Chairs by the iconic Swiss designer Pierre Jeanneret fetch tens of thousands at auction. But which are real?
With no foundation to police his trademark, provenance (and who’s profiting) are often blurry. A wild design caper that touches on issues of authenticity, integrity and legacy.
“The first time I saw it in person was on the jobsite, during installation,” Cotton says, explaining that the desk had been purchased online and warehoused until the house was renovated. “I looked at it and I immediately said, ‘That is a fake. We’ve been screwed.’ ”
As Casciato sees it, Jeanneret himself was quite clear on the question of authorship with his designs: They also belonged to the local artisans who constructed them by hand. “Many times, everywhere, Pierre said that he not only respected but was learning from his Indian experience,” she says. “So, for him, a hundred percent they are attributed to India. They are Indian made.
“This is the philosophical question of what is authentic,” she continues. “Is it the idea or the object? Authenticity and authorship go hand in hand. But for furniture, it’s very complicated. The craft and the material are part of the authenticity.”1
How these dealers came to have the material at all is by now a familiar story. Prospecting in Chandigarh in the late 1990s, and increasingly aware of Jeanneret’s stature in the French-modernist clique of Prouvé, Perriand, Royère and Le Corbusier, they found desks and chairs heaped like broken dolls from the roofs to the sidewalks of Le Corbusier’s radiant city. They convinced local officials to auction off the discarded work. And after doing significant restoration on it back in France (sometimes reconstructing a piece by as much as 40 percent, Laffanour estimates), they started selling it. Ever since, they’ve been sniped about for running off with India’s cultural patrimony.
Laffanour speaks eloquently for the defense. “It’s only because dealers have this kind of interest—of course they think they can make a profit—but also they have the patience” to hold onto material until the fashion cycle revolves, he points out. “Because you are working on something which is totally rejected by everybody. You have to believe in it. If you are really in the mood of the piece, it’s like your treasure. You feel like you are a little bit lonely with your treasure, because nobody wants to take it from you. But it’s also really exciting.”
As several of the French dealers emphasize, they haven’t been the ones to juice prices—the auction market has done that. They’ve simply trailed values on their way up. (A pair of upholstered Senate armchairs that might have sold for $12,000 in 2006 generally sells in the range of $30,000 today.) What the French dealers have also done, over a period of nearly two decades, is to make the Chandigarh market as airtight and sexy as they could, contextualizing the work with well-researched shows, publishing books and catalogs, scooping up stock at auction and positioning the pieces as add-on buys for collectors of contemporary art. Their efforts have paid off: Jeanneret continues to be an art-world darling. This past May, White Cube gallery furnished its booth at TEFAF in New York with Chandigarh pieces; Tina Kim did the same at Frieze New York.
- 1. Jeanneret’s designs have no known pattern book, and the drawings that do exist—disseminated among sources on at least three continents—are often unsigned, undated or both. What is known is that the pieces were made cottage-industry style in carpentry workshops across the Punjab and possibly even farther afield. This explains the variations that exist even among the simplest pieces.