On The Block: Auction Catalogues As Master Classes in Design


The first in a series about auction houses’ online sales; their online catalogues have become an invaluable resource to anyone interested in Modern art and design.

Online auction catalogues have become a trove of design masterpieces especially in Mid-century objects and furniture, with great lessons in design history, and invaluable in developing your own sense of connoisseurship. Buying online globally has never been simpler, with auction houses making it easier than ever to get an object from their salesrooms to you living room.

Even if you’re not buying, there’s gold to be mined in their websites.

It all started in the last century, of course, with eBay, in what was a free-wheeling, Wild West of miscellaneous treasures and non-treasures, surprises and mis-attributions. Since then, a number of factors have brought high-ticket items to online sales, Often it’s just economics– a big firm like Sotheby’s can’t make enough on objects under $5K to warrant a physical presence in their salesrooms, while smaller, niche auction houses like Wright in Chicago and Rago (in Lambertville, New Jersey) can afford to do both. Plus, increasingly, consumers of luxury goods are more and more confident about online transactions. Information about prices previously realized is available online, so what was once an arcane and mysterious process dominated by dealers is now very much open to literally thousands of bidders. And lastly, auction houses have met this challenge with outstanding web presences, websites that are gold for looking at both the market and studying the objects themselves. They’re free, although you may have to register for in-depth information like condition reports.

First up, the pioneering design auction house Wright, in Chicago. Previously known as Wright20, the firm become one of the best resources for Modern art and design for collectors; their online catalogues are like well-curated exhibitions. Wright is especially strong in Isamu Noguchi, with classics like the three Akari lamps that sold for double their estimate (at top) plus masterpieces like the unique late-1940s table (above) which sold for a record-shattering $1,656,000 last year.

Wright’s upcoming Art + Design sale on January 17 has a lot of promise, with standout lots like a classic table lamp by Angelo Lelii, an influential Italian designer and the founder Arredoluce, which would become a key player in the breathtaking Post WWII resurgence of Italian design. It’s an outstanding example of Italian designers re-thinking the table lamp with clever, intuitive and functional design.

The Art + Design sale is a wonderful, wide-ranging grab-bag of treasures, including such diverse objects as a superb Mennonite “Drunkard’s Path” quilt to a trio of crow decoys, a Roy Lichtenstein Cow Triptych Cow Going Abstract from 1982, and an Oswaldo Salas gelatin silver printCon Hemingway”.

We also can’t wait for their next sale, later this month Important Italian Glass, another area where Wright has established themselves as a premier source for collectors.

Next Up: We’ll have a look ar Rago in Lambertville, New Jersey, the eminent Drouot in Paris, and later, Sotheby’s and Christies.

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