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New England Regional

Going Once…Going Twice…Sold!

September-October 2008

Courtesy of Thomaston Auction House

A miniature Russian kvosh which sold at Thomaston Auction House this summer

It’s a summer evening, and a crowd has gathered at the Sandwich Auction House for the weekly Wednesday sale. The windows and doors of the shed building are open wide to catch whatever fresh air comes along, and some people fan their faces as they pick through the nearly 300 items to go on the block that night: a boxload of bulldog figurines; an oil painting of dunes on Cape Cod; Hitchcock dining chairs; a few plastic Marilyn Monroe dolls (still in their original packaging); a nineteenth-century family Bible; some diamond rings; a signed photograph of Tip O’Neill; and a weathered tin sign for the old Libby’s restaurant in Wellfleet. “They had a real mishmosh there,” says Sandy Rosenblith, J.D. ’70, who attended the auction with her mother, Judy Rosenblith, Ph.D. ’58, who lives nearby. “I like that diversity. I don’t need antique things. I just prefer buying something unique, something that doesn’t come from a chain store.”

A longtime New England tradition, the local auction house is a communal gathering point, a commercial event that carries a certain poignancy: whole households or, one could say, lifetimes, are emptied out, their contents dispersed to new homes, to be emptied some day in turn.

“We’re estate liquidators—there are only one or two times in life that people will need this service,” says Sandwich auctioneer Duncan Gray, who has been in the business since he was a teenager. “Most people don’t have time to deal with entire estates by selling them on line, nor do they want to.” Thus many smaller auctioneers, like Gray, hold general estate sales with a huge range of items, most going, going, gone for under $500. In addition, he holds “best of” auctions: he expected a Salvador Dali painting to bring in tens of thousands of dollars. He says he grosses $1.5 million to $2 million annually.

Despite the advent of eBay, and the relative newcomers Craigslist, iGavel, and Artnet, more than a hundred locally owned auction houses flourish throughout the region. Around 1998 “when eBay really came in, attendance was slacking,” Gray allows. But he sees renewed interest “as people realize that, while the Internet may make our lives easier, the method of sale depersonalizes the process. People know what they don’t get on line: the social aspects, and the history of an item—where the family purchased it, or how it came to be at this particular auction. There is a lot of history—stories that drive interest in the items, and only come with the point of human contact in the exchange.” These auctions, says Nick Thorn, vice president of Litchfield County Auctions in Connecticut, “are a form of entertainment. They’re free and fun, and you can see your friends. It’s sort of a Saturday night activity in a small New England town.”

Courtesy of Northeast Auctions

A 1764 John Singleton Copley portrait of Massachusetts politician Samuel Phillips Savage was featured by Northeast Auctions in August.

Indeed, because of the eclectic goods for sale and the engaging pace, it’s often hard to escape without buying something. Rosenblith, an auction neophyte, unexpectedly spent nearly $200 on three “souvenirs” of her experience: a mahogany wall mirror, a lithograph, and a Western mountain scene that reminded her of childhood visits to her grandparents in California.

Courtesy of Thomaston Auction House

Bathers in the Maine Woods, by Ernest Hemingway’s friend Waldo Pierce, A.B. 1908, which turned up at a Thomaston Auction House sale this summer

She and her mother later Googled the artist, Raymond Ayers, and found that he had been a prolific and celebrated community-arts promoter who sold his own work at a farmers’ market in Ventura county, Southern California. Their quest was not to find the work’s monetary value. “It was important because someone created this painting in a certain environment, and was communicating to me and everyone else,” Rosenblith says. “I wanted to understand who was reaching me.”

She found the auction interesting on many levels, mostly because it was “like being at a tennis match where suddenly you can hit the ball, you’re part of what’s going on in a direct way. I was intrigued by who was going to win the item and how much it would cost. It was active. There are very few places anymore where that kind of social experience happens.”

 

Most local sales are run by people like Gray, who caught the bug as children and have never tired of the treasure hunt. Kaja Veilleux, a lifetime collector, runs the Thomaston Place Auction House, in Thomaston, Maine, which produces a glossy catalog and holds general or themed auctions, including this summer’s unusual antique-doll event. “To me, it’s the mystique of it all, not knowing exactly what you will see when you get there, the excitement of finding something interesting,” he says. “And it’s a mental challenge to see if you can have more knowledge about an object than everyone else and make money against them.”

Local auctions attract a wide audience, ranging from obsessive pack rats, bargain-hunters, and dealers to investors, curators, and serious connoisseurs, all of whom tend to imbue things with more meaning than other people do. “It’s why some people must have that piece; sometimes we call it the ‘collecting gene,’” says seasoned American art and antique collector Robert Shapiro ’72, J.D. ’78, of Cambridge. “Sometimes people find they have to curb their love, otherwise they find they have more love and less money in their pockets.”

A trusts and estates attorney in Boston, Shapiro is also president of the board of the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. Some objects hold particular resonance: at a recent auction, he came across a bookplate that had belonged to Edward Augustus Holyoke, who, in his early nineties, became founding president of the Essex Institute (which later became part of PEM). “It has his signature and his coat of arms, and now, on my desk, I have something related to my sometime predecessor, who was president of the board almost 200 years ago,” he says. Shapiro also has and still uses the first item he ever bought as a boy at an auction with his father: a brass trivet with a dragon design that cost him 75 cents. “Would that all my purchases were in that price range,” he laments. Some people “are just hooked on the auction process,” says Veilleux. “There are people who fly into Maine on Lear jets and sail in on 100-foot yachts and come to our big August sale.” Thanks to the Internet, where most auctions preview lots for forthcoming auctions with photographs and descriptions, people from all over the world now buy from local dealers.

