My first encounter with the Art Deco costume designer and fashion illustrator Erté came at a flea market while I was a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
It was late in the day, and the dealer had a custom-framed poster from Erté’s 1978 Rizzoli Gallery, New York City exhibition marked at $45. I’d only vaguely heard of him but really liked the graphic. I offered the dealer $15, and he took it.
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When I got home and started reading about Romain de Tirtoff (known by the pseudonym Erté, the French pronunciation of his initials, R.T.) I decided that I loved his work and wanted more. And, as I soon discovered, that was where things would get complicated.
“I firmly believe,” Erté, who died in 1990 at the age of 97, wrote in his 1975 memoir ‘Things I Remember,’ “that every human being has a duty to make himself as attractive as possible … Clothes are a kind of alchemy; they can transform human beings into things of beauty or ugliness.”
The Russian-born French artist’s interest in fashion began when he was five years old. His career in fashion began at the age of six, when his mother had one of his drawings for a dress brought to life by a seamstress. He moved to Paris in 1910 to become a designer and began a career as a major fashion designer for the stage and as an illustrator for the leading magazines of the day, including Vogue, the Illustrated London News, Cosmopolitan, Ladies’ Home Journal and, most notably, Harper’s. He also designed sets and costumes for the Folies-Bergere, the Ziegfeld Follies and shows at the Casino de Paris and the London Palladium. While his career spanned parts of eight decades, his style never really wavered from the lavish Art Deco style that characterized his earliest work under the mentorship of the French fashion designer Paul Poiret.
In the 1980s, his career underwent a major revival after he was discovered in Paris by a New York Art Deco enthusiast and entrepreneur named Ron Parker.
“The Erté style was perfect for that 1980s style — that big house in the suburbs,” says Nicholas Dawes, vice president of special collections at Dallas-based Heritage Auction Galleries who worked with Erté in the early 1980s. “There was a kind of Art Deco revival going on in the 1980s, and Erté went perfectly with that.”
And with that revival came a commercialization of the illustrator’s work.
“The revival of Erté brought his original style back onto the market, and it was very well-promoted at a time when there was a lot of money around,” says Dawes. “It was all multiples. It started with prints and then it became all sorts of other things: bronzes and accessories. It was sold through a number of galleries, and they were all national, and you could buy it anywhere.”
In her book The Intrepid Art Collector (Three Rivers Press, 2006), Lisa Hunter calls Erté’s prints “the most notorious example” of print publishers producing more than one edition of the same image.
“Let’s say you’re interested in an Erté print with a green background,” she writes. “The dealer tells you it’s part of an edition of 100 copies. You’d be forgiven for thinking that only one hundred copies of this image existed. Alas, no. The very same image might also have been printed in different editions with a red background, a blue background, a gold background, a black background … Instead of 100 copies, there might be several times that many.”
|This signed and numbered sculpture, titled “Heat,” 13 inches by 3 inches by 19 inches, was sold at the Renaissance Estate & Auction Gallery, Boca Raton, Fla., Feb. 27, 2011, for $2,250.|
That commercialization and confusion has led to a challenging secondary market for all of those Erté limited editions produced in the 1980s.
Ed Jaster, a senior vice president at Heritage, says his company tends to “shy away” from Erté. “I love the work, but the owners of these items usually paid high retail prices, and the auction market usually nets them a substantial loss on their investment,” he says.
To avoid the convoluted world of collecting Erté prints, Teri Frank of Fine Art Registry has a novel approach: just buy the originals.
“If you want an Erté, forget the prints and save up so that you can go to Sotheby’s and buy the real thing,” she says. “That way, you know that if it’s not right, the auction house is going to give you your money back.”
It’s not as crazy as it sounds: While limited-edition Erté prints are regularly offered on eBay in the low four-figures, original Erté watercolors have recently sold through major auction houses for not that much more. A framed gouache and pencil on board of a study for a costume recently sold for $1,434 at Heritage Auction Galleries. The same auctioneer also sold a group of four framed Erté originals for $5,975, and Erté watercolors have sold at Sotheby’s in the low- to mid-four figures. And if there is a major rebirth of popular interest in Erté, it will be the originals that benefit most from the renewed interest.
While Erté is a household name and his iconic images are instantly recognizable, that hasn’t translated into a particularly hot market for most of his originals, in part due to the artist’s prolific designs — and also due to the relative lack of interest he’s received from the modern art establishment.
Dawes echoes Frank’s advice. “I’d recommend staying away from anything that’s brand new and staying away from three-dimensional objects,” he says, noting that much of the work produced during 1980s bore little of Erté’s artistic vision. “Those things were never really Erté’s concept. He’d say, ‘Take my concept and make it into a bronze,’ and they did that. But it was never him designing it.”
“My advice would be to try, if you possibly can, to focus on the early Erté, the work he made during his career as a fashion illustrator. You can buy actual copies of Harper’s and frame the covers,” he adds. A 1924 issue of Harper’s with Erté illustration on the cover recently sold on eBay for $49.95; an issue from 1934 sold for $39.51.
Also priced well below the numbered prints are the exhibition posters like the one I bought at the flea market. I think I’ll stick with those for now.
Zac Bissonnette is the author of “Debt-Free U: How I Paid For an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching Off My Parents” and has appeared on “The Today Show” and CNN as well as a contributing editor to Antique Trader on WGBH and NPR. Everything he knows about money was learned yard saling with his mother.
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