?)
After a quick analysis of the 417 lots by such stalwarts as Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, Isamu Noguchi, Norman Cherner, Florence Knoll, George Nakashima, Edward Wormley, Hans Wegner, Milo Baughman, Jean Prouve and others, here’s how the results broke down:
117 lots sold within their projected ranges (28%)
157 lots did not meet their reserve (37%)
49 lots sold below their ranges (12%)
94 lots sold above their projected ranges (23%)
Of the 157 lots that did not sell, many were assorted tables and chairs by George Nelson, George Nakashima, Vladimir Kagan, Hugh Newell Jacobsen, Florence Knoll, Finn Juhl, Gio Ponti and, surprisingly, various pairs of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona chairs reasonably priced between $5,000 and $7,000.
A Swan Chair by Arne Jacobsen estimated between $4,000 and $6,000 sold for a conservative $4,800 – considerably less than prices as high as $7,200 I’ve seen in recent years.
Of the 94 that sold above their projected ranges, there were a few notable pieces that hit it way out of the ballpark:
And the surprise of the evening was a 1937 bakelite radio by Isamu Noguchi for Zenith that was expected to get $3-5,000 and instead sold for an eye-popping $22,800! (And it doesn’t even play FM! What’s that about?!?)
Readers of my posts on the Eames Lounge 670 and Ottoman 671 will be interested to know that a vintage rosewood model by Herman Miller sold for $3,120 – within its projected range of $3,000-$4,000 but way below its historic high of $7,000. And an early Noguchi coffee table in ebony with a rare green-glass top was a bargain at $1,920, a bit shy of it’s projected range of $2,000-$3,000 and far less than the $6,600 the same table got at the same auction last year – perhaps a sign of the times.
So how does this compare to years past? There are too many variables to make a definitive apples-to-apples comparison but Wright’s October 2007 Modern auction raked in $3.9 million (an average of $7,876 per lot) to this year’s $2.1 million ($5,155 per lot) – a stunning 45% drop. And whereas 37% of the lots sold for above the projected range in 2007, only 23% did so in 2008. Unsold lots increased from 21% to 37%.
Of special note, Barcelona chairs that sold above estimates for $7,200 a pair in 2007 had no takers at all in 2008 despite a minimum reserve of only $5,000. An Edward Wormley 6329 sofa that sold for three times its estimate for $14,400 in 2007 got only $4,800 in 2008. And a Comprehensive Storage System by George Nelson that sold for a whopping $36,750 in 2007 (estimated at $5-7,000) got a mere $8,400 in 2008. Ouch! On the other hand, anything Eames such as assorted DCW, LCW and RAR chairs all increased in value by up to 450% from last year’s prices.
A logical conclusion one could draw from these results is that with so many of the lots by Charles and Ray Eames selling for far above estimates this year and for far higher prices than a year ago, anything by Eames has been a stellar investment for those lucky sellers. Nakashima, Nelson and Kagan collectors? Not so much. But times change and tastes shift so better luck next time. To see the entire results for yourself, visit the Wright20 site here.