Classic Design Sales Set New Records Across the Globe

Classic Design Sales Set New Records Across the Globe

Sotheby's newly-minted Classic Design division has clearly found the sweet spot for established - and a growing new market - for decorative arts, furniture, antiques and objects. Design expert and Founding Editor of Hole & Corner magazine Mark Hooper, takes a look back at a vigorous season of sales - and looks ahead to highlights in store for London
Sotheby's newly-minted Classic Design division has clearly found the sweet spot for established - and a growing new market - for decorative arts, furniture, antiques and objects. Design expert and Founding Editor of Hole & Corner magazine Mark Hooper, takes a look back at a vigorous season of sales - and looks ahead to highlights in store for London

T his autumn, as part of the newly-created Classic Design Week, Sotheby's held auctions in Paris, New York and London, building on the hugely successful tradition of Decorative Arts sales. This year, to mark the relaunch, Classic Design Week showcased over 500 years of craftsmanship, and across categories and markets, clearly resonated with new and returning connoisseurs and collectors. We saw that this lively, engaged market generated some record results - and interesting emerging trends.


In Paris, the Hôtel Lambert sales between 11 - 14 October proved the most valuable 'house sale' ever held at Sotheby's in France, totalling €76.6 million across five live auctions and attracting purchasers from 38 countries. Such was the market for this series of auctions, it set a new global record for French decorative arts.

'The Hôtel Lambert has once again made history with record breaking sales,' says Mario Tavella, Président of Sotheby's France and Chairman of Sotheby's Europe. 'It now stands as the most valuable auction of French Decorative Arts worldwide, and the biggest House – or hôtel particulier – sale staged at Sotheby’s.'

Highlights of the collection, assembled by His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar, included a magnificent gilt-bronze mounted Chinese celadon porcelain vase, attributed to Jean-Claude Duplessis that sold for €1,608,000 and a Louix XV gilt-bronze-mounted parquetry and marquetry table en chiffonnière by Bernard van Risen Burgh, circa 1760, which achieved €1,099,800.


In New York, three sales covering Classic Design together with the related 17/20 category (covering for furniture, design and objects from the 17th – 20th century) saw 393 lots sold for a total of just under $4 million.

For Christina Prescott-Walker, Global Director, Regional Art and Objects, one of the most significant aspects of the sales has been the influence of international buyers – she notes that just 28 percent of buyers in New York were from the USA, with a strong UK presence (19 percent of sales), as well as a healthy representation from other countries.

'From Asia, Europe and North America... we see how online sales are reaching so many more people than they used to'
- Christina Prescott-Walker, Sotheby's Senior Vice President, Global Director, Art and Objects

'We had very diverse buyers,' she says. 'From Asia, Europe and North America – and that’s where we see how the online sales are reaching so many more people than they used to. People are literally shopping, dropping in and out of the sales. We had about eight percent new bidders for one of the sales – that’s pretty strong statistic, if you do that every season.'

Christina Prescott-Walker - Senior Vice President, Global Director, Art and Objects

It wasn’t just the international spread that was significant, but also the fact that the relaunched Classic Design brand seems to have attracted a new demographic.

'We find more people buying online and being more confident online,' Prescott-Walker says. 'You'll see everyone. We have collectors, dealers, interior designers and private clients. Across the board it's different types of people. But people are very much more prepared to buy online without seeing it for real now.'

She attributes this to a more 'mix and match’ 'approach to interiors, with individual buyers recognising that they can pick up affordable antiques and classic design materials, often with a strong back-story that adds value, that will sit comfortably within their own space.

The sustainability angle also seems to be a strong pull for this new breed of buyer, she adds. 'For the main part, we're talking with this sale about items made between 50 and 300 years ago – these are on between their second and tenth owners. So it doesn't have the same footprint as buying new. Plus there's the craftsmanship aspect. What you can get for your money is really quite exceptional. Some of these pieces have lasted 200 to 300 years.'

A Massive Chinese Export Silver Punch Bowl, Luen Wo, Shanghai, Late 19th Century

At the other end of the scale, amongst the highlights of some strong individual lots were an Italian gilt-bronze and amethyst mounted pietre dure and ebony casket from the Grand Ducal Workshops in Florence, from the late 17th/early 18th century, which sold for $152,200 (252 percent of the low estimate); a pair of Chinese Famille-Rose Soldier vases and covers from the Qing Dynasty, Qianlong period (circa 1740), which sold for $126,000; and a massive Chinese Export Silver Punch Bowl from Shanghai silversmith Luen Wo, dating from the late 19th Century, that fetched $56,700.

