Excerpt From the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice - "Appraising Designer Furniture: The Challenge of Authenticity and False Identities"

The following is an excerpt from the Spring edition of the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice.  Soodie Beasley's article, Appraising Designer Furniture: The Challenge of Authenticity and False Identities takes an interesting look at identifying and appraising designer furniture.

Soodie Beasley, ASA, AAA holds both a BA and MA in Art History, a post-baccalaureate in Interior Architecture and a Certificate of Appraisal Studies. She has been a professional appraiser since 2002. She has lectured and taught college-level courses on art and design history for nearly ten years with a focus on twentieth-century women artists and designers. She has previously contributed five articles to the Journal of Advanced Appraisal Studies. Beasley currently serves as the co-chair of the PR/Marketing committee for ASA's Personal Property Committee.

Click HERE to read and download the full article as well as the other articles in the Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice.

Soodie Beasley, ASA, AAA writes in the Digital Journal
"... the fear of being copied is often the characteristic of the meager imagination." ~ Elsie de Wolfe

Copying something without consideration of the designer, the design, materials, and quality is now pandemic.  Appraisers need to be aware that unauthorized copies, misattributed designs and outright forgeries of twentieth-century custom-made furniture are becoming increasingly prevalent. This problem occurs across the price spectrum, across all market levels and across all areas of twentieth-century design. By considering key furniture designs by, and misleading attributions specifically to, Frances Elkins (1888-1953) and Karl Springer (1931-1991), appraisers can better understand why and how dubious authenticity has developed into such a major, widespread problem in designer furniture and why it is so hard to stop outright.

The twentieth-century design market has become one of the most dynamic and influential areas in the international marketplace. In 2005, a glass-top spine-like trestle table with shuddering carnal undertones designed by Carlo Mollino in 1948 sold at Christie's for $3.8 million, nearly twenty times the high estimate. It broke a financial threshold and marked a new kind of market ripe for development. One of Italy’s most influential mid-twentieth-century designers who was once marginalized in design history and labeled “enigmatic,” “erotomaniac,” and “dangerous”  became the most sought after.  An original Mollino was now deemed worth any price, and the market kept its eyes peeled for new, unique and fresh-to-the-market pieces.

Only a decade before, the cognoscenti of architects, designers, sellers, journalists, collectors, and critics knew furniture design merited reverent study, but the masses remained indifferent to custom-made pieces of modern design. Many were leery to bank on a designer’s name who was not well-recognized and formally trained. Since the sale of Mollino’s table, the market for mass-produced mid-century modern American furniture waned even as the market grew for limited and custom-made pieces. These highly stylized pieces, with exotic shapes and profiles and materials that were once only available through designers and show rooms, began to appear both at auction and through dealers generating great interest and investment.

This area is difficult to navigate, however. When increased awareness created stronger demand, thus diminishing supply, designer furniture was copied elsewhere. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, more examples have been copied, parts redone, and others crafted only alluding to a whiff of a designer’s style, than originals exist. There is no handbook, no list, and few experts with whom to confer. Bespoke, one-offs, and custom-made pieces form a thick, dark and murky area for authenticity. A majority of the original designers would change and adjust their designs as they were being executed, even after working drawings were produced, if they were even used. Many of these designers didn’t always sign their pieces or have their work always photographed. Many of their pieces were created for a specific client for their specific room. Design tends to be fleeting. Over time, very few of these rooms remain intact. Their parts disassembled, walls painted over, carpets and drapes changed out, the furniture then shifted elsewhere and passed through various hands. Any continuity is lost.

"Everything is permissible as long as it is fantastic." ~ Carlo Mollino

The result is that an idea of a design might become more desirable than the original design itself.  Copies of an already copied chair might become an iconic design, and even offered at higher prices in the market, than a designer’s original chair. Often a designer's name is most associated with a design that was borrowed from the past, and the design itself has had more impact in style than historical context. Frances Elkin's loop chair, for example, has held more power than the nearly two-hundred-year-old chair it emulates. After all, today, referencing a design produced in the 1940s is a lot sexier than referencing one from the eighteenth century.

Elkins was one of the most prominent grand-dame decorators of the first half of the twentieth century, and certainly the most influential on the West Coast. She revolutionized interiors by combining traditional pieces with the avant-garde with the likes of Jean-Michel Frank and Alberto Giacometti. She had an uncanny sense of how much of the past to mix with the present. Her genius lay in crafting an environment that was much more comfortable tinged with a bit of rock ‘n’ roll. Elkin’s interiors were edgier than de Wolfe’s light but stiff European style and more whetted than the reserved look of Elsie Cobb Wilson. But Elkins, too, borrowed from the past and had eighteenth-century chairs copied for two of her clients.

Elkins and her architect brother, David Adler, the renowned Chicago architect, were known to have owned a copy of Percy MacQuoid and Ralph Edwards's four-volume Dictionary of English Furniture, which was first published from 1904-1908.  An image in this publication of a very similar George II japanned chair raises the question of attribution, although the design has been widely attributed to her. This came to light in 2009,  yet this is one example of confusing authorship in the market today.

In 1934, Frances Elkins had two sets of four of these chairs copied with slight alterations and painted a creamy-beige color for two different clients, Evelyn Marshall Field and Mr. and Mrs. Leslie Wheeler. Sotheby’s offered one set at auction in April 2009.   Elkins wasn't the only one who copied the chair. As an article in The Magazine Antiques notes, Frederick P. Victoria & Son, a business established in 1933 in New York City and that sold antiques and high-quality reproductions, copied the chair for their clients Robert and Marietta Tree (parents of the 1960s fashion model Penelope Tree, also famously known as Twiggy). The Trees owned an eighteenth-century example from Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire England, but they wanted a copy for their American home. Various forms of the loop chair have been spotted in settings of Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.

Stephen M. Salny's 2005 monograph on Elkins sparked a renewed interest in her work and particularly this chair. When the preference for stark minimalist forms from 2000-2005 fell away and began to grow into the fuller-forms of 2005-2010, variations of these loop chairs began to grace countless covers of glossy interior magazines. These chairs were coated in primary and secondary glossy saturated colors and available in all forms of quality and in all areas of the primary and secondary markets. The trouble is, examples were and still are given the label of “Frances Elkins Loop Chair,” which leads any potential buyer to believe Elkins had something to do with the procurement of these particular new chairs.   Further, many of the vintage examples appearing on the market lack any provenance and newly copied chairs have an asking price far above the Elkins’ examples, which sold through Sotheby’s. This image of the chair was so highly popularized that when the real deal, an actual Elkins loop chair, became available, it fell with a quiet thud, barely reaching $3,000 per chair. The origin and historical context of the design left to history.
Source: The Digital Journal of Advanced Appraisal Practice 

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