Wool you look at that: rare set of François-Xavier Lalanne sheep net $1.3m at Bonhams New York

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A family of François-Xavier Lalanne’s popular full-scale sheep sculptures brought in seven figures at Bonhams New York during the auction house’s Modern decorative art and design sale on Thursday (15 June).

While Lalanne’s sheep were often sold by dealers as a full set, it’s now rare for a full collection to go up for sale together, according to Benjamin Walker, global head of Modern decorative art and design at Bonhams. And prices have been “steadily increasing” since they were last produced in the 2000s, he says. The four sheep in the Bonhams sale were first purchased by the consignors from Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1998 for between $7,000 and $100,000 each.

The largest sculpture of the set, Ram (1994) —nicknamed “the daddy” by Bonhams staffers— sold for $230,000 ($293,000 with fees) against a $200,000 to $300,000 estimate. The other adult, Ewe (1994), fetched $280,000 ($356,000 with fees) after having the same estimate as Ram. The sale included two Lambs (1996), which both sold to a telephone bidder for $290,000 and $230,000, respectively ($369,000 and $293,000 with fees). They were each estimated by Bonhams to fetch between $150,000 and $250,000.

Lalanne first exhibited his life-sized sheep sculptures in 1966 at the Salon de la Jeune Peinture in the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. He said later that he wanted to “create something very invasive… like bringing the countryside to Paris”. Lalanne worked alongside his wife, sculptor Claude Lalanne, who died in 2019.  While Claude’s work focused on jewelry and delicate aspects of nature, François-Xavier’s work was often large-scale and theatrical.

“He was rebellious, and found it quite funny that a sort of marauding group of sheep would be  going into these urban areas like art galleries and people’s homes and almost invading them,” Walker says. Lalanne intended his sheep to be used daily as furniture by their owners, he adds.

“The woolen ones were supposed to be brought into people’s houses and enjoyed and sat on,” Walker says. “He wanted his art to be sat on, so it demystifies the academic approach and the snobbery that is associated with art.”

While Lalanne created sheep sculptures in different materials throughout his career, the four from Thursday’s Bonhams sale are from his 1990s series Nouveaux Moutons and made of epoxy cement and bronze, fairly durable materials that could withstand daily use and even outdoor conditions. A collection of the Nouveau Moutons was exhibited in 2009 by Kasmin Gallery on the grass of the median on Park Avenue in Manhattan. The unnamed sellers who consigned the sheep to Bonhams are based in a mountainous region of the US Midwest and displayed their sheep outdoors, where they were sometimes even subjected to attacks by bears who thought the sculptures were real sheep, Walker says.

Prices for Lalanne’s sheep have been increasing “as the supply dries up”, Walker says, adding that they “seldom come up in groups anymore, whereas ten years ago you would have seen quite a lot of them come onto the market in any given year”.

Last year, a trio of bronze Lalanne sheep from the collection of his daughter, Marie, sold for $6.3m including fees at Christie’s New York, in a $77m sale that broke the auction house’s design record. In 2019, a 274-lot sale at Sotheby’s Paris dedicated to François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne’s work brought in €91.3m with fees.

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