Artist to Know: Harry Bertoia

Liz Catalano
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Sonambient Sculpture Available in Upcoming Spring Sale

Harry Bertoia. Image from the Harry Bertoia Foundation.
Harry Bertoia. Image from the Harry Bertoia Foundation.

Though most frequently recognized for his Modernist furniture, Harry Bertoia also designed sculpture, jewelry, and screenprints. He was raised in Friuli, Italy, before immigrating to the United States at the age of 15. Once there, he befriended Ray and Charles Eames and other emerging designers. Interest in his Sonambient sculptures has continued long after his death in the late 1970s, with consistent showings in auctions and museums. An example of Bertoia’s sounding sculptures will be offered in Palm Beach Modern Auctions’ upcoming Spring 2020 sale. Learn more about Harry Bertoia’s life and work before this event. 

Thanks to a welding class that he took while living in California, a young Bertoia gained experience in both metalworking and mass production. Bertoia began developing many of his signature designs during this early period. He created the Diamond chair, a lightweight construction made of polished steel wire and shaped with ergonomics in mind. Now called Bertoia chairs, these pieces continue to be produced by Knoll Associates, his industrial partner. They regularly come to auction as well, typically selling for around USD 1,000 – $2,000 each. 

Due to the commercial success of his furniture, Bertoia was soon able to explore sculpture in earnest. This passion was a natural outgrowth of his jewelry designs, which he created for friends. When a wire snapped in half while making a sculpture one day, he discovered an unusual sound. Bertoia would later recall this moment: “Immediately the question came to mind… if one wire produces such a sound, what would two rods produce, or what would ten, or a hundred?”

Harry Bertoia, Untitled (Sonambient), c. 1970. Image from Sotheby’s.
Harry Bertoia, Untitled (Sonambient), c. 1970. Image from Sotheby’s.

What started as an experiment quickly became his artistic focus. Bertoia’s metal sculptures range in size from a few inches to over 20 feet tall, all designed to create sound using wind or touch. Some imitate gongs or chimes, but Bertoia compared the sound of each new piece to “hearing the cry of a newborn baby.” He produced thousands of these sculptures throughout his career, even recording several albums with them in his private studio.

Though Bertoia’s furniture and sculptures have seen success in the art market, some still believe that his legacy has gone underappreciated. “I think Bertoia is something of an open secret, greatly admired by collectors of mid-century design but not as much by art collectors in general,” says David Rago of Rago Auctions. 

Nevertheless, prices for Bertoia sculptures have remained steady within the last several years. The market for the Sonambient works is mainly located in the United States, though his furniture is appreciated globally. Many of his spherical Dandelion sculptures have sold for over $200,000 at recent Wright and Christie’s sales. In 2016, Sotheby’s presented 28 Bertoia works from the Kaare Berntsen collection. The sale brought in over $3.5 million. More recently, a Sonambient sculpture offered in a March 2020 auction sold for $300,000, well above its high estimate of $50,000. 

While Rago feels that prices for Bertoia’s sculptures have gone slightly down as more collectors acquire his work, Wade Terwilliger of Palm Beach Modern Auctions disagrees: “If estimated reasonably, they sell. I believe this confidence can be attributed in part… to the spread of information via the Internet, expanding his market outside of his regional area of eastern Pennsylvania.” 

Harry Bertoia, large Sonambient sculpture. Image from Palm Beach Modern Auctions.
Harry Bertoia, large Sonambient sculpture. Image from Palm Beach Modern Auctions.

Palm Beach Modern Auctions will offer a Sonambient sculpture in the upcoming Modern Art & Design sale, scheduled for early May. The piece stands over 50 inches tall and is made of brass, beryllium copper, and bronze. It was assembled by his son, Val Bertoia, in 1995 using his father’s materials. This lot comes with a certificate of authenticity issued by Bertoia Studios. 

“The urge for good design is the same as the urge to go on living. The assumption is that somewhere, hidden, is a better way of doing things,” Bertoia said. Although this devotion to his craft would eventually contribute to his death of lung cancer (due to beryllium copper fumes), it also yielded the sounding sculptures that continue to interest collectors today. Learn more about the available Bertoia piece and browse the auction’s full catalog by visiting Bidsquare

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