Rediscovered Ruhlmann Piano from the Ocean Liner Normandie Up for Auction

An Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann art deco grand piano, which once sailed aboard the French ocean liner Normandie in the 1930s, will be put up for auction on May 6 in the 20th Century Design sale at Sotheby’s.

NEW YORK – An exceedingly rare, long-lost grand piano by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann—which once graced the Ladies’ Drawing Room and Music Room of one of the greatest ocean liners ever built, the Normandie—will be offered at auction on March 6, 2013, in the 20th Century Design sale at Sotheby’s.

An exemplar of Art Deco design, the piano headlines this sale, which will begin with more than 60 works from the esteemed Geyer Family Collection, including lamps and metalwork by Tiffany Studios, as well as American Art and Crafts designs. The sale’s broad exploration of American and European design of the last one hundred years is highlighted by important designs by Louis Majorelle, Demeter Chiparus and Louis Sullivan, as well as Modernist works by Charles and Ray Eames, George Nakashima and Marc Newson. A strong selection of European and American silver is also included, led by a five-light candelabra with an entwined-dolphins finial designed by Johan Rohde for Georg Jensen Silversmithy, circa 1917.

The Ruhlmann piano, which carries a presale estimate of $400,000 to $600,000, has remained in the collection of a Buffalo, N.Y., family since it was purchased in the early 1940s at one of the New York auctions that disposed of the great ship’s contents. While the piano appears in period photos of the ship dating to its launch in 1935, it had never been photographed in color and its whereabouts were only known to a handful of ocean liner historians until now.

With the lid down, the Ruhlmann’s iconic, modern shape can be better viewed.

This piano is made of ébène de macassar and American walnut, with gilt bronze and ivory accents. It is one of only six pianos whose whereabouts are presently accounted for, and one of three that are in Ruhlmann’s iconic, modern shape. He first displayed a piano in this shape at the 1925 Paris art deco exposition—the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes—the significant and defining moment of French art deco.

Built in Saint-Nazaire, France, the Normandie was a famed ocean liner known for its luxurious and elegant French art deco décor which made its maiden voyage in May 1935. After Ruhlmann’s death in 1933, his employees organized a tribute to him by creating a room on board the liner decorated with his furniture, which became the Ladies’ Drawing Room and Music Room. In 1939, the U.S. government interned the Normandie and turned her into a troopship called the U.S.S. Lafayette. The contents of the ship were sold at auctions in New York in the 1940s by the U.S. Treasury. The piano was installed at the opulent Butler Mansion, designed by architect Stanford White, in Buffalo until the house was sold to a local university a few years ago.

A detail photo shows the beauty of the American Walnut used in construction.

A view of the Ruhlmann piano from above.

The piano works were made by Gaveau of Paris.

The piano will be on view in New York beginning on March 2 in advance of the sale. For more information about the 20th Century Design sale, visit the Sotheby’s website.

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