This is a reminder of how, amidst the backdrop of a wider trend that has seen shifting generational tastes and a revived interest in circularity and environmental responsibility, established classics will always hold their value. 'Historically, the traditional areas of the market tend to hold up better in times of economic uncertainty,' Prescott-Walker comments.

This was very apparent recently in Hong Kong, with Evening and Day auctions from the Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung in early October, featuring properties from the late businessman, art collector, and philanthropist's expansive collection, achieving $71.5 million.

'I think what’s interesting is how we saw, throughout the [Sir Joseph Hotung] sale, a great revival of interest in early, classic Chinese material, whether it’s antique bronzes, 14th century blue and white porcelain or Chinese furniture,' says Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia and the International Head and Chairman of the Chinese Works of Art department. 'The Hotung Collection was very much classically rooted, aesthetically: a real triumph of that classic taste, celebrating an early period in Chinese Art.'

Among the key lots was an extremely rare Ming dynasty folding horseshoe-back armchair, which sold for $15.8 million. 'We knew there was a lot of interest – it's a masterpiece of Chinese furniture – but we had no sense of what a price it would eventually fetch,' says Chow. The Sir Joseph Hotung Evening and Day sales played a major role in ensuring that the autumn season of live auctions in Hong Kong resulted in a four-year sales high for Sotheby's in Asia.

Nicolas Chow, Senior Director, Chairman: Asia & Worldwide Head and Chairman of Chinese Works of Art

For Chow, witnessing the buzz of live auctions, so soon after inbound quarantine restrictions were loosened, was thrilling. 'It was the first time we were able to have international travellers back in Hong Kong in the last three years, and that really had a huge impact on the in-room experience and the tension we saw throughout the bidding, in all categories.'

Echoing Christina Prescott-Walker, Chow also noted strong international interest, with bidders from America, Europe and Japan adding to those from mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. And he agrees that, in the current climate, traditional, Classic Design material that always holds its value will remain at the fore.

'I think there’s certainly that element, given the general state of the world, where you see a refocus on some of those very solid values,' he says. 'And on the other hand, I think the generally understated classic aesthetic is one that is perhaps more in line with people’s lifestyles today.'

As the second half of the Hotung Collection sale moves to London in early December, Chow expects to see a similar level of interest. 'Given the nature of the material, that has traditionally had a strong international following, we will see that again in the London sale,' he comments. 'A lot of these pieces are very solid, sturdy objects, as opposed to fine, delicate porcelain. The ceramics in the sale are quite sizeable, [so] along stone sculpture, bronze sculpture, furniture… they are objects you can really live with. And I think that’s what people want today. They’re easy to integrate into your life.'

Nicolas Chow anticipates a superb blue and white Yuan dish as being an especial highlight of the London sales in December.

'It is a field that the Hotung Collection is extremely well known for and one that Sir Joseph was very passionate about. That will anchor the sale. He was an extraordinary man. [He had] a taste that I would almost describe as macho – objects that exude quite a lot of power. In the choice of motif, in the expressiveness of the pottery in a jar, or the strength of the carving on a lantern box. That I would say is one of the defining features of the collection.'

‘Sir Joseph's collection of extraordinary Chinese works of art and furniture was further enhanced by the important English furniture and western art he also collected,' says Head of Department (English Furniture) Henry House. 'He had a keen eye for form, colour and patination in the English furniture he collected and these pieces harmonized beautifully with the rich surfaces of the Chinese furniture in his collection.'

Other Classic Design sales in London include Furniture, Silver, Ceramics and Clocks (28 Oct - 8 Nov) and the Design 17/20 auction (28 Oct - 9 Nov), a continuation of Sotheby's partnership with Martina Mondadori, co-founder and Editor-in-chief of Cabana magazine. Other Classic Design sales in London include Furniture, Silver, Ceramics and Clocks (28 Oct - 8 Nov) and the Design 17/20 auction (28 Oct - 9 Nov), a continuation of this autumn's partnership with Martina Mondadori.

Finally, a very special selection of art, furniture, antiques and photography will be spotlighted in London this autumn, with As it Unfolds: Property from the Personal Collection of Robin Woodhead. This three part programme of exhibition and auctions comes from the collection of Sotheby's former Chairman Robin Woodhead – a truly remarkable treasury.

Like Sir Joseph Hotung, Robin's peerless experience of discovering people, places, and artwork over decades demonstrates a talent for finding richly-storied and quietly powerful pieces, irrespective of geographic or historical categories.

Thus this kaleidoscopic collection features works from contemporary artists including Damien Hirst and Grayson Perry, alongside those dating back to the 17th century. With this blend of the personal and historical, the esoteric and the sublime, Robin Woodhead's collection encapsulates the very fine art of collecting itself, its diversity, quality and pleasure an inspiration to established and new collectors alike.

Classic Design Interiors + Design

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