Despite slump, fine items still do well at auctions


The weak economy notwithstanding, last year antiques and collectibles buffs paid the highest prices ever for the rarest objects auctioned.

While sales slowed at auctions, fairs and antiques shops, bidders flocked to those auctions where uncommon items were offered, some with choice pedigrees.

Most of the records were toppled in sales held during the first half of the year, before the worldwide economy worsened and war threatened in the Middle East.

Herve Aaron, who heads Didier Aaron's New York gallery, said he was certain that prices would continue to escalate for quality examples of period furniture and decorative arts.

"Everything top quality will continue to soar in value," Mr. Aaron said. "Things of lesser quality will maintain their prices or decline about 20 percent."

Diana D. Brooks, president of Sotheby's North America, said: "Buying will continue in collecting areas where there has been the least amount of speculation, where there is a strong collector base and where the people buying are from strong economies -- France, Germany, Spain and Japan."

Furniture upstaged all else and realized the highest prices in the auction arena. The most sumptuous piece to come on the market this year, a lavishly gilded and inlaid Italian cabinet commissioned by an English duke in 1726, brought $15.2 million on July 5 at Christie's in London.

This hefty family heirloom, more than 12 feet tall, was sold by David Somerset, the 11th Duke of Beaufort, a descendant of the original owner, to pay estate taxes and the costs of upkeep on Badminton House (where the game was born) in Gloucestershire. The cabinet had reigned there since about 1730.

The collector who outbid all competitors to acquire the cabinet was Barbara Piasecka Johnson of Princeton, N.J., the widow of J. Seward Johnson of the pharmaceuticals family.

She said this week in a telephone interview that she was still awaiting an export license for the cabinet. The bill remains unpaid at Christie's.

Musical instruments made headlines several times in the London sales. On April 25 at Sotheby's, one of Jimi Hendrix's guitars, a shiny white 1968 Fender Stratocaster that the rock star used at Woodstock in 1969, became the most expensive guitar ever sold at auction. It was sold for $334,620 to Red Ronnie, an Italian actor.

On Nov. 21, a red violin by Antonio Stradivari from 1720 brought $1.7 million at Christie's, a record at auction for a musical instrument.

It was bought by an American woman whom the auction house described as "a young professional violinist." The violin was owned from the late 19th century until the 1950s by members of the Mendelssohn banking family of Berlin, descendants of the composer Felix Mendelssohn.

Collectibles, another area where the choicest objects did surprisingly well while run-of-the-mill items declined in price or went unsold, achieved some unexpectedly high records.

A 1905 tin sign advertising Campbell's Soups was auctioned in July at Oliver's Auction Gallery in Kennebunk, Maine, for $93,500, more than double what another one of these signs brought in 1989.

In June, a 1950 uniform worn by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers was sold by Lelands, a Manhattan auction house, for $16,093, a record for a baseball shirt.

Even more remarkable was Sotheby's auction in Milan, Italy, of some relatively new watches, a sale that Andrea Amedesi, the managing director, found as exciting "as a football match."

The sale of 62 Swatch watches, some designed by artists and produced in limited editions, included designs made from 1983 to 1989.

The costliest -- the artist Mimmo Paladino's 1989 black, white and red watch, which brought $20,210 --set a record at auction for a Swatch watch.

The numbers on the face of Paladino's offbeat design are reversed, and the dominant image, a black devil's face, has a red tongue that serves as the hour hand.

One of an edition of 100, the watch originally cost about $70. The money paid for this watch and the 61 others totaled $191,410 and was contributed by Swatch, the seller, to the scholarship fund of Domus' design school in Milan.

More conventional collecting areas like American folk art and furniture were bid to astounding levels, especially in sales held last January.

On Jan. 27, a splendid 1860s copper and zinc weather vane of a horse and rider changed hands for $770,000 at Sotheby's in New York, a record for a weather vane.

On Jan. 20, an 18th century Philadelphia pier table by Thomas Tuffts, exquisitely carved with a Chinese-style apron, became the most expensive table in the world when it was sold at Christie's in New York for $4.6 million to Harold Sack of Israel Sack, a Manhattan dealer.

"A lot of the pieces that brought these prices were put on the market to take advantage of the high prices other works brought at auction," Mr. Sack said.

Mr. Sack, who came into the business in the 1930s, said some records for American furniture were set in 1929 and 1930 that were not eclipsed until the 1960s.

"In 1931, prices had not collapsed but no masterpieces came up, and everything was sold at a slower pace," he said.

Oprah Winfrey, the television personality, was determined to buy the 1830s Shaker work counter in an Aug. 5 sale by Willis Henry Auctions in New Lebanon, N.Y.

The 44-inch-long table desk was sold for 10 times its estimate, or $220,000, the highest price ever paid at auction for Shaker furniture.

L "I loved it and I knew it would be perfect," she said later.

Records were rewritten last year for traditional as well as more adventurous Oriental art. In November, a 19th century Chinese jadeite snuff bottle was sold for $607,188 in a Hong Kong sale by Sotheby's to Peter Lai, a local dealer.

A Japanese ivory netsuke, a palm-sized toggle 4 inches high in the form of a grazing horse, brought $257,180 at Sotheby's in London in May. The price paid by a London dealer, Barry Davies, was a record at auction for a netsuke.

A new high was established for Chinese furniture. A horseshoe-back armchair from the 16th or 17th century was sold at Sotheby's in New York on Oct. 19 for $176,000 to an anonymous American buyer.

"The fastest growth seen recently in the decorative arts was for Japanese and Korean works of art," said Christopher Burge, president of Christie's in the United States.

A pair of Japanese 17th century six-panel screens depicting a panoramic view of Kyoto was sold at Christie's in New York in March for $1.76 million, almost three times the presale estimate and a record for Japanese screens sold at auction.

An eight-panel Korean screen depicting Confucian court ceremonies, from the late 18th or early 19th century, was sold for $1.05 million, a record for Korean art at auction.

Silver objects commanded extraordinary prices in a number of auctions. A 17th century Sicilian table fountain was bought at Christie's in New York in April for $1.98 million.

The 22-inch-tall tour de force of metalworking skills is the only known surviving example of such a table decoration.

The buyer was Armitage, a London dealer. The wine fountain, which depicts Orion, a symbol of Messina's maritime supremacy, was sold for $1,500 in 1947 from the estate of J. P. Morgan Jr. at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Sotheby's predecessor in New York.

"The prices of silver have not risen nearly as sharply as the prices of Impressionist paintings," Mr. Burge said. "They were not subject to the sort of speculator frenzy that other areas of collecting were."

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