Didier Haspeslagh: Braque’s birds in precious detail
Thinking about the symbols of the last years in fashion, art and in the world itself, Lostinjewels couldn’t find the better fitted image than a bird. There are many of them in jewellery, some represented the hardest time, some gave hope and inspiration. Then we thought of peace and creativity. And Georges Braque’s name popped up. There are series of studio paintings created by him in the 1949-1956ss, consisting of eight large-scale canvases and combining elements of interior and still lives. Those deep earthy tones of monumental layering are pierced with the figure of a large white bird with outstretched wings, a leitmotif of the artist’s entire late work.
About Braque’s path and aesthetics in jewelry I, Nastya Ivlieva, asked Didier Haspeslagh, a co-founder of the London based gallery Didier, Ltd., specialised in jewelry created by the important artists of the XX century. He is one of the most known experts on art jewelry, with the reputation of sourcing the most extraordinary pieces, and he kindly agreed to share his knowledge and research on the artist’s creations with our readers. I want to thank him for the complicated and unraveling story we have pleasure to learn.
LIJ: He was commissioned to paint a ceiling in the Louvre in 1953: two black birds on the deep blue. It’s an enormous honor for a living artist. 10 years later in 1963 there was an exhibition titled °Bijoux de Braque” at the Marsan Pavilion of the museum. How did he start to design jewelry?
The first jewel came about when Braque cut out a small photograph of Tête Greque and put it on his finger, next step forward Hégèr de Löwenfeld, a lapidary who carved in black and white onyx a cameo based on the greek head. The first ring was presented to Braque for his 80th birthday and the second one for his 81st (and last) birthday in May 1963. The both rings were bequeathed to the French State after his death. The rings are currently on show in the Musee National d’Art Moderne donated by Madame Braque in 1965.
LIJ: Braque called Heger de Löwenfeld “the extension of my hand”? Was their collaboration successful? Were there any difficulties?
Hégèr de Löwenfeld became a friend and a daily visitor to the bedridden painter who would sketch gouaches of the jewels and Hégèr would bring the prototypes for approval. After many trials Löwenfeld got it right and when that happened and the master was satisfied, Braque would re-sign the original gouache and authorize the jeweller to produce it.
These are in fact contracts, signed up to three times in some cases. It gives permission to market the jewel in an agreed number and materials. The signature is reproduced on the piece in the early versions and not in the multiples produced after he dies, it says instead BIJOUX DE BRAQUE in capitals not the cursive original signature.
There were no difficulties between Braque and Löwenfeld. Later, when Löwenfeld died, his foreman in the workshop Armand Israël inherited the rights (as they say in France) but this was where problems began. He reissued many of the models that were not as well made with corners cut and things changed.
We, as a gallery, do not deal with these and prefer only to handle the lifetime works and avoid posthumous works. And that applies to all our jewels by all artists unless there is no choice.
LIJ: Braque’s jewelry is sculptural, textured, tactile. He worked only with gold and precious stones. Does the material matter in his jewelry?
The materials totally matter to the artist. As you mentioned, Heger de Löwenfeld was the extension of his hands as he could no longer walk, everything was brought to his bedside. The colours of the gems, the textures of the gold, the finish, the pins, the polishing of the gems all mattered greatly to Braque, as it was all about what the finished article looked like. As Braque hated polished gold and used sand in all his paintings to avoid smooth surfaces, Heger came up with a texture based on that.
The artist was in total control. He would have had to learn about gems, gold, and its mysteries. Luckily Löwenfeld was a very competent lapidary, hence the fruitful collaboration.
Braque restricted himself in gems to red (ruby, jasper, topaz), white (diamond, moonstone), blue (sapphire, lapislazuli, turquoise), green (emerald, nephrite, jade) and occasionally a yellow (topaz). The same for the enamel colours that were restricted to black, white, red, green and blue.
Usually just the eye of the bird is a small gem and the body a textured yellow gold. Although there are also few silver and white gold versions. His sterling silver versions were not as popular so we see very few of them. And since our clients prefer and can afford the gold versions we do not buy many silver or silver gilt ones.
LIJ: What made you want to start collecting Georges Braque jewelry? What was the first bird that you purchased?
We started collecting Braque jewels nearly 20 years ago. Our first purchase was a Zetes and Calais double bird brooch which was great value compared to the other art by Braque. Paintings were fetching millions and sculptures hundreds of thousands, prints also were on the rise and for a fraction of any of the above we could buy a gold pin. No one was particularly interested and Armand Israël was still selling his new versions then. So we could see that a secondhand original was a lot cheaper than a new secondary issue.
These birds are all based on the Greek myths and all have their own story in Braque ’s repertoire. The fact that these were undervalued spurred us to buy more and we have now built up a great collection of more than 20 different jewels.
LIJ: I imagine that tracking down important pieces is quite a challenge. Is there any interesting story to share about one of the bird jewels in your collection?
It is difficult and laboursome to track these down. Over 30 years ago when Löwenfeld died, Christie’s Geneva had a wonderful sale of his estate and the catalogue has served as a great inspiration. The prices were high as it was as good a provenance as you could get. These were the actual pieces from the exhibition in 1963 and the source pieces that were never sold. We were not in a position to purchase these at the time although we were aware of the sale. In subsequent years we have purchased many of these pieces from the original sale as they returned to the market.
One popped up in the Stanley Seeger sale at Sotheby’s London and we had an almighty battle to acquire it for way over the estimate. But it was unique and now had two great provenances. Another popped up in the United States, again unique, and easily recognised by us. It was purchased by a London Dealer in the original sale and sold to an American collector. 20 years later it popped up again in an unlikely sale. Two more were acquired from a very obscure French provincial auction room; how they got there, we can only speculate. Suffice to say that they made our day when we discovered and purchased those two birds, as they show so nicely the various stages of the prototypes. Now we have three versions of this same bird showing the various combinations of colour and texture, all approved by the master.
Every jewel has its own story to tell, not just of its creation but subsequent travels and ownership. Provenance is a very potent factor in our world of second hand goods or antiques. And a good story always enhances the object.
LIJ: Are his birds relevant today? Is there an interest in the art market?
Didier Haspeslagh: Yes, these jewels are very relevant today as they are being rediscovered and are slowly becoming mainstream again after a 50 year hiatus. Like most other cycles it has come around again and will do even more so as more collectors enter the market. The advent of the internet has also greatly helped to speed things up, we can see far and wide and what we have assembled in the last ten years would have taken several lifetimes in the past before the worldwide web.
LIJ: What is your personal favourite Braque’s bird?
My holy grail bird jewel by Braque would be to find the stolen Peleas&Nele pendant with its original chain that went missing on its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the early 1960’s.
It was subsequently remade and that version is now in their collection. The only other version sold at the Geneva sale is also on the loose somewhere, and if that resurfaces, I would be happy to settle for that version. It was the jewel on the poster for the 1963 exhibition after all.