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Art Market

How Les Lalanne’s Whimsical Sculptures Captured the Imaginations of Collectors Worldwide

Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle
Jul 14, 2021 5:50PM

François-Xavier Lalanne, installation view of Lapin à Vent de Tourtour, 1968–94, in “The Lalanne at Trianon” at the Palace of Versailles, 2021. © François-Xavier Lalanne. Photo by Capucine de Chabaneix. Courtesy of Galerie Mitterrand.

It may be 13 years since the passing of François-Xavier Lalanne, and two years since the death of his wife and artistic partner Claude Lalanne, but the market for works by “Les Lalanne,” as they came to be known collectively, continues to flourish. The prolific artist couple’s surrealistic sculptures are highly coveted and eminently collectible. Their fantastical menagerie is currently residing at the Château de Versailles (until October 10th) in the largest outdoor exhibition of their creations ever staged.

“Les Lalanne at Trianon” unites over 60 artworks assembled by French gallerist Jean-Gabriel Mitterrand, which are set against the idyllic, bucolic backdrop of the Trianon Estate, the retreat where Queen Marie-Antoinette sought refuge from the formality of the court. The Queen’s Hamlet was an actual working farm in the 18th century, with cottages, sheep, cows, and chickens, and it was here that she could let her imagination run free. Now, François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne’s magical kingdom of creatures—including an elephant, donkey, rabbit, ape, bear, wapiti, wild boar, duck, wood pigeon, turtle, fish, and a flock of sheep—is inspiring 21st-century visitors.

François-Xavier Lalanne, Ane Bâté, 1985, in “The Lalanne at Trianon” at the Palace of Versailles, 2021. © François-Xavier Lalanne. Photo by Capucine de Chabaneix. Courtesy of Galerie Mitterrand.

François-Xavier Lalanne, Singe Avisé, 2005, in “The Lalanne at Trianon” at the Palace of Versailles, 2021. © François-Xavier Lalanne. Photo by Capucine de Chabaneix. Courtesy of Galerie Mitterrand.

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“Les Lalanne are ambassadors of French taste in contemporary art coming from the 18th-century French tradition of high taste, which is why they fit so well in Versailles,” said Mitterrand, who has represented the artists since he opened his gallery in 1988. “Marie-Antoinette was the first queen to order an English-style garden in France, creating a real change. This relation of Marie-Antoinette with nature is really interesting because she dreamed of escaping the rude people around the king, and Les Lalanne help us to escape the pollution and aggression of the city because when you are with their works, you come back to simplicity, nature, and contemplation.”


Sculptural revolutionaries

François-Xavier Lalanne, Troupeau d’Éléphants dans les Arbres, 2001. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Just last month, at Christie’s single-owner sale in New York of decorative arts and design from collector Sydell Miller’s Palm Beach house, the table Troupeau d’Éléphants dans les Arbres (2001) reached $6.6 million, the third-highest auction result to date for a work by François-Xavier. Representative of his work at the crossroads of art and design, it comprises a herd of seven freestanding gilt-bronze elephant sculptures of varied sizes gathered under Acacia trees on the open savanna, which can be placed in any configuration, whether under a table or on top of it. It’s typical of Les Lalanne’s mischievous bestiary, where wild animals are transformed into imaginative and expertly crafted pieces of furniture.

In Les Lalanne’s world, ostriches become bar tables, hippos house bathtubs, baboons double as fireplaces, frogs function as chairs, and grasshoppers become wine coolers. Their sculptures are to be lived with; we look at them, but also touch them, open them, sit or lie on them, eat with them, or wear them around our necks.

François-Xavier Lalanne, Unique Rhinocrétaire, 1991. © Sotheby’s / Art Digital Studio. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“They are the most important sculptors after Giacometti because they had a unique concept of sculptures that you could use,” Mitterrand said. “That was a revolution in sculpture. It was understood as design, but in fact it’s sculpture. This was a kind of crime against the school of sculpture. They brought use to every work, making mirrors, candelabras, chairs, and tables, but in fact they never really created for the function. It’s not easy to use a Lalanne work—you have to transform your way of using a fork, desk, or seat.”

François-Xavier’s pieces were shaped by encounters with artists like Constantin Brâncuși, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp, and Salvador Dalí. They were also inspired by his time as a guard at the Louvre, where he was drawn to the stone reliefs of ancient animals and sculptures of the Egyptian and Assyrian collections and Hindu deities. Claude was born in 1925 in Paris and François-Xavier in 1927 in Agen in southwestern France. Exhibiting his paintings and working as a scenery designer in Parisian theaters, François-Xavier met fellow scenery designer and sculptor Claude in 1952. They quickly moved in together and began working side by side, and eventually married in 1967.


