Friday, June 11, 2010

Normandie Hodgepodge

I am getting geared-up for the design sales in New York this week and had to make a quick note about a rather puzzling lot at Christie's. Available for your bidding are 13 reverse glass decorated panels from the Grand Salon of the art deco luxury liner the S.S. Normandie. It would sound pretty alluring to modernist aficionados....until you see what they are actually offering.

Fairly puzzling, no? For $300,000-500,000 I would personally want something more recognizable than some scattered clumps of unrelated foliage, banners, waves, a buoy and a partial edifice....but I digress. For those not in the know, the Normandie was a floating palace of an ocean liner ensconced from stem-to-stern with top-notch art deco decor. The centerpiece of the ship was the "grand salon" which could seat 700 people comfortably. The room was furnished with Jean Rothschild and Jean Dunand furniture, Lalique fixtures and its walls were clad with glass panels designed by Jean Dupas depicting continuous scenes of the history of navigation. The Normandie was launched in 1935 and was unfortunately converted into a troop transport ship in 1942. However, during its conversion for wartime use an acetylene torch set life vests ablaze consuming the ship and it languished capsized in the Hudson river for 18 months. Fortunately, most of the furnishings and decor had been removed prior to the conflagration only to be scattered for eternity by subsequent public auctions.

These period images of the Grand Salon are a bit hard to decipher but thankfully the Met recently installed their 58 continuous panels that were donated in 1976.

As you see the panels puzzled together form vast sweeping scenes where mythical figures and creatures commingle with various eras of maritime vessels. These panels were fairly common at auction in the 1980s when art deco was enjoying a wide renaissance amongst collectors, but by the mid-1990s they tended to trade hands privately or through dealers. Obviously what you truly want as a collector is an interesting continuous scene, or if you settle on one or two panels they should command visual impact. There have been some recent successes following this tactic...

This depiction of sails comprising 10 panels from the "Birth of Aphrodite" section of the mural ranks high in desirability and thus commanded $512,500 (with premium) against and estimate of $200,000 to 300,000 at Sotheby's this past December.

This single panel pops with the geometry of lines and rays all focused on the sun at the horizon. Sotheby's managed to sell this gem for $46,875 (with premium) against a sensible estimate of $30,000-50,000 in June of 2009.

These two vertical panels dramatically depict the stern of a ship from the "Chariot of Thetis" section and were successfully sold by Maison Gerard at the Winter Antiques Show this past January. While the sale was private they were widely thought to have traded in the low six figures.

So we are left to muse as to why Christie's would be motivated to sell such a large random assortment of panels in an unforgiving market that only rewards the "best of the best." With a little research I think I found the answer. It appears that 12 of the 13 panels were actually sold by Christie's on 23 June 2005 as consecutive lots 292-294 (totalling $282,000 with premium). It is likely that the current consignor purchased all three lots in 2005 and has decided to re-sell them in light of the recent successes at Sotheby's. Still, it would have been more realistic to break them up into smaller groupings as the current offering is rather hard to digest especially for a collector who may only need a few of the panels to complete a set in their existing collection. It is a gamble on Christie's part for sure and I hope they prove me wrong, but in my opinion the odd mass grouping is going to be a tough sell.


  1. A beautiful, but disjointed collection. The amount of skill and craftmanship that was spent on the interior of the Normandie is extraordinary for a vessel, that I would assume, was only meant to last thirty years at the most.

  2. You might be right. There appears to be fragments from maybe 3-4 different images there with none making a complete enough image to achieve success.

  3. Well done. Very thoughtful, and well-researched post. The Normandie was the greatest of them all. Incredible, really. I would be interested to read your observations once the sale is over, and the results are known. Reggie