Million Dollar Furniture
“I have been black and blue in some spot, somewhere, almost all my life from too intimate contacts with my own furniture.”
- Frank Lloyd Wright
Faithful readers may recall that I alluded to a post about the crème de la crème of furnishings back in March, when I posted Obscenely Beautiful Things. Well, wait no more…
For a long time I have been fascinated by what I call “Million Dollar Furniture”. I have been collecting examples of chairs and tables and desks that exceed human scale in their pricing… or perhaps I should say, normal mortal comprehension, in their pricing.
I have been intrigued by this for many years, dating back to a moment in the 1980’s when a client and I went to a top antiques store in New York and, after slowly savoring each floor full of greater and greater treasures, we reached the climax of quality and rarity on the 5th floor. My client, a woman of substantial means and impeccable taste, went directly to a Louis XV fauteil (open armed lounge chair) thought to have resided at Versailles at one point. We looked at each other and, breaking into huge, satisfying smiles, we both said, “the living room!!” as though channeling an aesthetic chorus of joy.
While not the chair in question, this is a lovely example of a well-cared for Louis XV fauteuil (Marie Antoinette would have loved it).
Oh, we knew it would be pricey… after all, we were at one of the great antique shops in the world, right on Madison Avenue, on the top floor repository of their rarest pieces. But hey, we had been cautious up to then and the important room would benefit from a truly sensational piece. It would “raise the level” of the room, wouldn’t it?
So, with great confidence and her encouragement, I asked for all the details. What was the exact provenance? Tell us more about the design. Could we have photographs and measurements? When was the current cover put on? Oh, and by the way, what is the price?
“If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.”- J.P. Morgan
Now, having shopped with this dealer previously, they knew me. They could tell by my client’s designer clothes and Dallas level jewels, that we could be valid prospects for their fine wares. Also, my client was discreetly lathering at the mouth over this incredible piece of furniture-as-art (it was far more than simply a “chair”). Our faces were undoubtedly flushed, we couldn’t stop smiling and I have no doubt our pupils were dilated as though in some decorating ecstasy. We were obvious candidates for an emotionally irrational purchase.
“Ms. Hayslip, the price of this piece is $1,240,000.00”
My client never missed a beat (while I nearly choked on the tea they brought us). She just smiled and asked if they had any scraps of the upholstery fabric available so we could coordinate the other fabrics in the room.
I responded, as coolly as I was able, as though this price was an everyday thing, “and what is my net price on this piece?” He glanced at my client, as if to say, “Do you want her to know this?” and I said, “It is fine to tell us both, as I always inform my clients what my net prices are.”
“Due to the rarity of this piece and the impossibility of replacing it with a like quality in our inventory, we are only able to offer you a ten percent discount.”
My client and I looked at each other, glanced a bit at a few nearby items, asking for details and prices and then said goodbye, reassuring them we would get back to them as soon as “we have reviewed this with her husband.” (The husband feint is always a good excuse out of sticky situations… blame it on him… ha ha.)
As soon as we had escaped we started laughing hysterically. Oh my god!!! Not even in New York in the glamorous 1980s did I expect to find a chair that cost that much. Then, you could still buy a fixer upper mini mansion in Highland Park for that price, and a pretty nice one.
So… we copied it.
We used the pictures of this antique, one of a kind, totally unavailable, crazy expensive, beautiful chair and had a furniture maker hand carve it for us!! Of course, we changed it enough to make it a new design but we kept the idea of it… the twining vines and lush carved details to create a beautiful totally new chair, much inspired by the original one.
Yes, it was pretty expensive to make. We even splurged and put incredibly fine Scalamandre hand woven lampas on it. We had the finisher hand rub it for hours to create a soft patina. Then we placed it right in the middle of her living room, at an angle to a silk covered sofa, and called it our “million dollar” chair, telling the whole story of how we found out how much furniture could really cost. My brother, Michael Stallings, who makes lots of furniture for me, had one of his carvers do all the detailing. So all of us, the client, the fabricator, and I, had some fun anecdotes about this piece.
When the grandmothers of today hear the word "Chippendales," they don't necessarily think of chairs.- Jean Kerr
But still, it stuck with me….what kinds of furniture cost a million dollars? Since then, I have seen a number of pieces at that price and much more. So here is a little gallery of “Million Dollar Furniture”:
An 18th century Florentine ebony chest inlaid with amethyst quartz, agate, lapis lazuli and other stones sold for $36 million at a 2004 Christie's auction, it broke its own record as the most expensive piece of furniture sold at auction.
The Harrington Commode, believed to be the work of Thomas Chippendale, sold at Sotheby's London nearly $6M, over three times its estimate.
This six-shell Newport Chippendale case piece attributed to John Goddard was auctioned by Christie's in 1989 for $12.1M. As of 2007, it still held the record for the highest sale price for American furniture. Interestingly it was purchased by a Fort Worth collector, Sid Bass. Who knew true connoisseurship was lurking so close to home?
A “highly important George II carved mahogany open arm chair, bearing the Barrington arms, attributed to John Linnell, circa 1755” auctioned by Sotheby’s, with an estimated value between $800,000 and $1.2M. It ended up selling for $923,000.
And for the bargain hunters among us…
A pair of bronze chenets with gold patina stamped 'DIEGO' and with monogram 'DG' (on the top of each brace) designed in 1936 by Alberto Giacometti for Jean-Michel Frank and cast by Diego Giacometti in 1984 sold for $325,500 at auction in May 2011.
This bronze with green and brown patina and glass top guéridon-arbre au hibou, stamped 'DIEGO' and with monogram 'DG' (on the crossbrace) was conceived by Diego Giacometti circa 1980; and cast around 1983. It realized a price of $212,500 in May 2011.
A sculpture-front hanging sideboard by Paul Evans was estimated to sell between 60K and 80K. It actually realized a sale price of $218,500 in 2009.
And, if those pieces weren’t outlandish enough, just for fun…
A 2 1/4-inch Faberge chair (THAT’S RIGHT, I SAID INCHES) which sold at auction for $2.28 million in April 2007, surpassing the $1 million pre-sale estimate. That’s roughly a million dollars per inch.
Like modern art, aside from museums, these pieces are sought after by the 1% of the 1% rich... and I sometimes wonder if, in that teeny group, there are really many people who have the connoisseurship to really appreciate the objects they buy or if their purchases are driven by consultants or dealers who are “guiding” them. Is it for investment? For status? Or, is it insatiability of a true collector who just happens to also have the knowledge and desire, as well as cash, that leads to buying the best of the best?
Combine a true collector with lots of money and there is no telling how fabulous a result will happen.
Posted: May 31, 2012