by Benjamin Genocchio

A survey of the 10 most expensive artworks sold at auction in 2021 tells us, with little doubt, that the top echelon of the collectibles market is booming. Money today is mobile and, lately, pouring into rare objects.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the two largest auction houses, posted excellent growth by dollar volume of sales in 2021, with records set in a number of categories. By and large, the driver of this expansion was wealth generated in a buoyant stock market over the last 2 years and the rise of a new generation of collectors in Asia but also in Europe and the US.

Pair of cuff bracelets by Claude Lalanne (1924–2019). Offered by Liz O'Brien.

Quality remains the driver for record sale prices in any category. Objects with provenance, scarcity and terrific condition seem to be able to achieve almost any price, a testament to the fact that record wealth was created in 2020–2021, but also that in an inflationary economy rare objects are places to put money and judiciously diversify investment portfolios.

In 2020 according to data from Artnet’s art price database only 2 of the top 10 most expensive artworks at auction sold for over $50 million. In 2021, all of the top 10 works sold for over $50 million or more, with the highest price being $103.4 million paid back on May 13 at Christie’s New York for Pablo Picasso’s "Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse)," 1932.

Seasonal factors, availability, all skew these sorts of annual rankings but none of this changes the fact that collectors are seeking unique objects in all categories, including collectible design where demand has been building for the past couple of years. If we look at the top designers at auction from 2018 and then review Artnet records in 2019–2020, there is an obvious uptick in volume and price, especially where design and art meet.

Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne have achieved success as designers but also as sculptural artists in the international art and museum world and remain the stars of the collectible design market. Claude Lalanne has sold above $2 million at auction since 2009, a testament to the rewards of design and designers crossing over into the lucrative art market.

Highly figured and beautiful Conoid Bench – an iconic George Nakashima design, 1966. Offered by Moderne Gallery.

2019-2020 Designer Ranking by Sales Volume
 Rank Designer Auction Sales
 1 Claude Lalanne (1924-2019)
 2 François-Xavier Lalanne (1927-2008)
 3 Jean Royère (1902-1981)
 4 Gio Ponti (1891-1979)
 5 George Nakashima (1905-1990)
 6 René Lalique (1860-1945)
 7 Paavo Tynell (1890-1973)
 8 Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999)
 9 Jean Prouvé (1901-1984)
 10 Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933)
 11 Fabergé (Co.) (1842-)
 12 Jean Dunand (1877-1942)
 13 Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941)

Jean Royère documented genuine model "Éléphanteau" couch. Offered by Galerie André Hayat.

Gio Ponti model 811 lounge chair for Cassina. Offered by Bloombury.

Nonetheless, François-Xavier holds the records for the highest individual prices for a work of design by the two of them sold at auction, with “Les Autruches, Bar” from 1967–1970, sold after a flurry of bidding at Sotheby's Paris on November 21, 2017 for $7,268,314 USD. “Unique Rhinocrétaire” sold at Sotheby's Paris on October 24, 2019, sold for just under $6 million.

The challenges facing the international art and design world over the past years seem not to have dampened demand for Les Lalanne in 2021, when 7 items by François-Xavier sold over $5 million each, with the highest, $9.6 million, a new record for the artist at auction. 22 items by Claude Lalanne sold for $1 million or more in 2021, with the highest at $4.2 million.

Diego Giacometti also set a new auction record in 2021 with a console selling in December at Sotheby’s in New York for $6.8 million— a staggering amount for an object that only 3 years ago would have sold for $1 million. More than 3 dozen Diego Giacometti items have now sold for over $1 million in the past 5 years, while objects by Alberto Giacometti, Jean Royère and Jean Prouvé also regularly sell in the millions. Tiffany Studios is another brand that anchors the top of collectible design.

Demountable dining table by Jean Prouvé, designed in 1945, produced by Atelier Prouvé. Offered by Dobrinka Salzman Gallery.

2018 Designer Ranking by Sales Volume
 Rank Designer Auction Sales
 1 George Nakashima (1905-1990)
 2 Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)
 3 René Lalique (1860-1945)
 4 Gio Ponti (1891-1979)
 5 Jean Prouvé (1901-1984)
 6 Pierre Jeanneret (1896-1967)
 7 Charlotte Perriand (1903-1999)
 8 Hans J. Wegner (1914-2007)
 9 Finn Juhl (1912-1989)
 10 Lucie Rie (1902-1995)
 11 Poul Henningsen (1894-1967)
 12 David Webb Inc. (1948- )
 13 Paavo Tynell (1890-1973)

In most cases, overall sales volume tends to be a better guide than individual prices for an object as it indicates a consistent market for a maker and thus probably a more accurate indicator of broader market trends. Nearly 700 objects attributed to Gio Ponti were sold at auction in 2021, and that’s only those items tracked by the Artnet database and not including dealer sales or sales at small auction houses. Over 300 works by George Nakashima were also sold at auctions tracked by Artnet.

Auction results are only one component of a broader market for design, perhaps even a separate market when it comes to the high-end makers. But if the raw auction data is any guide, collectible design as a category is growing at a tremendous pace, more or less doubling annually in size since 2018. New Year’s predictions are specious, but we can most likely expect to see greater prices going forward for a range of 20th-century designers as the collectible auction market booms.

Benjamin Genocchio