Ever since Claude and François-Xavier Lalanne, better known as Les Lalanne, first exhibited their zoological bronze sculptures in 1964, the couple’s work has attracted a growing audience around the world, counting Marc Jacobs and Salvador Dalí among them. Following the death of François-Xavier in 2008 and Claude in 2019, collectors from 43 countries gathered for an auction at Sotheby’s Paris in 2019, bringing in more than $90mn – a record-breaking figure befitting the historic, final sale of the Lalannes’ collection. Or so they thought. 

Williamsburg chair by Claude Lalanne, estimate: €60,000-€80,000
Williamsburg chair by Claude Lalanne, estimate: €60,000-€80,000 © Courtesy of Sotheby’s

When Florent Jeanniard, chairman and co-worldwide head of design at Sotheby’s Paris, picked up the phone to a Lalanne studio assistant who was wondering if he had missed some pieces from the collection, Jeanniard was dismissive. He had, after all, spent two weeks at the Lalannes’ house in the French village of Ury, combing through photographs, sketches, maquettes and embroidered napkins, down to the small cabinet containing a spoon that Claude Lalanne had fashioned for adding sugar to her coffee. What Jeanniard hadn’t seen was that behind François-Xavier’s enormous bronze bulls was a small red wooden door, concealing yet another room full of masterpieces. “Nobody knows why they put the bulls in front of this door,” says Jeanniard, though it seems perfectly in character for the Lalannes – the bulls themselves have secret doors in their sides for storing barware.

François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne
François-Xavier and Claude Lalanne © Courtesy of Lalanne Archives

It was only after the inventory was complete and the artworks were ready to send to new homes that the workshop assistants moved the 2m-long Taureau sculptures and found 19 pieces of Lalanne furniture that had never been catalogued. These will be auctioned at Sotheby’s Paris on 4 October, in a sale titled Trésor Retrouvé: The Collection of Claude & François-Xavier Lalanne. This is truly the final sale from the Lalannes’ collection – although “we are never finished with the Lalannes, as we can see”, Jeanniard jokes. 

Papillon chair by Claude Lalanne, estimate €15,000-€20,000
Papillon chair by Claude Lalanne, estimate €15,000-€20,000 © Courtesy of Sotheby’s
Âne planté by François-Xavier Lalanne, estimate €700,000-€1mn
Âne planté by François-Xavier Lalanne, estimate €700,000-€1mn © Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Les Lalanne exhibited together, but they worked separately, and their sculptures (or is it furniture?) are notably different in style. It’s not hard to spot the influences on François-Xavier Lalanne’s smooth and stylised bronze animals. When the artist first moved to Paris, he lived next door to surrealist Constantin Brâncuși, and worked as a guard at the Louvre, surrounded by Egyptian statues of hippos and baboons. Perhaps his most famous work was a flock of 24 wool-clad sheep, many headless, for an exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. 

Claude Lalanne, for whom a day’s shopping might include a taxidermied baby crocodile, preferred botanical themes. Her garden in Ury was carefully tended and filled with nature-inspired sculptures – she would often place leaves or flowers in an electrically charged bath of copper sulphate, creating exact replicas through a process called electroplating. Final creations ranged from furniture to jewellery, commissioned by Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. 

Unique Boîte de Sardines by François-Xavier Lalanne, estimate €180,000-€280,000

Among Claude’s works in the auction are an elegant bench styled from aluminium gingko leaves, as well as a surreal gong in the hands of a human-snake hybrid, and a large bronze apple. François-Xavier’s works include a dove armchair and flower-bearing donkey. “For me, Les Lalanne are like the children of René Magritte,” says Jeanniard. Perhaps the crown jewel of the collection is François-Xavier’s Boîte de Sardines, a bed in the form of a tin, filled with oversized blue sardine pillows. Originally created in 1971 for a New York exhibition at Leo Castelli gallery (which also represented Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein), Les Lalanne eventually bought the bed for themselves at a Sotheby’s auction in 2005. 

Pomme de Londres by Claude Lalanne, estimate €600,000-€800,000
Pomme de Londres by Claude Lalanne, estimate €600,000-€800,000 © Courtesy of Sotheby’s

Jeanniard struggles to choose just one reason why their work endures and grows in value. He cites their humour, their tantalising refusal to commit to either the world of fine or decorative arts, their respect for the environment and their technical prowess – apparently François-Xavier spent months trying to create the perfect patina. “In the end,” says Jeanniard, “their work is universal.”

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