Before she became one of the most significant figures of Modernism, Eileen Gray designed furniture in Art Deco style. The Irish-born designer spent most of her life in Paris where some of her most iconic designs were created. At the beginning of the 20th century, Gray showed a major interest in Japanese lacquerware and so began working with Seizo Sugawara, a famous lacquer expert from Japan. After a while, she developed lacquer disease, but this did not deter her from continuing to create new pieces. Throughout her life, Gray created a variety of lacquered furniture and lacquered screens.
One of the most famous lacquered furniture designed and made by Eileen Gray is called the “Dragons” armchair (“Fauteuil aux Dragons”). The lacquered chair became the most expensive chair ever sold at an auction in February 2009, at an event held by Christie’s in Paris in the Grand Palais. It was also the second most expensive piece of furniture ever sold at an auction being surpassed only by the Badminton Cabinet sold in 2004 for $36 million.
The “Dragons” armchair was originally created for Suzanne Talbot between 1917 and 1919. Talbot became the first person ever to give Gray a chance to create a complete interior. She was a successful hat designer in Paris and she owned an apartment on Rue de Lota. After the war, Gray moved from London to Paris, when Talbot gave her the task of decorating the apartment. The chair, which was created specifically for this project, is a part of the early phase of Gray’s work. This was the period of Gray’s career when she designed and made lacquered furniture which was highly appreciated by wealthy Parisians. The interior design of Talbot’s apartment is viewed as a perfect example of Art Deco style.
The chair is covered in brown leather today but it was originally made in white. The lacquered wooden structure is in the shape of two dragons’ bodies which form the chair’s base and their tails extend to the back. The heads of the dragons are carved in the armrests. It is 61cm high and 91cm wide.
Eileen Gray is a prominent name in furniture design as well as in architecture and she created a large number of iconic pieces, but it seems safe to say that nobody expected the chair to reach the price it did in 2009.
The auction house expected about $3 million from the sale, so the final price was a shock to them, even more so because of the poor global economic situation in that period. The chair was ultimately sold for an astonishing $28.3 million. The enormous amount paid for the chair is probably due to the fact that it was a rare piece designed by a famous artist and owned through the years by other famous people. This piece wasn’t considered to be a simple piece of furniture; it was seen as a work of art.
The chair had several owners before 1973, when it ended up in the hands of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé. Interestingly enough, the person that had the highest bid at the Paris auction in 2009 was the same person that sold the “Dragons“ armchair to Saint Laurent in the first place, Cheska Vallois. Vallois, a famous art dealer from Paris, purchased the lacquered armchair in 1971 for $2,700 and sold it to Saint Laurent two years later.
Apparently, Cheska and her husband Robert didn’t make the bidding in their name in 2009; the armchair was bought for someone else. There was a rumor that the chair’s new owners were the wealthy Kravis family, who allegedly knew the Vallois couple from previous collaborations with other furniture purchases. However, this proved to be untrue and the name of the chair’s new owner remains uncertain.
The chair was a part of a vast and amazing art collection owned by Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé and acquired over a period of 50 years. The collection numbered over 700 items dating from the 13th to the 20th century and included silver work, paintings, sculptures, and furniture from well-known artists such as Constantin Brancusi and Pablo Picasso.