Alvar Aalto Valaistustyö Desk Lamp

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 LOT 243, Pierre Bergé et Associés “Phillip Denys, Le design historique” sale in Brussels, Belgium, December 15, 2010: A leather and metal desk lamp (model A 704, known as the “Valaistustyö” in Finnish) designed by ALVAR AALTO, circa 1950. The piece sold for € 22,500 (approximately $30,000) off a pre-auction estimate of €1,000 to €1,500 (approximately $1,350 to $2,000).  Some reasons for the unexpectedly high price:

In Memoriam

The auction was certain to draw the atten­tion of dedicated collectors. It was orga­nized by Pierre Bergé et Associés (PBA) as a tribute to the late Philippe Denys—who died last July—a globally respected Belgian dealer, based in Brussels for the past thirty years, who was regarded by many collectors as having the best eye for twenti­eth-century postwar design. Bergé was a close friend of Denys, as was Sandor Guter­mann, design specialist at PBA, who notes, “I learned a lot from Philippe Denys. Pierre Bergé’s vice president Frédéric Chambre, who was the auctioneer at the sale, was also close to him, his wife, Carmen, and his daughter, Sterenn.” Recently, PBA has held two auctions a year specializing in Scandinavian design—a speciality of Denys’—so the sale could not have been more appropriate. “Time and again Pierre Bergé presented the finest quality lots, which Mr. Denys would personally vet,” says Philippe Van Pradelles de Palmaërt of Galerie Philippe Denys.

Aalto Notes

The sale included many pieces by Alvar Aalto (1898–1976). The Finnish architect and designer created some of the most re­vered pieces of modernist furniture, such as the “Paimio” chair of 1931–1932, and many of his works are still produced by the firm Artek. His lighting designs, however, are both lesser known and harder to come by. A first edition “Valaistustyö” (which trans­lates as “illuminated night”) is included in the collection of the highly influential Swiss dealer Bruno Bischofberger, who owns a prestigious group of Alvar Aalto works.

Sloppy Seconds

Examples of the first edition lamp, it is be­lieved, have only appeared a total of four times at auction: twice in New York, once in Sweden, and finally at the PBA auction. The doubt, Gutermann explains, results from the fact that “we do not know how many of these four lamps were first edi­tion “Valaistustyö,” because the catalogue descriptions unfortunately do not always indicate this information, which is es­sential to the value of the lamp. There is a second edition of the lamp, called “Valais­inpaja” (translation: the somewhat pedes­trian “workplace lamp”) out there. To tell the difference, one must look at the white lacquered metal reflector under the lamp shade to find the mark of the edition: “Valaistustyö” has an engraved stamp, while the second edition “Valaisinpaja” only bears an adhesive label, which can be removed, so it is important to pay attention.”

Rare design and materials

The majority of Aalto’s designs are made using birch or metal, however he chose to cover this piece with leather, which gives the lamp a more luxurious quality. The asymmetrical shape of the feet is also atypical of Aalto. “I trust this black-shade A 704 desk lamp with its magical boomerang-shaped stand which has not appeared on the market since 2003, sur­prised more than one of the connoisseurs at the sale,” remarks de Palmaërt.

Duking It Out

Considering the rarity of this model, it is no surprise that the competi­tion became fierce, with four bidders in the room and five on the phone. After €9,000 it came down to one bidder in the room against one phone bidder. In the end, victory went to the phone bidder, a private Ameri­can collector. Though the final price is impressive, as Gutermann says, “The market for first genera­tion Aalto pieces is still growing, so the auction prices at the moment are not yet at their peak for this architect of genius who revolutionized twentieth-century architec­ture and design.”