Sotheby’s New York will hold a dedicated sale of an interior of furniture by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, the legendary French Art Deco atelier, on 6 December. The nine masterworks were commissioned by an American family, and this auction represents the first time in over ten years that such a complete interior of works by Ruhlmann will be offered at auction. Even more remarkable is the archive of documents preserved by the family that outlines the history of the commission. Correspondence with the atelier traces the customizing of each work, bills of sale and original certificates signed by Ruhlmann. The works have been in storage for nearly a quarter of a century, and present an extremely rare opportunity for collectors. The interior will be on exhibition at Sotheby’s New York galleries beginning 11 December, alongside the sale of Important 20th Century Design.
“Seeing these works in person for the first time is a breathtaking experience,” said James Zemaitis, Senior Vice President of Sotheby’s 20th Century Design department in New York. “It is beyond rare to have the opportunity to examine works of this caliber in their original finish, and with such perfect provenance.”
The interior of furniture on offer is distinguished in several important ways from the majority of Ruhlmann pieces on the market today. The original owners commissioned the nine works for their dining room and master bedroom in 1929 and 1930, and the works have been in storage for nearly a quarter century. As a result, the works remain in mostly original condition and finish, a prized trait among collectors.
Remarkably, the owners possess a full archive of correspondence with Ruhlmann’s workshop from 1929-34. This level of documentation allows one to read along as the family and the atelier discuss customizing several of the iconic models to fit the requirements of their interior, and negotiate prices and discuss shipping. Perhaps most prophetic is a note that Ruhlmann himself sent to the family in September 1933, just two months before his death, in which he provides them with official certificates of authenticity for their works, noting that they may be valuable in the future. The correspondence continues after the works were finished and delivered, and extends beyond Ruhlmann’s death until 1934, when his nephew Alfred Porteneuve took over the firm and sent out a letter to all clients announcing the new direction. While the archive will be kept by the owners, facsimiles of the relevant certificates and related correspondence will be provided to the buyer of each lot.
The sale represents the first time in eleven years that an original interior of Ruhlmann furniture has been offered at auction . Sotheby’s December 1999 sale of Important 20th Century Decorative Works of Art featured Property from the Estate of Altina Schinasi Miranda, a group of six Ruhlmann pieces that more than doubled their pre-sale low estimate.
The December 2010 sale is led by the “Egyptien” Sécretaire à Abbatant from 1929 (est. $300/500,000*). The extraordinary modernist work was the second example of the model produced by Ruhlmann at the time of execution in September 1929. It is distinguished by the decorated surface of the dropfront, which on first glance appears to be tortoiseshell. However, forensic herpetologists have examined the work and concluded that it is celluloid, heightened with red pigment, which confirms Ruhlmann’s description of the piece on the original certificate. The dropfront opens to reveal a doeskin interior trimmed with ivory.
Other highlights of the sale include a pair of “Ventu” Demilune Consoles, numbers two and three of the model produced by the firm in 1929 (pictured at top, ests. $150/250,000 each). James Zemaitis notes that, “At least five of the nine works in the
collection represent models that are appearing on the American market for the first time. In addition, none of the nine works are what one would call standard productions of the model. An extra drawer was added on one work, another was executed for the first time in American walnut, and each piece reveals the exquisite taste of an American family that knew exactly what they wanted.”
*Estimates do not include buyer’s premium