The world famed Paris-based art deco gallerist Cheska Vallois marked history with the purchase of an Eileen Gray chair, the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at auction, galvanizing a genre and a murky market.
Cheska Vallois made history when the Eileen Gray chair she bought for a collector became the most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at auction, galvanizing a genre and a murky market.
What is your definition of luxury?
Luxury is that which has no real use but yet remains indispensable.
If luxury were:
It would be the Eileen Gray armchair.
The collector who bought it.
In February, on the second day of the famed sale of the late couturier Yves Saint Laurent's art collection, a woman was among the hundreds who sat or stood in the temporary salesroom in Paris's soaring Grand Palais. The previous day painting and sculpture had broken records, attaining huge prices in an auction climate that had cooled rapidly in the previous months. When a chair by Art Deco designer Eileen Gray came under the hammer that lone woman, Cheska Vallois, was one of the few bidders.
The owner of a pioneering Paris gallery specializing in Art Deco, and the resuscitator of Gray's legacy, Vallois had originally sold Saint Laurent the chair 28 years previously. Now she was bidding on behalf of an anonymous collector, one who wanted the chair not for its ties to Saint Laurent, but for its importance and intrinsic beauty. The chair carried an estimate of €2-3 million. By the time the telephone counter-bidder backed down Vallois had made history. The chair had attained the unheard-of price of €21 million and newspapers around the globe were emblazoned with the shock bulletin that a piece of furniture by a deceased woman that most people had never heard of had sold for such an astronomical sum. It was a strange kind of victory.
The chair, already totally unique in its own sense, as the only known example of a stunning creation by such a major designer, also has no near competitor when it comes to price. Vallois cites a sale five years ago where six Gray chairs made for a then record-breaking total of €10 million. Vallois herself bought four of them. A half-decade ago that figure was unheard of, and seemed a wild gamble in a market that wasn't yet developed enough for Gray's genius. That some of the chairs had sold for over six times their estimate should, however, even then, have been a portent of things to come.
Vallois spoke to Luxury Culture, in an untrammeled stream of consciousness, about that fateful day and her views on a changing art market, for now and the future.
"In reality if I'd had to speak in the five minutes that followed the bidding it would have been totally impossible. My heart was in my mouth and if I'd had had to stand up my legs would never have carried me," she admits.
"It was an extraordinary moment in an emotional sense, clearly, and in a professional one, too; in my life story also. Because this was an object that represented the very beginning of my career, and finally to have access to it again 28 years later, and a price no one had ever dreamt of, well, it wasn't that bad, was it!" she says, with a smile.
Dedication to Art Deco is something that has never waned. She and her husband Robert have run their store on Paris's gallery-rich rue de Seine since 1971, opening a sister store in New York in 1999, and their love of their favorite creative period has always been paramount. "There've been periods of great difficulty with big crises that have proved as difficult for us as the rest of the world. I saw a lot of people at those moments, who'd said they loved Art Deco, move bit by bit into the 40s and 50s. Whatever the problems have been, the difficulties we've endured throughout these years, never for one minute did we give up on our objects. We never told ourselves that we'd sell something we considered ugly simply to make money."
That stubbornness, or blind love, is something that developed over time. Vallois said that initially the gallery sold a mix of things as they felt that would make the most business sense. But after a time she got tired of looking at things she had no emotional involvement in and didn't find beautiful, things that were sold simply because they were easy to sell. No, instead she became resolute that a gallery with a strong point of view was more honest that one with many. The gamble, of course, paid off. "I used to be able to buy an object that I thought was just okay knowing that it would pay the rent," she says. "Today, such an idea would never enter into my head."
This discipline doesn't make being a dealer any easier, especially when you're selling only things you truly love. "There's a dealer's language, and I don't have it. I have another, the language of a collector, a collector who's obliged to be a dealer because she doesn't have the money to just be a collector," she admits. "And yet, the trade of dealer has given me the possibility to buy ten times more than if I was just a collector, so in a way it combines everything nicely. But my language isn't one of commerce, it's one of love for these objects, and when I'm face to face with people who share it, all the better."
The receptive audience was one that Vallois needed not only when she entered into the still unexploited Art Deco arena, but also when she met Eileen Gray herself towards the end of the latter's life. The Irish woman, a long-time French resident, was nearly forgotten, her huge body of work, including architecture, fallen by the wayside. As Vallois repeatedly states, "There was no book!", an almost unknown situation in the art market when faced with someone of such importance. No, there was no book, not yet, but there was Gray, and Gray's memory and her documents and photographs and designs and her willingness to talk, endlessly, pouring out the wealth of a whole new world to Vallois who eagerly followed up every visit with research trips to Paris's national library.
Gray has played such an important role in Vallois’s career – and Vallois has been so implicit in reviving her name – that this singular devotion expressed itself in an unmissable manner when, in 2000, at the Paris Biennale des Antiquaires, one of the world’s most important fairs for the art and antiques industry, Vallois devoted her entire stand to Gray’s oeuvre, “a salute to a totally remarkable woman”. The response, unsurprisingly, was unequivocally spectacular. Vallois made an equal splash in 2008 when she displayed a core set of furniture and objects as museum pieces. She is well aware that their uniqueness makes them such, even if they are available to buy.
"You must remember that the Art Deco period was a sum total of thirty years of work for these creative people, and I've already been working nine years more than the entire length of their creativity. And then there's even greater rarity because there was a war directly after that destroyed so much and so the level of rarity increases, and today there's definitely a real problem with the rarity of these objects."
That level of rarity only serves to work in its favor in another way. Such high prices are, in Vallois's opinion, the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps we won't see them right away, but we will see them. For so long no one has blanched when a painting has sold for multiple millions. The Matisse that hit €32 million in the YSL sale surprised few. A painting is really only newsworthy these days if it tops the hundred million mark.
"I'm quite content with myself for having shaken things up, because it shows that furniture from the period I've devoted myself to for so long is as valuable as a great painting or sculpture, and there's no reason whatsoever why that shouldn't be the case,” she states, assuredly. “Since I’ve been working in this business I’ve been explaining to my collectors that this furniture will never cease gaining value. I’ve been saying it for thirty years, and I’m still saying it.”
Her gallery specializes in other designers and artists of the period, illustrious names such as Jean-Michel Frank, Paul Iribe, Armand-Albert Rateau, André Groult. “I think these are people who defined an era with their genius and it’s thanks to them that this era attained the heights and importance it did. They invented, they came out of a floral era, and they swept it all away to invent a new century,” she says with awe.
“They invented the century, and it was the last great age of craftsmanship, the last great epoch of spectacular unique creations, of the great artisans. Me, I love these people, I love these artisans, and I think they encapsulated everything of what was such a short period.”
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