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Collectors' focus: the gold rush for fine jewellery from the early 20th century continues, with art deco pieces in particular selling well in recent times. Separate to this is the market for Rene Lalique, whose exquisite art nouveau designs are realising unprecedented prices.

The market in antique fine jewellery produced around the turn of the 20th century and in its first few decades is, as a whole, booming. Both Christie's and Sotheby's reported record-breaking sales in Geneva in May. As ever in an economic crisis, jewels seem to offer pleasure and security in a reassuringly portable package. When it comes to art nouveau and art deco jewellery, in particular, despite the historical proximity of these two aesthetic movements, there are two very different markets.

Art nouveau jewellery saw a surge of popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, fed principally, according to Keith Penton, head of the jewellery department at Christie's London, by 'Japanese collectors and museums'. However, the current picture is mixed. Ulf Breede, a specialist dealer based in Berlin, states: 'We had a lot of very good collectors for art nouveau jewellery, but they are not there any more.' Mr Penton by contrast reports: 'Just recently there has been a surprising revival of interest, especially from Japan.' He points to Christie's London's sale in November last year, where three signed gem-set enamel pendants by the Catalan artist Luis Masriera (1872-1958) fetched between 15,000 [pounds sterling] and 37,250 [pounds sterling], against estimates below 7,000 [pounds sterling]. In the same sale, an unsigned pearl, diamond and plique-a-jour enamel pendant, dated 1905, realised 40,850 [pounds sterling] against an estimate of 8,000 [pounds sterling]-10,000 [pounds sterling]. And in November 2010, Christie's Geneva's sale of a Lalique necklace rocketed above expectations. The estimate had been 60,000 CHF-80,000 CHF for this fringed pearl necklace, mounted in gold and dated c. 1900. The price achieved was 327,000 CHF.

Jean Ghika manages the London jewellery departments for Bonhams. She comments that, at auction, 'among the names that carry a cachet, the most notable are [Rene] Lalique [1860-1945], Maison Vever, Georges Fouquet [1862-1957], [Lucien] Gautrait [1865-1937] and [Philippe] Wolfers [1858-1929].' Ms Ghika also explains that 'the jewellers working in the art nouveau style were much more interested in the symbolism and form of a piece rather than the value of the stones used. A recurrent theme of art nouveau jewellery is the use of plique-a-jour enamel (which has a degree of transparency like a stained glass window).' She adds: 'Due to the fragility of some of this type of work, condition is paramount.'


Veronique Bamps, a jewellery dealer based in Monaco, confirms: 'For art nouveau, if you have an attractive, wearable, colourful piece, it will sell very well. Lalique is a separate market. He will sell in a minute.' According to Emiel Aardewerk, a dealer in antique silver and jewellery based in The Hague: 'Lalique always has a big impact on people. The period around 1900 was when he made his most interesting pieces. Collectors are looking for elegant designs and fine workmanship, and condition is important, but there is no particular fashion--different collectors all have different tastes.' He adds: 'It is increasingly difficult to find good pieces. We have only one piece of Lalique in the collection currently.' Patricia de Wit, of Epoque Fine Jewels in Belgium, confirms that over the last five years the market in Lalique has become particularly strong. She ascribes this to an important exhibition at the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris in 2007, and the opening of the Musee Lalique near Strasbourg last year. She currently has a fine Lalique pendant of four dragonflies once owned by Seurat's brother-in-law (price on application).



For Geoffrey Munn of Wartski in London, Lalique's resurgent popularity is merely fulfilling the prophecy of his most important patron, Calouste Gulbenkian, who wrote to Lalique's daughter on his death: 'He ranks amongst the greatest figures in the history of art of all time, and his personal masterly touch, his exquisite imagination, will excite the admiration of future elites.' Mr Munn avers: 'If you have a piece, you have a great work of art.' Wartski currently has several pieces, including this enamel and diamond-set cicada brooch, dated c. 1905 (price on application; Fig. 1). 'Lalique can easily make half a million, with a great masterpiece pushing a million, but if the piece is sufficiently alluring, it matters much less what you paid for it. The pulse has to race.'

As for art deco, which dates from the early 1920s to around 1935, Mr Munn suggests that this period is benefitting from having just become history--'when objects become silent witnesses to that strange phenomenon, the past.' He adds: 'In 1972 we used to break down art deco clips for the stones. Now art deco seems to coincide with the taste of the moment--crisp, clean, uncomplicated.' He comments that besides the big names, Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels, where the auction houses dominate sales, collectors look for the work of Georges Fouquet's son, Jean (1899-1984). 'Very rare, but most artistic. A good piece could fetch 100,000 [pounds sterling]-250,000 [pounds sterling].'

Currently, there is a lot of heat in the market. 'Have you seen the prices last week in Geneva?' Ms Bamps asked me. 'Art deco is crazy!' It is true that recent weeks have seen some high prices. A signed art deco emerald and diamond bracelet, by Van Cleef & Arpels and dated 1926, sold at Christie's on 16 May for 879,000 CHF on an estimate of 330,000 CHF-475,000 CHF; while on 14 Maya platinum and diamond clip by Raymond Templier, dated c. 1930, sold at Sotheby's for 110,500 CHF on an estimate of 46,000 CHF-75,000 CHF. These figures reflect a consistent rise in the popularity of art deco that has marked the last five years, and includes the outstanding 1.15m [pounds sterling] achieved for a classic 'Tutti Frutti' bracelet by Cartier, dated 1928, at Christie's London, last June (Fig. 2).

According to Ms Bamps, the rise began at the very beginning of 2009: 'People were looking for somewhere to put their money. I have a lot of Belgian clients, German clients and American clients. But good pieces get rarer and rarer. People lose their jewellery; it gets damaged; thieves break it up for the stones.' Penny Boylan at London antique and contemporary jewellery dealer Hancocks observes, in mitigation: 'Deco is a much broader category than art nouveau; there are more houses that produced really fine things and there are more collectors out there. They're looking for pieces of quality which really reflect the aesthetic and innovation of the period, and so it follows that they covet masterpieces from the great houses of the time such as Cartier, Lacloche Freres, Van Cleef & Arpels, Janesich, Mauboussin, etc.' Hancocks currently has a Chloromelanite bracelet by the elusive Jean Fouquet, dated c. 1927 (price on application; Fig. 3), among other pieces.

James McConnaughy of S.J. Shrubsole in Manhattan comments that the Chinese influence on art deco--think of the use of carved jade--is an additional reason for the popularity of the style amongst Chinese buyers. 'But although you can see these pieces in the books,' he states, 'they are harder to find on the ground.'
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Author:Crichton-Miller, Emma
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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