Auction Results Suffer in a Tough Economy

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:

A chair by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the MoMA Organic Design Competition which was expected to get between $15,000 and $20,000 sold for a whopping $50,400.

 

 

An Eames DAR shell chair on an “”Eiffel” base that was expected to get between $500 and $700 got a remarkable $5,400.

 

 

A pair of Eames DKR wire chairs with “bikini” slip covers that were projected to get $500 to $700 roped-in $3,000.

 

 

An Arredoluce 3-arm floor lamp in all-white that was estimated at $5-7,000 got $15,600 (while a nearly identical Arredoluce lamp with blue, red and yellow shades got a mere $8,400.)

 

An Eames ETR “surfboard” coffee table that was projected to get $3-5,000 sold for $24,000!  Kowabunga, dude!

 

 

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.

Vintage Furniture – Real or Fake? Eames Lounge Chair & Ottoman

The Real McCoy - Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671)

The Real McCoy - Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671)

In this installment of “Real or Fake?” we’ll discuss the ever-popular and often imitated Eames Lounge Chair and ottoman, officially known as the Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671). Designed by the remarkable and prolific husband and wife team of modernist architects and designers, Charles and Ray Eames in 1956, this chair was introduced to the public on NBC’s morning show, the Arlene Francis Home Show (which later became The Today Show) and was an instant hit. (Don’t miss the extraordinary 2-part video here.) It’s been in constant production ever since by U.S. licensee Herman Miller of Zeeland Michigan and European licensee Vitra.

 

It’s also one of the most popularly copied pieces and I defy anyone to find a furniture store anywhere in the world that doesn’t sell a version of this chair. Some copies even have their own fans – an unlicensed knockoff from Plycraft by George Mulhauser is considered by many to be superior in both quality and comfort to the real thing and can be had at substantial savings. It’s said to be more ergonomic for today’s larger American frames.

 

So if you’re in the market for an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman, how do you know if you’re getting the real thing? If you’re buying new, it’s easy. Buy from a Herman Miller dealer or look for the Herman Miller label on the underside of the chair shell. Prices start at about $3,500 for the cherry or walnut versions. A 50th anniversary chair in santos palisander rosewood starts at about $4,500. Authentic vintage chairs get that much or more, and an earlier limited edition model in rosewood has been known to fetch as much as $7,000 at auction. (UPDATE: A vintage rosewood chair and ottoman just got $3,120 at the October 7, 2008 Modern Design auction at Wright Auctions of Chicago. Pre-auction estimates put it at $3,000 to $4,000 – obviously a sign of the times given the world economic crisis. Read about it here.)

 

But if you’re buying vintage, first look for the label on the underside which looks like this:

 

If there’s no visible label, how do you know you’re getting the real thing? Here’s some other visual cues to look for:

  • Shell of cherry, walnut, santos palisander or rosewood. Any others are likely fakes.
  • Look for six-inch thick urethane foam cushions with soft leather upholstery.
  • The chair will have a five-legged base (“five-star”) and the ottoman four. Legs rise at a slight angle – they are not flat nor do they rise too steeply creating a “cone” effect.
  • Look for die-cast aluminum back braces – not square tubular aluminum.
  • The bases are also die-cast and painted black with polished aluminum trim.
  • Some copies have a loose cap over the base to hide rough welds or bolts where the legs meet the post.
  • Natural rubber shock mounts and adjustable stainless steel glides.
  • Armrests are curved, not flat.
  • Look at the leather upholstery on the armrest. Fakes often have a single piece of leather wrapped around the edge. Authentic models have a separate piece of leather welting wrapped around the edge.
  • The ottoman is the exact same size as the seat of the chair. In fact, the cushions are interchangeable.
  • Most copies recline, an authentic chair does not.
  • There should be absolutely no visible screws or bolts. None.

 

 

 

This fake has a five-legged ottoman and the legs of both chair and ottoman rise at too steep an angle. Otherwise it’s pretty darn close.

 

This copy has a four-legged chair, flat legs, flat armrests and a smaller ottoman.

 

Visible screws are an instant dead give-away. This one is a cheap copy.

 

Flat arms with a single piece of leather wrapped around the edges instead of a second piece of welting is a no-no.

 

 

If you’ve got Taittinger taste on a Schlitz budget, look for a knock-off from Plycraft. They generally start at around $1,200 and with a steady demand for them, they’ll hold their value almost as well as the authentic Herman Miller version. You might even find it to be more comfortable. (But don’t tell anyone I said that!)

 

Read about the latest auction results for a vintage Eames Lounge Chair 670 and Ottoman 671 here.

 

Don’t miss my postings on how to tell a real from a fake Le Corbusier LC series chair, a Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chair and a Noguchi coffee table. See recent auction results and trends on vintage furniture from Eames and other designers here.  You can also learn the smart way to buy quality furniture whether you’re staging a house for sale or collecting for your own home here.