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Prouve lands in Queens
Prefab prototype on the auction block

When Christie’s has a house to sell, it usually handles it through its real estate arm, Christie’s Great Estates. But a property so special and unique has come on the market in Queens that the 20th Century Decorative Art and Design Department is handling its sale. On June 5, Christie’s will auction off Jean Prouvé’s Maison Tropicale, one of three prefabricated houses the arch-designer made in the late 1940s for use in French colonial Africa. This maison is the premier item in a sale of 110 other mid-century design objects by Prouvé, Charlotte Perriand, Corbu, and Pierre Jeanneret.

An exhibition cum open house began yesterday at the foot of the Queensborough Bridge in Long Island City, where the Maison Tropicale landed after a stint in France, where it was restored and exhibited by French antiques dealer Eric Touchaleume. “I’m very sad to sell this house,” Touchaleume said, his shaven head still slightly sunburnt from the three weeks he and 14 others spent constructing the house on the banks of the East River. But, he added, the money would go to the restoration of the last house, which he intends to turn into a traveling Prouvé museum. 

The first of the three houses, which were recovered from Niamey, Niger, and Brazzaville, the Republic of Congo, was donated to the Centre George Pompidou last year (“Prouvé perched on Pompidou,” AN 04_03.07.2007) by Robert Rubin, an American financier and architecture critic who financed the expeditions to recover the houses. The two have since had a falling out over the principals of preserving the houses.

Christie’s said it expects the house to sell for between $4 million to $6 million, but given the intensity of the art market and particularly the interest in Prouvé, Carina Villinger, the specialist overseeing the sale, said the auction house would not be surprised to see the Maison Tropicale go for much more. As for the buyer, Villinger said, “We believe it is probably going to be someone who buys contemporary art and will buy it as a piece of art or sculpture, someone who is already a collector on a high level and has an appreciation of design.”

For those who appreciate design but don’t have a few million dollars lying around, the Maison Tropicale is open to the public everyday through June 4 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Ron Eng, a principal of the firm Formactiv, was there for opening day, snapping pictures of a building by a man he finds very inspiring. “In some ways,” he said, “what’s great about this is you get some perspective that we’re not that far ahead in terms of prefabrication and what we consider high-tech construction.” The house is located at 41-98 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City, an appropriate choice since it is the future home of Silvercup West, a project by Richard Rogers. Rogers not only admired Prouvé, but the French designer also co-chaired with Philip Johnson the jury that selected Rogers and Renzo Piano to design the Pompidou. Admission is free, though the house certainly is not. “It’s such a masterpiece,” Villinger said. “If you want one, this is your chance.” 

Matt Chaban