The last remaining works from artists Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne, known for their surrealist sculptures depicting human-sized sardines and cabbages with chicken legs, will be auctioned off later this year. In a typically whimsical fashion for the late couple, the nearly 20 pieces of artwork were recently re-discovered in their rural French home behind a hidden door protected by large bronze bull sculptures.
“It is such a thrill to be able to reveal that there was one last set of treasures that had remained hidden away—giving collectors another chance to acquire a piece that had been treasured by Les Lalanne in their own collection,” said Florent Jeanniard, co-worldwide head of Sotheby's design, in a statement. Jeanniard was among the Sotheby’s employees who in 2019 helped catalog the estate of the couple at their home of more than 50 years in the village of Ury. The auction house held what they believed would be the final sale of the Lalannes’ personal collection that same year, bringing in 93.1 million euros ($102.3 million) for more than 280 lots.
Now, another Sotheby’s auction will center upon the batch of works missed by the auction house during their initial visit to Ury. The star of the show is Francois-Xavier’s Boite de Sardines, a sculpture depicting a ridiculously oversized tin of sardines and estimated to be worth 280,000 euros ($313,000). Although the piece was commissioned in 1971 by model and Andy Warhol muse Jane Holzer and later acquired by collector Alexander Iolas, the Lelannes were such fans of the work that they bought it back at auction in 2005.
Other offerings among the 19 lots include a large matte sculpture of an apple from Claude and a metal donkey doubling as a plant pot Francois-Xavier, which have respective estimates of 800,000 euros ($897,000) and 1 million euros ($1.1 million). Titled “Tresor Retrouve,” which translates to “Found Treasure,” the auction will take place in Paris on Oct. 4.
Why were Les Lalanne so popular?
Francois-Xavier, who formerly spent hours analyzing Egyptian artifacts while working as a guard at the Louvre, first met Claude at an exhibition in 1952. Marrying 15 years later and going by the shared moniker “Les Lalanne,” they immersed themselves among Surrealist artists like Max Ernst, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Constantin Brancusi, the latter of whom was neighbors with Francois-Xavier when the two lived in an artist enclave in Montparnasse.
While Les Lalanne differed in their subject matters of flora and fauna, with Claude preferring to draw inspiration from vegetation and Francois-Xavier from animals, the duo shared the same mischievous and surrealist streak. “The moment I saw it, it felt right. It had emotion,” Claude once said of her human-legged cabbage sculpture L’Homme a Tete de Chou. Francois-Xavier was equally quippy with his iconic sheep sculptures, which also operated as chairs and were a favored lounge spot for prominent art collectors like designer Yves Saint Laurent. “It is, after all, easier to have a sculpture in an apartment than to have a real sheep. And it’s even better if you can sit on it,” he once said.
In addition to Saint Laurent, many famed fashion designers have been fans of Les Lalanne. The artistic power couple’s work was admired and collected by the likes of Marc Jacob, Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Roger Vivier. Musicians also drew inspiration from their playful creations, with singer Serge Gainsbourg naming an album after Claude’s cabbage sculpture and using the piece for his cover art.
While Francois-Xavier died in 2008 and Claude in 2019, the couple’s influence continues to persist. Upon hearing of Claude’s passing, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte released a statement of condolences. “They invented a world of cabbage-headed men, hippopotamus-tubs, a rhinoceros-secretary, snail-fingers, apples-with-mouths melting into a unique alloy and kneading together the imagination, humor and poetry,” they said of Les Lalanne. In addition to starring in a retrospective at Les Arts Decoratifs in Paris and participating for the first time in TEFAF New York, the couple’s artwork has in recent years smashed auction records with a $77 million Christie’s sale and been used to decorate Chanel and Dior boutiques.