What you see: A unique Torciere della Cultura ceiling light, designed by Sami El-Khazen and executed by Arredoluce between 1964 and 1965. Bonhams estimates it at $30,000 to $50,000.
The expert: Dan Tolson, specialist in modern decorative art and design at Bonhams.
What can you tell me about Sami El-Khazen, and about how he was chosen to design the Lebanon Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair? I can’t seem to find much. It’s incredibly hard to get info about him. I put hours upon hours into searching. He was in Lebanon in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, when it was a cultural hotbed, the right time to be there. In 1988, he passed away. He was a vital designer, an architect, an unsung hero of modernism. [As for the story of how he was chosen to design a pavilion for the World’s Fair,] I’ve done a lot of research into it and it was not something I was able to discover. There’s relatively little in the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné, too. This piece is discussed in the opening, and they talk about him, but there’s no biography.
Do we know how long he’d been working with Arredoluce when he got the nod to create that World’s Fair Pavillion? No, we don’t know that either, or how it [the World’s Fair commission] came about. He designed it and Arredoluce provided all the manufacturing expertise. Arredoluce has been around since 1930. They were at the height of their success as a company [in the mid-1960s,] at the top of their game. It’s a piece of architecture in the way it’s been designed and put together.
Was the 1964 Lebanon Pavillion at the World’s Fair El-Khazen’s crowning achievement? From what I read about him, he was not a product designer, he was an architect. This may be the only thing he produced outside of architecture.
Do period photographs of the Lebanon Pavillion survive? Yes. The way you see the lamp, it extends down almost to the floor, like a stalactite. It was spectacular. It must have been ten feet in height. It must have been the centerpiece of the pavillion.
Why did El-Khazen and Arredoluce call it the Torciere della Cultura [lamp of culture]? I think it ties into what I was saying about Lebanon. In that period, they embraced modernity. It was a way of looking forward to the future. I think that’s what it was for them. It was made to symbolize Lebanon’s contribution to civilization and was designed to look like a tower of flame – representing the spread of Lebanese culture across the globe. It was exhibited in the pavilion’s Culture Room.
And the Shah of Iran saw the ceiling light and asked to buy it in 1965, or someone representing him did? That’s my supposition. There’s no discussion of that anywhere in the book [the Arredoluce catalogue raisonné], but I imagine he attended.
The lot notes say that the ceiling light “was sent to the Arredoluce factory in Monza [Italy] where it was dismantled and re-engineered into the present smaller proportioned work.” Do we know what, exactly, the artisans at Arredoluce did to modify the piece for installation in the dining room of the Shah’s palace? No, that’s not mentioned specifically. But it tapered to the floor, so it was cut down to a more user-size scale.
And let’s just stop here and discuss why it was okay to alter the light, and what made it okay. It was still a creation of Arredoluce. It [the changes] happened in El-Khazen’s lifetime, shortly after the show, and done with his approval. The ceiling light was completely impractical as it was. It was a huge thing, made into a more usable object.
Are there any period shots that show the ceiling light installed in the Shah’s palace dining room? No, there’s no interior shots, nothing that shows it in situ. It’s surprising how little information is out there about El-Khazen. Maybe it was destroyed in the war [the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990].
So, when we’re talking about works by El-Khazen at auction… this ceiling light is pretty much it? Yes, this is it, which is why it resonates with us. As an auctioneer, it’s incredible to have something unique by a critically acclaimed company, Arredoluce, and which is shown in its catalogue raisonné. It ticks a lot of boxes. The fact that there’s not a lot known about El-Khazen makes it more beguiling. The other thing that appeals to us is it was in the 1964 World’s Fair. It was legendary at the time.
And this sold once before at auction, in 1985, but we don’t know which house sold it? No. The seller’s grandparents bought it. He does not recall where they bought it. He thinks it sold for around $70,000, which in 1985 is quite significant.
And 1985 predates most of the available online auction archives. Yes, exactly. It gets patchy even past 15 years on Artnet.
What condition is the ceiling light in? It’s in excellent condition. It was rewired for the U.S. [electrical system] in 1985, but it hasn’t been updated since then. The bulbs have not been modernized. It’s in working order, and it’s been very well-cared-for.
How many pieces comprise the ceiling light? It has about 170 individual pieces.
Are they fixed in place, or is there any play or give? No. It’s amazingly well-engineered. It tessellates together, firmly into place.
I see that it is strictly described as a “ceiling light,” never a “chandelier,” which people would expect to wiggle and sway a little. Yes, exactly. It’s quite densely packed. It’s a complex piece.
This is a unique lighting design, and it seems to be the only thing El-Khazen designed that isn’t a building. How did you arrive at the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000? We looked at comparables [somewhat similar things that sold at auction in the past] for Italian lighting–prices for rare or unique lamps by Stillnovo and Arredoluce. But you can’t be precise with something unique. It comes down to what people are willing to pay for. It’s not only unique, it’s by a top manufacturer in Italy at the time, and it has historic connections with the 1964 World’s Fair. There’s a lot of good factors that make it highly collectible, and the Middle Eastern feature makes it collectible as well. [With this,] you can’t hold out for a second. That gets people’s attention. It should really go above the top estimate.
What’s it like in person? It’s absolutely incredible. It’s got great presence. It’s obviously quite masculine, quite powerful.
Is it heavy? Very heavy. It’s bronze, nickel-plated bronze. It’s a very serious weight.
The Shah of Iran put this ceiling light in his palace dining room. Where could someone put it today? If the entryway in your home has a double-height ceiling, it would work. It’s the focal point of a room. Though it’s reduced in scale, it’s a great conversation piece to have in a modern home.
Why will this ceiling light stick in your memory? I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s so unique. It speaks volumes of El-Khazen’s vision for design. It’s spectacular. There’s definitely an unwritten story somewhere.
Arredoluce has a website (but it’s Italian-language only).
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Bonhams.
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