At the last count, American businessman Mario Dandrea was the proud owner of 15 art‑deco ice buckets. His collection lines the shelves of his New York study and the bar of his country retreat. “They’re beautiful objects and there is something unique about each one,” he explains. “My favourite is a 1940s silver-plated one I bought in New York for $2,500. It looks like a top hat and encapsulates all the glamour of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.”
Dandrea has been collecting ice buckets for the past seven years – an interest that puts him somewhat ahead of the curve, since these elegant items have, until recently, been the Cinderellas of the bar-accessory world. Back in 2006, for example, Christie’s South Kensington sold a 1932 silver-hued Ondulation ice bucket for a modest £780. Today, London’s Pullman Gallery regularly sells the very same design for £9,500 a pair. “Bar accessories have more appeal now because home bars have shaken off their unsophisticated image and become fashionable once again,” explains the gallery’s owner Simon Khachadourian, citing one of his clients who spent €50,000 on a 6ft-long bar made from alabaster. “People are realising that they can buy a stunning art-deco ice bucket for a similar price to a new one. Aesthetically, they fit just as well into modern homes, and the joy of an old one is that it’s likely to come with a back story.”
Ondulation has precisely the kind of glamorous history that today’s buyers are looking for. Manufactured by French silver house Christofle to a design by Luc Lanel, it was created exclusively for the first-class dining room of the legendary French ocean liner SS Normandie, which entered service in 1935, only to capsize during its conversion into a US troopship in 1942. This kind of history is important on two levels. First, collectors of ice buckets tend to buy them to use – standing one at each end of the dining table, for example – and are looking for a conversation piece as much as an investment. And second, ice buckets that formed part of a series, such as those made for ocean liners and hotels (Dandrea’s most recent purchase was an example designed in the 1920s for the Hotel Astor in South Beach, Miami), are sometimes marked, which gives them value-boosting provenance. “Ice buckets tend to be catalogued by era or style, and their provenance is hard to prove unless there is a mark,” explains Marc Weaver, director of London’s Guinevere Antiques, where current stock includes a c1920 silver-plate ice bucket with mahogany handles and an ivory ball finial by WM Hutton & Sons for £650.
Ice buckets produced by one of the major silver or crystal houses are also highly sought after. According to Howard Williams, owner/proprietor of New York-based High Style Deco (which has sold a 1930s Cartier silver-plate bucket with lapis lazuli and 18ct gold detailing for $5,000), well-preserved art-deco ice buckets bearing the stamp of British company Mappin & Webb, American house Tiffany & Co or French firms Baccarat and Christofle are the most desirable. Pullman’s Khachadourian broadly agrees, but his advice to anyone with a serious interest in collecting is that “the really standout ice buckets of the period were made by the French houses. In terms of stylishness, the only way is up from Luc Lanel. I recently had an incredibly rare 1930s sterling-silver cooler made [and signed] by Tétard Frères in stock, priced at £14,500. It was very elegant, and designed so the bottle lay almost on its side.”
Interior designer William Yeoward, who has four buckets in his personal collection, including an exquisite cut-crystal art-deco number he bought a decade ago for about £800, is another proponent of French design. He is not, however, a fan of maker’s marks. “Not having a signature can be a good thing, he believes, “because it means that they were probably made as practice pieces or by a student and so were never put into production. That makes each one completely unique.”
But without a recognisable name, how is an interested buyer to know whether the item in question will retain its value? According to Fiona Baker, senior specialist in Twentieth Century Decorative Art and Design at Christie’s London, when provenance is not known, value comes down to two things: the condition and quality of the materials and the purity of the design. “Silver is a robust material, so it’s always a safer investment than crystal. When it comes to design integrity, it’s not enough that an ice bucket was made in the 1920s or 1930s, it must also demonstrate all the tenets of art‑deco design such as clean, sleek lines and geometric decoration.”
While part of the revival of interest in art-deco ice buckets can inevitably be linked to the recent Gatsby fever, for true connoisseurs such as Dandrea and Yeoward the au courant nature and rising value of their collections is of little interest. They buy these exquisite items because they love the way they look and both put theirs to good use. (Yeoward has even been known to serve cold soup in his.) And that really is the joy of these accessories. Indeed, as Howard Williams says, “the best ice buckets are pieces of functional art”.