Modernist masters' stocks soar

Twentieth-century design is a boom area in the auction scene, showing little sign of slowing after a decade of inflating prices.

Twentieth-century design is a boom area in the auction scene, showing little sign of slowing after a decade of inflating prices.

Some say it has taken off because this style - some of it more than 50 years old - fits in so well with apartment living. Supporting this theory are the many replicas being made of classic chairs, lamps and tables.

On April 10, some significant 20th-century furniture will be included in a sale of art and design by Shapiro Auctioneers in Queen Street, Woollahra. A catalogue is available online, with live bidding.

The highlight is an extraordinary Conoid dining table created in 1960 by American designer George Nakashima. His work is sought by museums around the world, which explains pre-sale estimates of $30,000 to $40,000.

The table is made of American black walnut and rose wood, with exposed butterfly joints. It was brought to Australia by an American who migrated here.

The other feature of the auction is a selection of work by Melbourne designer and craftsman Schulim Krimper, including a teak sideboard, a dining table with 10 chairs, a unique games table and a pair of console tables. These pieces had been commissioned by one Melbourne family for their new house designed by architect Robin Boyd.

This work dates from 1962 to 1964. The style, according to Andrew Shapiro, is "dramatically Scandinavian in appearance".

These sleek, modernist designs are what a new generation of collectors is now looking for. The Mad Men television series is partly responsible for reviving this style.

Demand for the work of Krimper began about 20 years ago and spiked in May 2006, when Shapiro sold a blackbean bookcase (circa 1951) to the National Gallery of Australia for a record $24,000.

That record was broken in November 2009, when Shapiro sold a Krimper sideboard, again of blackbean, for $36,000 to the Queensland Art Gallery.

Both prices include buyer's premiums.

The sideboard came from the home of Mr and Mrs George Shaw of Toorak, where it had been quietly rising in value since 1952.

The pieces to be sold next week are less valuable but could go for well above estimates. The sideboard is expected to sell for $10,000 to $15,000, the games table for $5000 to $7000, the dining table and chairs for a total of $8000 to $10,000. A pair of console tables were part of this setting but will be sold separately.

Shapiro says there is likely to be a lot more Krimper furniture sitting in people's homes, even stored in garages, with the owners unaware of its value. Krimper didn't sign most of his work but experts can spot his style.

Krimper emigrated to Melbourne in 1939 and set up a workshop in St Kilda, where he established a following among fellow members of the Jewish community.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, a certain mystique surrounded Krimper: "Many of his customers - often fellow immigrants - were in awe of him, and his demeanour did little to put them at ease. When they visited his St Kilda workshop he was rarely to be found at work. Eventually he emerged from the office, wearing a smock or dustcoat, a French beret and - when the mood took him - a monocle."

He is regarded as part of the postwar modernist movement, but he had a distinctive Australian flavour. He loved using timbers such as jarrah and Queensland blackbean, jarrah and cedar, plus exotics including New Guinea walnut.

Each piece was a one-off. The first Krimper exhibition was at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1959. After he died in 1971, a retrospective was held in 1975. All major museums now have examples of his work.

The revival of interest on the secondary market is more recent.

In 2006, at the start of the current boom in Krimper's work, Warren Joel of the Leonard Joel auction house noted that prices had risen tenfold in the previous decade. "Twenty years ago, you couldn't give the stuff away," he said at the time.

In 2006, a teak sidetable was listed for $500 through Leonard Joel, a teak chest of drawers for $1500 and a pedestal desk with chair for $2000. Buyers who picked those up seven years ago could probably sell them now for two or three times the price.

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