Mysterious art deco designer surfaces at auction
June 22, 2009 | A dozen pieces of fresh-to-market art deco furniture came up for auction last month, with a puzzling tale of origin for new owners to unravel.
The consignor to the May 17 sale, at Burchard Galleries in St. Petersburg, Fla., inherited them from a cosmopolitan friend named Gertrude Maud Goldsmith (1894-1990), along with a saga involving misogynist discrimination and aristocratic family tragedy. Goldsmith designed most of the pieces in 1927, while on staff at Paris cabinetmakers Saddier et Ses Fils. She experimented with Saddier's typical luxurious materials, like tiger maple and zebrawood, for an eclectic group including etageres shaped like half-ziggurats, chairs with ovoid or sharply faceted sides, and a wall unit with dramatic crisscrossing metal supports for shelves and a fall-front desk.
Her path to Saddier, according to the consignor, was convoluted. Goldsmith, whose maiden name was Johnstone, was born in Cape Town to British parents who sent her to Edinburgh as a teenager to train as a singer. After nodes formed on her young vocal chords, she moved to London and took courses in gemology, drafting, and engineering. By the 1920s she had settled in Paris and married the Marquis de Marigny, who died on their honeymoon. She eventually became the mistress of one of the Saddiers. In 1927, on a lark, she entered some furniture in a Paris expo, probably the Salon des Artistes Décorateurs. She used a pseudonym, G.M. de Marygny Denis, because women were not allowed to submit to the competition. She won a prize, and the Saddiers rewarded her with a burl-veneer bedroom suite carved with sunbursts. That set did well in the Burchard sale ($4,025), as did her etageres ($4,313), wall unit ($4,888) and club chair with ottoman ($4,313).
"There was spirited bidding," despite some patches of veneer loss, said the auctioneer, Jeff Burchard. "We were pleasantly surprised by the prices. A lot of art deco from Europe has fallen by the wayside in recent years. Prices have gone down, as the market was showered with container after container." The wall unit and etageres, he added, "went to buyers back in France."
Still, mysteries linger about Goldsmith. What's certain is that in 1930, she married an American engineer, Alfred Goldsmith, an RCA executive who prolifically patented components for radios and TVs. His wife, a charismatic character, collected jewelry (Sotheby's held a single owner sale of her gems in 1973), designed some jewelry (reportedly for Harry Winston), and kept bevies of snakes as pets. But did she really pseudonymously design those 1927 pieces for Saddier? Was there a salon expo that banned women contestants? Charlotte Perriand and Eileen Gray, after all, exhibited regularly at Paris salons. And did her marquis die on his honeymoon?
"I can't find any mention of her anywhere" in Saddier reference materials, said Gerard Widdershoven, co-owner of Manhattan-based art deco gallery Maison Gerard. "And we do know there was a Marquis de Marigny in her time, but no one's heard of him ever marrying, let alone dying on the honeymoon." Her glossy furniture is appealing and quintessentially Saddier, he added, and the Burchard auction prices sound fair given the fogginess of the background tale. Rumors about antiques, he said, "sometimes take on a life of their own and become fact."
Images from above: All pieces designed by Gertrude Maud Goldsmith for Saddier, Paris, c. 1927. Side cabinets; chair; headboard and wardrobe from a four-piece bedroom suite; and club chair and ottoman. Courtesy of Burchard Galleries.