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Eiffel Tower Staircase Auction

Sotheby’s sale of 20th Century Decorative Arts & Design in Paris on 26 November includes a section of the original staircase of the Eiffel Tower, the global symbol of Paris, that has remained in the same collection since the landmark sale staged by Ader-Picard-Tajan in Paris on 1st December 1983. The section is numbered n°15, has sixteen steps, stands 12ft (3.6m) tall and weighs 750kg (estimate: €40,000-60,000).

1889 saw France’s Third Republic celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. The anniversary prompted a new Paris Exposition Universelle, after those of 1855, 1867 and 1878. Buildings are meant to symbolize economic and political success – and, as Le Corbusier once noted, the Eiffel Tower is the ultimate expression of the late 19th century when ’the era of machines paved the way for a new form of civilization.’

The idea of a Tower was inspired by the World’s Fair in Philadelphia ten years earlier, when unsuccessful attempts had been made to erect one nearly 1,000 feet tall. A competition was launched in 1886 calling on entrants ‘to study the possibility of building an iron tower on the Champs de Mars, 300 metres in height, on a square base 125 metres across.’

Iron had been in fashion since Paxton’s Crystal Palace opened in London in 1851, and was widely used for public buildings. Gustave Eiffel was famous for various iron constructions, like the Gabarit Viaduct in central France or the internal framework of New York’s Statue of Liberty. He ran a metal construction workshop that was involved in engineering projects around the world and, in conjunction with the engineers Koechlin and Nouguier, it was Eiffel who won the competition, which attracted 700 entries.

After two years’ construction the Tower was inaugurated by President Sadi Carnot on 31 March 1889. It was immediately popular, despite criticism from literary and artistic circles, and the public rushed to climb the spiral staircases in scenes immortalized by a host of engravings and a handful of contemporary photographs.

The Eiffel Tower was designed as a temporary structure, but stayed put thanks largely to the efforts of Eiffel himself, and would remain the world’s tallest building until 1930, when it was surpassed by the Chrysler Building in New York. By then iron had given way to steel – but the Eiffel Tower had become the symbol of Paris and France around the world.

In 1980 the company in charge of the Tower assessed its overall condition as it approached its centenary, with a view to reducing the overall weight and bringing the Tower into line with modern security standards. The original staircase, linking the second and third decks, was replaced by a lighter, wider and less dangerous one, and hydraulic lifts were installed. The original staircase was divided into 24 segments, varying in length from 7-30 feet (2.10m-9m). One was installed on the first deck of the Tower; three were given to French museums (the Musée de la Villette and future Musée d’Orsay in Paris, and the Iron Museum in Nancy); and the remaining twenty were numbered and sold at auction on the first deck of the Tower on 1st December 1983.

Collectors from around the world competed for the 20 lots. One section of staircase headed to Japan, bought for the garden of the Yoshii Foundation in Yamanashi near Tokyo; others sold to Canada, Switzerland the United States, were one section was erected at Disneyland, and another near the Statue of Liberty, with its inner framework designed by Eiffel.

In France, the towns of Nogent-sur-Marne and Levallois-Perret (where Gustave Eiffel is buried) each bought a section; the sculptor César used a section for his work Homage to Eiffel, shown at the Fondation Cartier in 1984; and other buyers ranged from celebrities like singer Guy Béart to private individuals keen to install a section of Eiffel Tower staircase inside or outside their homes as a work of art.

As both a symbol of Paris and a work of modernist sculpture, this rare item – numbered, and kept in the same collection since 1983 – is sure to attract international attention when offered by Sotheby’s on November 26.