Sunday 21 July 2019

€22m: Irish designer's chair sells for an arm and a leg . . .

Designer Eileen Gray, from Wexford, created the prized leather
armchair 'Fauteuil aux Dragons' between 1917 and 1919
Designer Eileen Gray, from Wexford, created the prized leather armchair 'Fauteuil aux Dragons' between 1917 and 1919
Designer Eileen Gray from Wexford. Photo courtesy of National Museum of Ireland.

Jason O'Brien

PERHAPS you should sit down before reading this.

The leather armchair pictured above, standing at just 24 inches high and designed by an Irishwoman 90 years ago, has been sold for almost €22m.

It is a record for a piece of 20th century furniture and, in fetching six-and-a-half times its pre-auction estimate at Christie's in Paris, the chair proved a welcome tonic for a world art market worried about the economic climate.

"We're absolutely amazed by what's happened," Edward Dolman, Christie's managing director, said of the sale. "There are still a lot of extremely wealthy people out there."


The unique piece, created by Wexford-born designer Eileen Gray between 1917 and 1919, was the highlight so far of a three-day sale of artworks collected by the late designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner. The first two days have brought in more than €300m in sales, another world record.

In the hour before the chair was sold, another piece by Ms Gray briefly held the title of the most-expensive piece of 20th century design sold at auction, when a New York dealer paid €4m for a sideboard dating from 1915 to 1917.

But there was no doubting the real star item on offer.

Known as the Fauteuil aux Dragons or "dragons' armchair" because of the ornate sculptures on its sweeping armrests, the one-off rounded brown leather piece was designed by Ms Gray when she was in her early 30s and after she had moved from Enniscorthy to London to study art.

She became renowned for the luxurious finish of her lacquered furniture, but it was not until after her death in 1976 that she was truly recognised as one of the most important furniture designers and architects of the early 20th century.

The buyer was the same dealer who had sold it to Mr Saint Laurent in the early '70s. Cheska Vallois raised his bid in increments of €500,000 to see off a phone rival with a bid of €21.9m, and was applauded by the 1,000 people present.

The highest amount ever paid for a piece of furniture was €27.5m -- paid for an 18th century Badmington cabinet in 2004.

"It is a fabulous price," Philippe Garner, Christie's international head of 20th Century Decorative Art and Design, said yesterday.

"The sale was an homage to the great personalities, designers, collectors and patrons who so marked their era in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s and to the pioneering vision of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge as collectors."

Ms Gray flitted between London and Paris for much of her life and had a colourful personal life, taking both male and female lovers, but never marrying. She died at the age of 98.

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