A steadily expanding market

The duo’s category-defying work took time to catch on. Their early functional sculptures challenged the boundaries between fine and decorative art, and were dismissed by critics. Today they are widely collected across five continents. Their creations feature in the collections of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, the Centre Pompidou, and Museum of Natural History in Paris, and have been the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Decorative Arts and Bagatelle Park in Paris and Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Florida. Their works have also been installed in the flagship stores of Chanel, Dior, and Tom Ford.

“Les Lalanne’s market is strong and still growing in terms of demand and price,” said Florent Jeanniard, vice president and head of 20th-century design at Sotheby’s in France. “There is no particular explosion, but a constant increase. At the beginning of the 1980s, the market was primarily French. In the middle of the 1990s, European collectors were interested in their works. Around 2000, their works were discovered in the United States, which increased requests from collectors and prices. Since a few years [ago], Asian admirers have discovered their works.”

Interior designers sourcing important pieces for their clients have also played an important role in Les Lalanne’s market rise. And a new collector class has emerged that enjoys the status that comes with owning and displaying such playful objects. Equally important are prominent dealers pursuing works for inventory in their galleries.


Close collaborators—and critics

François-Xavier and Claude shared a home and workshop for over five decades in the quiet village of Ury, south of Paris, where they drew inspiration from their gardens and the French countryside, but they seldom collaborated on the same piece—though they often critiqued one another’s designs. François-Xavier preferred animals, while Claude focused on vegetation. She employed techniques of impression, moulding, and electroplating to fashion works portraying leaves, flowers, fruits, and bodies that are more intimate, ornamental, and baroque. A purist in the tradition of Poussin, Ingres, and Matisse, François-Xavier’s creations were influenced by the Renaissance and ancient Greece and Rome, punctuated by a touch of Surrealism.

“Les Lalanne take a novel approach to sculpture,” said Emily Fitzgerald, Christie’s associate specialist of design. “There is an adherence to high-quality materials and a high level of craftsmanship. Their innovative approach is rooted in art history and nature, producing a wide variety of fantastical forms that carry forward the principles of Surrealism. The fact that their works touch on so many aspects of form, material, and art history makes them universally appealing to the market.”

Claude Lalanne, installation view of Choupatte, 2016, in “The Lalanne at Trianon” at the Palace of Versailles, 2021. © Claude Lalanne. Photo by Capucine de Chabaneix. Courtesy of Galerie Mitterrand.

In 1964, their breakthrough first joint exhibition “Zoophites” at Jeannine de Goldschmidt and Pierre Restany’s Galerie J. in Paris presented François-Xavier’s Rhinocrétaire, his first brass rhinoceros desk, and Claude’s Choupatte, a half-cabbage, half-chicken creature that has become the icon of her work. The show marked the start of their fusion of sculpture with functional design, setting the tone for their production and winning them international acclaim. The show caught the attention of Greek dealer Alexander Iolas, a great champion of the Surrealists and New Realists, who also gave Andy Warhol his first gallery exhibition. Les Lalanne embarked on a long and fruitful collaboration with Iolas. He introduced them to audiences in the U.S., where their works were well received. Through his galleries in Paris, Geneva, Madrid, Milan, Athens, and New York, he launched the duo onto the international scene.

The couple’s poetry and humor amused the jet set, including sophisticated tastemakers like Marie-Hélène and Guy de Rothschild, Gunter Sachs, Gianni Agnelli, Dominique and John de Ménil, Jane Holzer, Pauline Karpidas, Nathalie de Noailles, São Schlumberger, Olivier de la Baume, Jacqueline Delubac, and even former French president Georges Pompidou. They were also beloved in the fashion world, receiving commissions from Hubert de Givenchy, Roger Vivier, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, and John Galliano.


Favorites in the fashion world go global

François-Xavier Lalanne, Lapin à vent, 2004. © Sotheby’s / Art Digital Studio. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The next major milestone in Les Lalanne’s market came in 2009, courtesy of a fashion icon and discerning collector. That year, Christie’s held the legendary Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction in Paris. Among the lots was François-Xavier’s first private commission, the sculptural YSL Bar (1965) for the pair’s home, which sold for €2.7 million ($3.5 million)—more than 13 times its low estimate—while a set of 15 metal mirrors with plant motifs (1974–85) by Claude went for €1.8 million ($2.3 million). Thereafter, three dealers were appointed by Claude to sell their creations and protect their interests: Mitterrand in Paris, Paul Kasmin in New York, and Ben Brown in London and Hong Kong. Yet another contributor to their success outside France has been the American architect Peter Marino, who has integrated many of their objects into American collections.

