S.S. Normandie’s US$1mil Art Deco Panels For Auction

18 May 2017 - 12:13pm

 Sotheby’s will offer eight rare panels from the legendary ocean liner, the S.S. Normandie, in its June 6 auction of Important Design in New York. The panels will be on public exhibition from June 2-5 at Sotheby’s New York.

From the Forbes family collection, the reverse-glass panels – with an estimated value of about US$1mil -- are part of the History of Navigation mural, designed by French artist Jean Dupas, originally installed in the luxury voyageur’s Grand Salon.

Depicting part of the mythological Birth of Aphrodite scene, the eight adjacent panels on offer are surviving relics of the French vessel’s extravagant Art Deco interiors, and capture the glamour of this by-gone era. It has been nearly 10 years since a comparable series of panels have appeared at auction. Sotheby’s sold a suite of 10 panels from The Birth of Aphrodite in December 2009, which established a record price at the time of $512,500.

The history behind the celebrated series of panels is enriched further by the story of their acquisition. Renowned entrepreneur and publisher, Malcolm S. Forbes, purchased the eight panels in 1981 as a wedding gift to his son, Robert, just hours before he walked down the aisle. The panels would later welcome visitors to the Forbes Galleries in Manhattan until its closing in 2014.

Jodi Pollack, Sotheby’s Co-Worldwide Head of 20th Century Design, said: “Dupas's spectacular panels from the Normandie are one of the most storied icons from the Art Deco era, and it is unprecedented for the market to see a series of eight panels that form such a strong, dynamic pictorial scene. Collectors have always been fascinated with the Normandie, perhaps because of the miraculous events that led to the survival of its extraordinary art and furnishings. There is a growing appreciation for 20th century design that exhibits superlative quality, rarity and pedigree, and these panels are best in class."

Benjamin Doller, Sotheby’s Chairman of the Americas commented: “We are delighted to continue Sotheby’s history of working with the Forbes family. One of my earliest memories at Sotheby’s was going to the opening of the Forbes Galleries and being greeted by Malcolm Forbes himself. Handling any of the collections from Forbes can be considered a ‘thrill of a lifetime’, as was most certainly the case when we sold the magnificent collection of Fabergé. Selling the great mural that greeted thousands of visitors to the Forbes building for decades continues the wonderful relationship between Forbes and Sotheby’s.”

Entering service in May 1935, following the global economic crash and dwindling height of the Prohibition era, the S.S. Normandie was an astounding symbol of French nationalism and a celebration of the country’s inimitable taste. Despite the worldwide financial climate, the 1,029-foot “Ship of Light” became the most magnificent vessel to have ever set sail, thanks almost entirely to subsidizing by France’s government. Due to its unprecedented size, speed, and aesthetic mystic, the ship garnered an overwhelming amount of media attention leading up to its inaugural voyage. Though the ship’s commercial success fell short of its goal, the vessel overachieved in seducing its passengers, such as Salvador Dalí, Cary Grant and Marlene Dietrich through its spectacular interiors.

Determined to make the S.S. Normandie a triumph of staggering proportions, the French Line commissioned Bordeaux-born artist Jean Dupas to decorate one of the Normandie’s largest spaces: the Grand Salon. To match the room’s sprawling opulence, Dupas, the son of a seaman, imagined a towering installation depicting the History of Navigation, complete with glittering maritime scenes and brilliant mythological tales. The epic 56-panel mural showcases four mythological stories—The Chariot of Poseidon, Rape of Europa, The Chariot of Thetis, and The Birth of Aphrodite—which, due to the room’s puzzling shape, were ultimately divided into the Salon’s four corners.

To illuminate the mural’s appearance, Dupas, together with Charles Champignuelle, used a technique called verre églomisé. The specialized technique consists of applying black and pastel paint on the reserve-glass panels, artfully layering metallic leafs and securing the materials with canvas. While time-consuming, the murals’ assembly and installation would later prove to be a rather fortuitous inconvenience. Upon arriving in New York in August 1939, the S.S. Normandie was docked in Pier 88, unable to safely return to its native Le Havre port following France’s fall to Germany. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Government repurposed the grand vessel as a troopship under the name USS Lafayette and ordered the subsequent removal of its interiors, including the History of Navigation mural. Shortly after the removal in February 1942, the ocean liner caught fire, causing it to capsize and ultimately be deemed too costly to repair. The once majestic vessel was scrapped in 1946.

The history of the S.S. Normandie survives in part through these extracted interiors. Years after the ship’s storied demise, the Normandie’s legacy has inspired a growing fascination with ocean liner culture, as exhibited through Malcolm S. Forbes’s purchase of the suite of panels in 1981. While attending pre-wedding festivities on the day of his son Robert’s nuptials, Mr. Forbes briefly left his New York townhouse in order to bid on the series of panels at auction. In just under two hours, he outbid Steven Greenberg of Roxy Roller Palace to acquire the extraordinary set for $99,000—an auction record for Dupas’s panels at that time.

Expanding the panels’ historical ties to New York society, the largest existing ensemble of Dupas’s panels, depicting The Chariot of Poseidon, was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1976 and has since remained in the institution’s collection.

Sotheby’s has had the privilege of auctioning a number of notable works from the Forbes family’s extensive collections. In 2008, Sotheby’s offered the legendary Forbes Collection of Fabergé, which was famously purchased in a private sale by Russian industrialist Mr. Victor Vekselberg prior to its scheduled auction. In 2010, Sotheby’s held a sale dedicated to the Forbes Collection of Antique Toys, featuring important toy boats, soldiers, motorcycles and classic board games lovingly gathered over nearly four decades by Malcolm S. Forbes and his sons.