A Bronze Hippo Bathtub Made a Giant Splash at Christie’s, Selling for $4.3 Million—25 Times What Its Seller Bought It For

Someone will be taking their bubble baths in a multimillion-dollar fixture by François-Xavier Lalanne.

François-Xavier Lalanne, Hippopotamus (1969). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

A determined bidder may soon be redoing their bathroom to accommodate one of their newest prizes: a bronze François-Xavier Lalanne tub that sold at Christie’s New York last night for an astronomical $4.3 million, nearly three times its high estimate. The seller, identified only as a Florida resident, may be celebrating, having bought Hippopotame I for $168,000 at Sotheby’s New York in 2006, resulting in a twenty-five-fold gain.

Measuring nearly ten feet long and four feet high and made of brass and copper, the herbivorous mammal and ungulate sports movable parts. It can open its mouth wide to reveal a sink and vanity; its tail flaps upward; and panels in its back open up to allow the bather to climb in. The unique work was conceived in 1968 and executed the following year.

Ever since their first solo exhibition, “Zoophytes,” in 1964, François-Xavier and his wife and artistic partner, Claude, have focused on the animal kingdom in their fanciful sculptures. François-Xavier has also created monkey-themed cabinets, and has transformed sheep, probably his best known form, into woolen stools that have fetched millions at auction.

The hippo rang true as a bathtub for its creator because of its semiaquatic nature. “A bathtub and a hippopotamus make a better marriage than a bathtub and a zebra,” he has said.

François-Xavier Lalanne, <i>Hippopotamus</i> (1969). Courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

François-Xavier Lalanne, Hippopotamus (1969). Courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

The Lalannes’ sculptures may be lighthearted, but they still got respect from even the most cerebral of artists. Marcel Duchamp and his wife Teeny once commissioned a blue-resin version of the same hippo sculpture, says the auction house. And museums like New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum; the Musée National d’Art Moderne/Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, have given the Lalannes their imprimatur by collecting their fanciful works.

Collectors are crazy for the Lalannes’ work. Just last month, Sotheby’s Paris achieved a white glove sale of 274 items from the Lalannes’ collection of their own creations, quadrupling its high estimate and enticing some 4,000 bidders.

Amusingly, it turns out that Christie’s has something of a history when it comes to selling hippo furniture. A 2017 sale saw a Mark Stoddardt glass dining table supported by a bronze hippo go for about $16,000, just over estimate; in 2002, a leather stool in the shape of a hippo sold within estimate at about $2,250. Hippos in the form of decorative objects have also found buyers through the house, including three Russian agate hippos that nearly quadrupled their estimate to go for almost $7,000 in 2011, and a hippo-shaped butter dish sold within estimate, for about $370. 

But last night’s bidder certainly has the prize lot, even among the hippos. Now he just needs Lalanne to design some rubber duckies.

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