The collector pool for Les Lalanne’s sculptures is vast, with works by each having appeared at auction more than 1,000 times. Following Claude’s death, Sotheby’s Paris auctioned the contents of the couple’s house-atelier in 2019, with astounding results. Some 4,100 participants from 43 countries competed over a total of nine hours, with every last one of the 274 lots selling. In all, 26 lots achieved prices above $1 million, and the sale reached a total of €91.3 million ($101 million)—almost six times Sotheby’s low estimate, and its highest-ever total for a sale in Paris.

François-Xavier Lalanne, Les autruches bar, 1967–70. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The spectacular outcome was largely thanks to the diversity of collectors interested in Les Lalanne, including dealers, design and contemporary art collectors, hunting enthusiasts, fans of Pompon or Bugatti, and jewelry lovers. The €2.1 million ($2.4 million) paid for the very large patinated bronze Choupatte (Très Grand) (2012)—over 10 times the high estimate—set a new auction record for Claude’s work. “When an artist dies, you have no possibilities to have new works, so the number of works available in the market cannot change, which creates a desire to possess the work done before death,” Mitterand said, by way of explaining the dramatic uptick in prices for Les Lalanne’s work after Claude’s death.

The blockbuster 2019 auction built on strong results from a November 2017 sale, also at Sotheby’s Paris, of works from decorator Jacques Grange’s collection. That auction saw François-Xavier’s biscuit and metal Les Autruches Bar (1967–70), composed of two ostriches with a removable egg doubling as an ice bucket, soar to nearly €6.2 million ($7.2 million). Another watershed moment was the inclusion of his Mayersdorff Bar (1966) in a Christie’s evening art sale in May 2018, where it was offered between works by David Hockney and Tom Wesselmann. “This auction illustrates a further resetting of thinking of how their works are presented, transcending categorical constraints on what constitutes high art, design, or functional sculpture,” Fitzgerald noted. “The work stands firmly on its own alongside post-war, blue-chip paintings and sculptures.”


Les Lalanne demand not letting up

As at auction, gallery prices for François-Xavier’s work tend to outpace prices for Claude’s. At the virtual edition of Art Basel in Miami Beach last December, Ben Brown Fine Arts offered a tabletop sculpture of a deer by François-Xavier, Wapiti (petit) (2001), with an asking price between $2 million and $3 million. Meanwhile, last year, at the online-only Dallas Art Fair, Kasmin offered a foot-tall bronze sculpture of a rabbit by Claude for $385,000 and, at the virtual edition of Art Basel in Hong Kong, one of her chandeliers made of metallic branches, Lustre 12 bobeches (2011), for $850,000.

On Artsy, Claude and François-Xavier have seen slightly different demand trends. Collector interest in François-Xavier’s animals has been rising steadily since 2015, with the number of users inquiring about his work reaching a peak in 2020. The number of collectors inquiring about Claude’s work on Artsy more than doubled from 2016 to 2017, and has held relatively steady since.

François-Xavier Lalanne, installation view of Les nouveaux moutons, Brebis, 1994; Les nouveaux moutons, Bélier, 1994; and Les nouveaux moutons, Agneau, 1996, in “The Lalanne at Trianon” at the Palace of Versailles, 2021. © François-Xavier Lalanne. Photo by Capucine de Chabaneix. Courtesy of Galerie Mitterrand.

Today, the most popular pieces in Les Lalanne’s oeuvre are François-Xavier’s sheep. Reflecting his belief that art should be part of the everyday, his sheep sculptures—which have become his career-defining leitmotif, with connoisseurs snapping up entire flocks—are meant to be used as furniture. In 2012, his 24 playful and humorous life-sized woolly sheep, Moutons de Laine (1965), went for $5.7 million, while a group of 10 sheep sculptures rendered in epoxy stone, Mouton de Pierre (ca. 1979), set an auction record for the artist when it achieved $7.5 million at a Christie’s sale in New York in 2011.

“This extraordinary result, achieving 10 times the low estimate, firmly established the top-tier value of Lalanne in the marketplace, and it has stood as the world record for 10 years,” Fitzgerald said. If you visit the Château de Versailles this summer and take a stroll among François-Xavier’s sheep grazing in the meadow around Marie-Antoinette’s farm, or gaze at Claude’s Choupatte sculpture near the Petit Trianon, let there be no doubt in your mind that you’re in the presence of art market royalty.

Y-Jean Mun-Delsalle
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019