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Joan Sonnabend and the art of jewelry

Auction items include a gold gem-set necklace by Miyé Matsukata for Janiyé. Skinner Inc./Skinner Inc

Some people would pay a fortune to hang a piece by Pablo Picasso on their wall. Joan Sonnabend wanted to hang one around her neck.

A renowned Boston-based art dealer with a passion for jewelry, Sonnabend ran a small gallery called Sculpture to Wear in New York from 1973 to 1977. The gallery found common ground between art and decoration, stocking pieces from well-known artists and creative jewelers, often people she discovered. Sonnabend died last December due to complications from cancer, and several pieces from Sculpture to Wear and her personal collection will be up for auction Tuesday at Skinner Inc.


The offerings include large gold pendants by Picasso and German Dadaist Max Ernst. Rings, necklaces, and brooches from Boston jewelry house Janiyé are also up for auction, a few made personally for Sonnabend from stones she provided. Many of the works are playful and colorful — much like Sonnabend herself, says Gloria Lieberman, vice president of Skinner and founder of its jewelry department.

“She had a presence,” says Lieberman, who credits Sonnabend as a mentor. “She just was a force.”

She says the pieces and the collector differ in one manner, though.

“There’s nothing small here except Joan,” Lieberman says with a laugh. Sonnabend, she says, was about 5 foot 2 inches, but adored jewelry that was strikingly large.

“She was fearless in terms of what she put on,” agrees acclaimed jeweler Robert Lee Morris, who will present a lecture called “Remembering Joan Sonnabend” at Skinner on Monday. “She never went overboard. She still dressed as a businesswoman, but was always wearing things with a bit of a shocking content to them.”

Morris’s work was exclusively represented at Sculpture to Wear through the gallery’s entire run, and after its close, he continued the tradition with a gallery of his own called Artwear. Two pieces by Morris are up for auction: a gold bead necklace custom-made for Sonnabend and a gold knuckle ring.


Sonnabend was drawn to the avant-garde, Lieberman says, noting an asymmetrical gold brooch from Janiyé. A gold necklace, by Miyé Matsukata for Janiyé, features a 6-inch plaque set unevenly with green and purple gems Sonnabend acquired in India.

Lieberman credits Sonnabend for being among the first to recognize that jewelry could be a legitimate part of an artist’s oeuvre, spurring on a trend that included an exhibit at the ICA called “Jewelry as Sculpture as Jewelry” in 1973.

“She didn’t want her jewelry to be meaningless or just decorative,” Morris says. “She wanted it to reach into the world she knew and loved so well, which was the world of art.”

The pieces she dealt, though, were still distinctly appropriate to wear.

“More than ever, the academic side of jewelry pushes people to make jewelry not meant to be worn. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Morris says. “Everything they showed at Sculpture to Wear was wearable. . . . It was about wearing and enjoying it on the body.”

Though Sonnabend told young artists that a move to New York was essential for success, she could never bring herself to leave Boston. She kept a small apartment in New York, but people knew where her home was.

“She lived in the same house on Beacon Hill for 40 years,” says Lieberman. “I always said, ‘Why don’t you move to New York?’ But she loved Boston.”


Skinner Inc. is located at 63 Park Plaza, Boston. The auction takes place Tuesday at 10 a.m. For more information call 617-350-5400 or visit www.skinnerinc.com.

Andrew Doerfler can be reached at andrew.doerfler