December 1, 2022

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Art’s New Perch: Your Neck, Not Your Wall

It looks at a glance like a monument, a towering edifice of painted wood and brass. But on closer inspection, it is a half-pint — a sculptural pendant that stands a mere 4 ¾ inches tall, one of the small but mighty jewelry designs the artist Louise Nevelson crafted for friends or wore like a weighty talisman.

It is also among the highlights of “Art as Jewelry as Art,” a digital-only auction and simultaneous exhibition at Sotheby’s in Manhattan. The first at the auction house dedicated to artists’ jewelry, it showcases designs by some 65 20th- and 21st-century artists, works deemed by the house as covetable, wearable and eminently collectible.

On view through Oct. 4 (when the bidding closes) are diminutive pieces by Picasso, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Man Ray and Alexander Calder, a selection that demonstrates, Sotheby’s maintains, that when it comes to artists’ prowess, it isn’t always size that counts.

“It’s easy to make something massive, but to make something strong and small is difficult,” said Tiffany Dubin, Sotheby’s artist jewelry specialist, who conceived and organized the event. She is keen to establish the category, poised at the intersection of high jewelry and painting or sculpture, as a scaled-down extension of the artist.

Artists’ jewelry holds a newly seductive cachet, said Mari-Claudia Jiménez, Sotheby’s managing director and worldwide head of business development, global fine arts. “Where we have featured art’s jewelry as a part of other sales, it did well,” Jiménez said. (A silver Calder necklace estimated at $400,000 to $600,000, sold for $2 million at Sotheby’s in 2013, and holds the record for an item of jewelry at auction.)

A segment of the market focused on rare or singular objects made from precious materials — or, as often, everyday ones, including wood, glass shard, brass, bits of clay and the like — the jewelry has transcended its status in recent years as merely decorative “For our clients,” Jiménez said, “wearable art is the next frontier in collecting.”

The category is no longer an outlier. “A lot of collections are going to museums,” said Cynthia Amneus, curator of fashion, arts and textiles at the Cincinnati Art Museum, which exhibited art jewelers last year. “It tends to be colorful, large and flamboyant,” she said, “but people are wearing it and showing off their wealth and their fashion sense.”

But is it an investment? That depends. Susan Cummins, founder of the nonprofit Art Jewelry Forum and a co-author of the 2020 book “In Flux: American Jewelry and the Counterculture,” makes a distinction between artists’ jewelry, conceived and often signed by a recognized artist, and art jewelry, created by lesser-known artisans who may not rely on precious materials to lend it worth.

“In terms of auction there isn’t a huge market for art jewelry, whereas there is for artists’ jewelry,” Cummins said. Artists’ jewelry, is more likely to hold value, she said. “But some people buy it for status.”

Sotheby’s is a come-lately to the field, preceded by Christie’s. (Its “Art as Jewelry” auction in 2015 featured pieces by Calder, Man Ray, Georges Braque, Carmen Herrera and Claude Lalanne).

Bonham’s Los Angeles was host last year to “Wearable Art: Jewels from The Crawford Collection,” a sale of jewelry from some 30 masters, from Picasso, William Spratling and Jean Arp to Ettore Sottsass. The top lot, a Picasso “Grand Faune” pendant, fetched $62,812.

Clearly Sotheby’s is bent on playing catch-up. “We want to capitalize on the popularity of this category,” Jiménez said.

Sotheby’s first positioned itself as a retailer in the late 1990s, when the venerable auction house appointed Dubin, then head of its fashion department, to organize a sale of vintage fashions and gewgaws. She made style news, selling 1960s Pucci hot pants, corkscrews, matchbooks and Hugh Hefner’s silk pajamas.

Dubin herself is no stranger to marketing. Her stepfather was A. Alfred Taubman, the shopping mall developer and Sotheby’s former chairman, who sold his controlling interest in the house in 2005, in the wake of a price fixing scandal. But Dubin also shared her entrepreneurial sensibilities with her father, Herbert Rounick, a garment industry executive. “I’ve always been a merchant,” she said.

At 12 she was selling trinkets door to door at the United Nations Plaza, where she lived. “Instead of selling lemonade I would sell necklaces,” she recalled. “I earned enough money to go to Tiffany and buy my first pair of Elsa Peretti mesh earrings, which I still wear.”

At Henri Bendel in 2001, she briefly commandeered a home furnishings boutique, selling pineapple lamps, Bertoia chairs, and surrealist knickknacks, among them vintage shoes, which she lined in scraps of Fendi fur and made into handles for mirrored trays.

Today her candidly mercantile approach is reflected in Sotheby’s’ sale catalog, a lavish volume that aspires to scholarship, with offerings grouped under headings including minimalism, abstract expressionism, modernism and surrealism. It resembles a fashion glossy, replete with images of models and luminaries including Lisa Perry and Marc Jacobs. Even Queen Elizabeth II makes an appearance, beaming in a photograph, an Andrew Grima diamond and ruby brooch fastened to her breast.

The catalog is but one indication that Sotheby’s aims to pursue the sale of art jewelry with the same gusto it now devotes to streetwear and sneakers. “Never miss a rare sneakers auction,” a current advertisement exhorts, directing clients to an online selection that includes Louis Vuitton x Nikes ($15,000) and a Nike Air Yeezy sample ($23,000).

In contrast, hammer prices for artists’ jewelry are estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 for a Claude Lalanne Anemone brooch, to $300,000 for an Alexander Calder brass tiara. As for investment potential, “I can’t say whether it’s a value proposition to buy a Calder necklace rather than a Calder mobile,” Jiménez offered cautiously “But these pieces should retain their value as art works.”

They retain, for the moment, a circumscribed appeal. “You need a little hipness to wear this,” Dubin said.

And plenty of audacity. Items like Line Vautrin’s ruff style necklace of cellulose acetate, metal and mirror shards, or Michele Oka Doner’s bronze and diamond talisman necklace are as fragile as cicadas’ wings. But others, including a Max Ernst-signed 23K gold Tête à Cornes (Head with horns) are retina-searing. A few are so ungainly or candidly perverse they may be better suited for coffee table display.

Not adornment in any conventional sense, these include such showily provocative works as the gold and platinum geometric spectacles by the artist and musician Yury Revich; a silver bar necklace by Louise Bourgeois made to clasp the throat like an instrument of torture; and perhaps most disconcertingly, a pair of goat suede gloves by the surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim, embellished with a tracery of blood red veins. There is also a vintage crocodile handbag by the artist Kathleen Vance, kitted out on the inside with a miniature hillside and stream.

“Can I tell you about this baby?” Dubin said of the piece, which she commissioned and had made from her own 1940s handbag. “Kathleen came for lunch one day, and the next thing you know, she’d created a landscape.”

Clearly for Dubin, “Art as Jewelry as Art” is a passion project. An artist manque, she maintains that her particular skill is to recognize and nurture talent.

Before taking on her current assignment, Dubin worked at Sotheby’s in business development, a job she described as “helping people do valuations, helping them sell things or bid at auctions.

“What I missed,” she said, “is having an area I could feel that I owned. This is my investment in myself.”