First in a series of posts tracking the auction market for modern design, and giving tips for buying and selling at auction.
I don’t know how many auctions I have participated in over the years, either in person or on the phone. Hundreds, at least, ranging from major urban auctions such as Sotheby’s, Phillips, Wright, and LAMA, to small local estate auctions like Rose Hill and Braswell’s. Before I had the shop, I would canvas the mid-Atlantic region, hitting bi-monthly auctions such as Crumpton’s, S & S, Dutch, and Alderfer’s. These auctions usually began around 6 A.M. and ran until midnight or later. Often, I would arrive before sunrise, and would prowl through the fields and the box-lots with a flashlight.
In those days, I could count on finding at least a few interesting pieces of modern design mixed in among the piles of colonial reproduction furniture and capo-de-monti lamps, and when I did find things I was often able to get them very cheaply. I don’t think at the time there were more than a small handful of dealers who paid any attention to modern stuff, or who bothered to separate the better pieces from the generic ones. One of these dealers they nicknamed “Oddball” because of his modernistic proclivities (at least I think that’s why they nicknamed him Oddball). Oddball was a local who attended every one of the South Jersey and Maryland auctions, including the auction I missed where he bought an entire suite of Warren MacArthur furniture for less than $1,000.00. Come to think of it, I also missed the auction where the Vladimir Kagan Unicorn chaise sold for ten dollars.
Auction tip #1: Show up. Back in the early 90’s, showing up actually meant showing up, now it can mean surfing on eBay live. Still, if you don’t keep looking, you’ll just hear about what you missed. And don’t assume that something will sell for beyond your budget—sometimes things sneak through because everyone thinks everyone else will be bidding on them.
Auction tip #2: Show up. This may look a bit like auction tip #1, but you can have your best success if you preview the auction in person and stay to bid live. Unfortunately, you can get yourself in deep financial trouble this way also, so a few guidelines should be observed. If you are a novice, do not bid on items you did not preview, avoid bidding on things you know nothing about, and stick firmly to your pre-determined bid limit. These same guidelines apply to seasoned auction veterans and professionals, but are never observed by anyone anyway. Some of my best scores at auction have been completely spur-of-the-moment, on items I didn’t even notice until they were being sold. Auctions have rhythms, and there are lulls when perfectly good pieces sell for very little. Still, this is a high-wire act, and most dealers have storage units full of things they noticed as they were being sold. Many of these pieces eventually wind up back at auction.
Auction tip #3: Ask about provenance. Ask the auctioneer where the piece you are interested in came from, occasionally they will tell you. Best answer: From an estate or collection of a very old person, who bought it from the artist or manufacturer in 1958. Next best answer: from a picker who found it at an estate sale.
Exception to tip #3: Blue-chip pieces. Auctions have become leading-edge retailers of design at the highest end of the price scale; galleries frequently put pieces at auction simply because there is more upside potential there.
A successful recent spur-of-the-moment purchase:
A 1960’s Sonneman lamp, bought at a local auction for $450.00.