In June 2011, the fashion and art worlds were thrown into excitement by news that a scarf designed by Henri Matisse had fetched £3m at Christie’s. Océanie, la Mer was 173.5 x 387.5cm of linen, dyed a particular golden colour to evoke the light of Tahiti, and printed with a dancing dreamscape of birds, seaweed, coral and sponges.
Executed in 1946-1947 in a signed and numbered edition of 30, number 26 came not from the accessories drawer of a stylish Parisienne, but from the late, great art collector and philanthropist, Ernst Beyeler. For Matisse, brought up among weavers in Bohain-en-Vermandois, where fancy silks were produced for fashionable Paris, there was no sense that pattern-cutting for textiles represented a lesser challenge to his imagination than drawing or painting. Indeed, the maquette for this scarf will be on display, with other designs, in Tate Modern’s major exhibition of the artist’s cut-outs, opening in April. Given that a Matisse painting sold for €35.9m at the Yves Saint Laurent sale in 2009, a £3m price tag seems no surprise.
Matisse is by no means the only artist, however, to have designed a scarf, an accessory made popular in the 20th century. In France in 1912, Bianchini-Férier, the Lyon silk company, offered Fauvist painter Raoul Dufy a contract to create silk fabrics. Between 1912 and around 1928, Dufy designed over 2,000 patterns, many of them for scarves. One characteristically monochrome example sold at Christie’s in 2003 for £1,116.
But it was the Czech emigré Zika Ascher, textile manufacturer and fashion guru, who really put the artist scarf on the map. Arriving in Britain during the war, anxious to make his mark and to introduce modern art to the general public, he invited first Feliks Topolski and then Henry Moore to design fabrics that would cheer the spirits of a war-weary nation.
Emboldened, in 1946 Ascher went to Paris and – so the story goes – from the Café du Rond Point des Champs-Elysées, telephoned Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and André Derain. It was part of a project known as Ascher Squares, which between 1946 and 1955 produced pieces commissioned from 51 leading European and Russian artists. Printed in hand-numbered limited editions, and often on rayon or parachute silk due to postwar shortages, they are now highly sought after. Alexander Calder’s La Mer fetched £4,560 at Christie’s in 2006, while a pair of framed Ascher squares by Ben Nicholson and Moore achieved $7,500 at Christie’s, New York, in 2012. London gallerist Francesca Galloway currently has a selection by the likes of Moore, Matisse and Jean Cocteau, priced from £8,000. As the critic Sacheverell Sitwell remarked in 1947, “Not a few of these Ascher scarves will be framed upon the walls a hundred years from now.”
Richard Chamberlain, a UK-based collector and textile historian – and co-curator of the exhibition Artist Textiles: Picasso to Warhol at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum, running until May 17, which includes several artists’ scarves – suggests that this has been an undervalued area of design. Ten years ago, he paid £2,500 each for a Graham Sutherland Ascher scarf and the original Standing Figures Henry Moore Ascher scarf, which Moore had given to an artist friend; today, he says, early examples cost “considerably more”. Ben Nicholson’s Moonlight sold for £8,000 at London’s Whitford Fine Art in February last year, while Barbara Hepworth’s Landscape Sculpture scarf is currently for sale at the gallery for £8,500.
But Ascher scarves are not the only ones to snap up. Patrick Heron began designing scarves, aged 14, for his father’s company Cresta Silks. His image of St Ives from 1948 was first produced as a scarf in 1993 to celebrate the opening of Tate St Ives, and an example is available from UK-based dealers Gray Modern & Contemporary Art for £4,000.
Scarves made as fundraisers are also interesting for collectors, as artists could be lured into collaborations. In the 1940s, Picasso had an ambivalent relationship with commerce and refused most overtures. However, in the 1950s, Roland Penrose, one of the ICA’s founders, persuaded him to allow the institute to reprint on calico a design he had drawn in its visitors’ book, as a fundraiser. One example, from the 100 originals, sold for £2,400 at Christie’s in 2006, and another, more recently, on eBay for $1,995. Picasso also designed a scarf with a dove motif to commemorate the third World Festival of Youth and Students in Berlin in 1951, the motto of which was “For Peace and Friendship – Against Nuclear Weapons”. According to Galerie Michael in Beverly Hills, these are highly collectable and one was recently priced there at $7,980.
John Piper produced just one scarf, Medieval Heads, for Ascher in 1947, and he later designed another for the Suffolk arts centre Snape Maltings. According to Mike Goldmark, director of Goldmark gallery in Uppingham, depending upon condition, these now sell from between £700 and £1,000. “Some ladies like to wear them, but more often they’re framed.”
Finally, collectors should look out for examples from 1940s artists, such as those by Marcel Vertès, commissioned by the American textile manufacturer Wesley Simpson, some of which can be seen in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. According to Chamberlain, interest in Simpson’s scarves – such as Dalí’s Number, Please? and Vertès’s Vegetable Patch – is starting to catch up with the Ascher squares, but they only occasionally come up for auction.
Certainly, according to Beckford Silk, which has collaborated with myriad artists, including Heron in 1998, “Silk scarves are back with a vengeance.” So much so that the company has been inundated with requests from museums for new scarves – designed by such contemporary artists as Gary Hume and Gillian Ayres. Meanwhile, in 2011, Sam Ascher, grandson of Zika, relaunched the Ascher Squares project with two designs by Zou Wou-Ki, limited to editions of 150 ($10,000 each). The vintage collectables of the future? Quite possibly.