Buyers Chased Bronze Pigeons and Crocodile Chairs at Sotheby’s $45 Million Sale of a Real Estate Executive’s Collection

Led by pieces by Les Lalanne and the Giacometti brothers, the event nearly tripled expectations.

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A "Crocodile" armchair designed by Claude Lalanne. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A $400,000 pair of bronze pigeons and a $2 million armchair in the shape of a crocodile were among the highlights of a sale of objects from the estate of Michelle Smith, a Washington, D.C. businesswoman and philanthropist who died last year. The event brought in a whopping $45 million at Sotheby’s this month, nearly tripling the presale estimate of $16 million. 

Led by pieces from French design duo Les Lalanne and the Giacometti brothers, the auction set a new record for a design sale at the auction house’s New York branch. Its success lends credence to auction-house rhetoric that collectors are increasingly interested in buying across categories, including design, jewelry, and handbags.

Both a live sale and an online auction made up “A Vision: Property from the Collection of Michelle Smith,” as the event was called. In the former, a 10-hour affair on April 22, all 199 objects sold for a combined $43 million. The smaller online auction, which wrapped up on the 27th, netted the remaining $2.3 million.

Altogether, an impressive 99 percent of lots sold across both events, with 90 percent of the group scoring prices above their high estimates.

Alberto Giacometti's "Égyptienne" table lamp. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Alberto Giacometti’s “Égyptienne” table lamp. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“Michelle’s refined taste speaks to the highest quality of the respective fields she collected, which clearly resonated with top collectors,” Jodi Pollack, Sotheby’s co-worldwide head of 20th-century design, said in a statement.

Eleven lots from Les Lalanne, who have been auction favorites of late, sold for a combined $12.5 million. These included a pair of “Ginkgo” side chairs and a “Ginkgo” table, both of which were purchased for $1.2 million by Sotheby’s newly announced chairwoman and worldwide head of sales for global fine art, Brooke Lampley, on behalf of clients. 

An additional $12 million came from seven pieces by Alberto and Diego Giacometti. A 1974 bronze and suede bench from Diego cruised past its $600,000 high estimate to sell for $3.3 million, while an “Égyptienne” table lamp by Alberto surpassed its own $500,000 high estimate to net the same amount.

A bronze and suede bench designed by Diego Giacometti. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A bronze and suede bench designed by Diego Giacometti. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Other highlights from the sale included a 1955 bowl by British potter Lucie Rie that went for $340,200 and a 1935 glazed earthenware vase from Jean Besnard, which smashed its $8,000 estimate to sell for $176,400—another Lampley purchase. Fifteen pieces by Rie totaled $1.6 million against their combined presale high estimate of $439,000, while 17 from Besnard earned $1.5 million in total—more than 18 times their presale high estimate of $82,000.

The daughter of prominent developer Robert H. Smith and artist Clarice Smith, Michelle Smith worked her way up the real estate company founded by her grandfather until she herself was a major D.C.-area developer. From 2010 to her death, she led her family’s foundation, overseeing major donations to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and the University of Maryland.

Smith passed away last year after a prolonged battle with a terminal disease. Details, such as her age at the time of death, were not disclosed by the family.


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