This spring, Veilleux took on a Maine estate that included an enameled spoon-like object with floral designs and a few gemstones that was being used as an ashtray. “We knew it was pretty,” says his marketing manager, Jessica Manbeck, “but when questions came in, some international, and someone offered to buy it outright, we knew it must be good.” It turned out to be a miniature Russian kvosh, a ladle/drinking vessel, made by master enamelist Feodor Rückert, who died in 1917. It ultimately sold to a phone bidder for $82,250, and will probably be returned to Russia.

Courtesy of Northeast Auctions

This pine canning table, circa 1840, from the North Family Mount Lebanon Shakers of New York, was offered at Northeast’s Shaker furniture sale in August.

The biggest auction houses in New England are Skinner, in Boston, and Northeast Auctions, in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Christie’s and Sotheby’s have regional offices, but no sales.) Skinner has multiple specialties, including wines and twentieth-century decorative art and furniture. Northeast’s core business is American antique furniture, and in August it sold off an important private collection of Shaker furniture, along with folk art and early ceramics. A separate marine and China-trade auction, also in August—old-style, held outside under a tent—was for “big boys with big wallets,” says client services director M.L. Coolidge, a self-described “auction junkie.”

Shapiro shops primarily at Northeast, although he now has scant room for new furniture, and has nearly filled his walls with American art. He currently leans toward turn-of-the-century paintings from Boston and Cape Ann, but in recent years has delved into Native American history, culture, and contemporary art with annual trips to Santa Fe. Collecting itself is a creative process, he asserts, involving “research and learning and a whole cluster of aesthetic and intellectual and economic and historic interests that come together.”

At previews, he picks things up and talks to scholarly auction experts. “It’s an applied version of going to a museum,” he says. “And it’s a comparative learning experience; there is a dialogue and a sharing of one’s passions about works of art and antiques. That’s the connoisseurship aspect.” And then there is the social piece: watching the drama unfold, the rhythm of the bids, the patter, the way certain items build anticipation. “I find the experience of bidding just plain exciting,” Shapiro says. “Some people wave their paddles frantically, others are the proverbial wigglers of the left eyebrow—or of the pinkie finger that goes up half an inch and somehow the auctioneer sees it from the podium.” When people enter the race is also interesting: some bid early and steadily, while others swoop in, taking the last chance to steal something away from a competitor.

Auctioneering itself is “a tremendous art,” he adds. “You have to be very fast, decisive, know when to be serious, when to be humorous, when to wait for bids, when to move things along. It’s the same skill as a master teacher, a skill in engaging people.” Shapiro says that Northeast Auctions’ owner, Ron Bourgeault, “plays the audience like a fine instrument.” Northeast draws 600 to 800 people to its five major annual sales, and many more through 14 phone lines; six other “estate residue” auctions (non-antique furniture, collectibles, and household goods) are held in Dover, New Hampshire. “A big part of our success is the theater aspect,” agrees Coolidge. “We do well because Ron creates excitement in the room.”

That kind of performance and drama simply cannot be replicated on line, Coolidge and others assert. Partly because of that, Northeast does not engage in e-commerce auctions, although Skinner does. In the last four years, bidders have been able to access Skinner’s live auctions in real-time through eBay (though that business component will close at the end of December). That connection “has offered interesting exposure for us; it’s led us to embrace the Internet more, rather than less,” says Skinner vice president Kerry Shrives. She is weighing other on-line auction venues, but not iGavel, an Internet business that contracts with a few hundred auction houses, dealers, and appraisers to sell their goods at continuous on-line auctions. “Part of this, for us, is making clear that people are buying from Skinner,” Shrives explains, “and having people be confident about who they are purchasing from. The on-line process should not be a completely different process than if you were in the room during the live. It should be an extension.” (Rob Shapiro, for his part, notes that “the reputation of an auction house is everything.”)

On the other hand, Nick Thorn of Litchfield County Auctions says iGavel has been so helpful that his company no longer holds local, live auctions: iGavel yields hammer prices that are, typically, at least 20 to 30 percent higher than those at a traditional auction. “It’s a major part of our growth,” he notes. The first sign of that potential came when Sotheby’s operated a short-lived, on-line auction venture in the early 2000s on which Litchfield put up a Lalique glass vase. -Ordinarily, it would have fetched $400 to $600. On line, the price skyrocketed to $20,000. “The buyer was from London and we had competition from all over,” Thorn says. “It really opened our eyes to the usefulness of having that international audience.”

The most successful iGavel associates still hold physical previews, as Litchfield does, which satisfies bidders’ needs to eyeball and touch merchandise. “The exhibition is still a necessary part of the process; it adds the human element,” says Thorn. “But now I think we have a good balance.” They also hold a tag sale of fixed-price estate items that “is like the running of bulls” once the doors open, he says, offering insight into a different human aspect of the marketplace. “People who come by and haven’t seen it before are just shocked at what goes on.”

That social component, iGavel cofounder Ben Turk Tolub points out, is not critical to high-end collectors, who, in fact, strive for anonymity. Nor would such clients go to eBay, where goods are not guaranteed and sellers are relatively uncredentialed. Tolub and his business partner, Lark E. Mason Jr., a respected Asian art expert, both used to work at Sotheby’s and they guarantee the authenticity and condition of items. Thus, Tolub explains, iGavel fills a “specific middle-range niche, above eBay and below Sotheby’s.”

Shapiro assumes there are on-line deals to be had, noting that plenty of collectors don’t bother with live venues, considering them too time-consuming, and do all of their acquiring via the Internet. In the end, it’s a personal choice.

“I’ve never wanted to buy on-line—it’s a different game that I haven’t learned how to play,” he says. “I love the theater of the auctions more than anything. Even if I did not buy anything, I would still happily attend, just to observe and learn. They’re much better than going to the movies.”