Perhaps the most recognised creation of the Art Deco era – and one that continues to shape current fashion - is the stylised bronze and ivory figure. Produced largely in Austria and France in the 1920s and '30s by sculptors who popularised the influence of body image and health, today they can still appear modern, vibrant, exotic and a little daring.
Cheaper figures were produced for the mass market in painted or patinated shelter while others were cast solely in bronze. They remain popular today at auction at largely affordable price ranges.
But the most expensive - then as now - were those fashioned from a combination of bronze and carved ivory (and typically mounted on an onyx or alabaster plinths) by now celebrated sculptors such as Demetre Chiparus (1886-1947), Claire Jeanne Colinet, Josef Lorenzl (1892-1950), Otto Poertzel (1876-1963) and Ferdinand Preiss (1882-1943). As Europe threw off the prudish sentiments of the 19th century, they took their inspiration from the performers and the elegant social types they encountered at the theatre, the music hall and the ballet.
The secondary market can be volatile - peaking with Russian interest in the first decade of the century - but Art Deco bronze and ivory figures enjoy a steady following from an international buying base. Even recent changes to laws on antique ivory in the US - and the many copies and reproductions that have been made over the years - have done little to dent demand.
The most desirable works are the immaculately carved and cast large-scale groups of scantily clad athletic females - Chiparus models based on the Ballets Russes, Preiss’ Flame Leaper or Colinet's celebrated Ankara Dancer - but collectors also appreciate more modest examples of period style or the best creations of ‘secondary’ makers. As evidenced by the £6200 realised at Sworders in February 2016 for an enamelled bronze and ivory harlequin dancer by Theodor Ullmann (Austrian, fl.1920-1930), striking subject matter can be more important than brand recognition.
Those of a less daring or more traditional subject matter are typically less desirable and, as with all collecting areas, buyers are condition sensitive. Yellowing, age-cracked or damaged ivory lowers value, particularly if it marks the face of the subject.
Sworders conduct three specialist auctions a year showcasing affordable and stylish ceramics, glass, metalwares, sculpture, pictures and furniture from the period 1860 to the present day.
The Decorative Art and Design sale caters for all budgets with estimates ranging from £100 to £100,000 and covers the key movements from Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau to Art Deco and Modern Design.