On the Block

On the Block

George Nakashima, Arlyn Table

George Nakashima, Arlyn Table, 1988, redwood, American black walnut, East Indian laurel, madrone burl. Est. $300,000 – $500,000; sold for $822,400. Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s

For all of us, there comes a point in life when we have to face, or at least begin to ponder, the inevitable question: What to do with our stuff?

Maybe we’re getting on in years, or we’re moving and need to downsize. Maybe for financial reasons we need to sell things. Could be we simply want to declutter, or make room for new, different stuff. In the end we can’t, as they say, take it with us.

For a generation of craft collectors, it’s a prospect that is starting to hit home. They bought, lived with, and loved the work of the pioneering studio craft artists of the latter half of the 20th century. So what happens next to their Peter Voulkos clay sculptures, their Wendell Castle furniture, their Dale Chihuly glass?

There are options. Some collectors (or their heirs) are donating works to museums or other institutions. Others turn to dealers to resell the pieces. And then there are auctions.

Auctions have always been an efficient way of selling, probably since some caveman offered his prized pelt (if not his cave paintings) to whoever gave him the most stone tools. In modern times, the popular image of an auction has tended to be one of two extremes: a fast-talking fellow selling farm equipment and livestock, or a roomful of sophisticates coolly bidding stratospheric sums for rare works of art. But perceptions are changing, as auctions go mainstream. High-profile sales (Princess Diana’s dresses, Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels) have become pop culture events. The internet has created a truly international marketplace, and with the success of eBay, all sorts of online auctions have sprung up (giving new imperative to the old adage “Buyer beware”). Meanwhile, a growing number of small to mid-sized auction houses ply their trade all over the United States. On TV, Antiques Roadshow maintains its loyal viewership, joined lately by a spate of series about the value and recirculation of goods – Auction Hunters, Auction Kings, American Pickers, and (at the low end) Pawn Stars and Storage Wars. Clearly, our inner hunter-gatherers are alive, well, and wondering “What’s my stuff worth?”

At the same time, studio craft has been navigating changes of its own. The field is in the throes of a necessary, if somewhat turbulent, phase of a natural progression, one that every category of collectible goes through: the development of a resale or secondary market. And in that process, auctions are having a big impact.

The business of  pricing
What do we mean by “secondary market”? Simply put, craft objects originally purchased at retail prices from a dealer, gallery, or maker’s studio – in other words, on the primary market – that are being resold by their first owners.

Pieces always have changed hands privately, of course, and always will. But the secondary market for post-World War II studio craft went public in the late 1980s, when works started coming on the block at major auction houses, notably Bonhams, based in London, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York. From then on, the prices people were willing to pay for a craft object at a given moment would, for better or worse, go on the record.

“What the auction does is provide a means by which important material can be introduced to a much wider market,” says Wes Cowan, owner of Cowan’s Auctions and a host of History Detectives, the PBS series that uncovers the stories behind heirlooms. Over time, the prices at which comparable items get sold establish “a benchmark that collectors can look at,” he says. “Auctions provide comfort and a good baseline for what something is worth, because we do it in such a transparent way.”

That process of setting benchmarks can take decades, however, and studio craft is a relatively young field. Greg Kuharic was a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century decorative arts at Sotheby’s in New York when he helped introduce modern and contemporary studio craft into auctions there. He remembers his department’s first big stand-alone sale of craft objects in 1992: “The room was packed with hundreds of people. Zero hands in the air. Everybody was just waiting to see what would happen. It was a matter of becoming comfortable with the venue, and what to expect. They had never been to auctions before. But it was, and I think still remains, a way for a lot of people to validate their taste.”

By the time Kuharic left Sotheby’s in 2003 (he’s now an Indiana-based art consultant and appraiser, and a ceramist himself), bidders for craft were more sophisticated, sales were respectable, and the cream of artists had begun to rise to the top. “That was one of the goals of the auctions, initially,” Kuharic says, “to begin to identify who was going to be interested in collecting, who those artist-craftsmen were whose work was going to have a national, if not international, market.”

Right now, observers say, craft’s secondary market is in a kind of adolescence – a time of promise and opportunity, as well as growing pains, uncertainty, and occasional erratic behavior, at least as played out on the auction stage. There have been dazzling highs ($480,000 for Stanislav Libenský and Jaroslava Brychtová’s Green Eye of the Pyramid at Bonhams in 2007, a world record for a single work of contemporary glass; $822,400 for George Nakashima’s Arlyn table at Sotheby’s in 2006), along with disappointments, and some solid results in between. With auctions, we get a sense of fair market value over time, as prices fetched for comparable works are established, stabilized, and sustained.

“One of my mentors had a saying,” says Frank Maraschiello, who worked with Kuharic at Sotheby’s and has been head of 20th-century decorative arts sales at Bonhams in New York and Los Angeles since 2004. “One time is an aberration when it makes a higher price. Two times, it’s a coincidence. Three times, it signals a change in the trend of this object and the price point.”

It’s been a reliable rule of thumb for him in determining estimates (auction lingo for the price range within which an item is expected to sell). “So when something is a two- to three-thousand-dollar vase, if it makes five [thousand], you say, ‘Wow, that’s a good day.’ If it makes five again, you say, ‘Hmm, let’s see what happens next time.’ If it makes five the third time, then that’s not a two- to three-thousand-dollar vase anymore. It’s a four- to six-thousand, or a five- to seven-thousand-dollar vase. We live by changing the prices to reflect what comparables have made. But you just can’t jump to conclusions.” He likens the situation to real estate – unless they’re exactly the same, all the properties on one block are not going to have the same worth. “It’s not proximity, it’s exactness that determines values of things. You have to know everything about [a piece] to make an honest and fair determination, because you’re going to base it on comparables.” Still, “you never know where the hammer is going to fall. This five- to seven-thousand-dollar vase may sell for twenty – which happens here every day – and it may also sell for two.”

How auctions serve the field
When it comes to appraisal and pricing, obviously it’s easier to deal with the work of a deceased artist, because it’s finite. It gets more complicated with those who are still around, making art. Understandably, living artists worry that a weak showing at auction – or the perception of it – might put a damper on sales of new work.

Dealers have similar complaints about auctions, which they see as competition. Auction professionals will tell you that hammer prices reflect a reality that sometimes is harsh, but if the work of an artist is properly presented and publicized whenever it goes on the block, then eventually it builds a solid track record, and prices associated with that artist usually go up.

“Auctions will not replace the dealer,” says Garth Clark, himself a dealer in high-end modern and contemporary ceramics for more than 30 years; with his partner, Mark Del Vecchio, he joined with Cowan’s Auctions in 2010 to regularly present auctions of this work. “The dealer is the one who makes the primary sale, who educates the buyer about the artist and how important the artist is, who gets their work into museums, gets reviews of their shows,” Clark says.

“You need the private dealers, you need the galleries. You need every other aspect of the market mechanism to work together. The auction just does one job very well, but it doesn’t do all of the jobs.”

He welcomes the auction activity, because once a secondary market is well established, “the field benefits enormously,” he says. “Without a real resale market you don’t have a primary market, because if you can only sell something once, the buyer is very cautious as to how much they’re going to invest.” People generally buy art because they love it, Clark says, but a strong secondary market reassures collectors that “if you’re going to make a major investment in craft artists, you have a chance of getting back some of your investment later on, should you need to.”

Lewis Wexler retails fine craft at his gallery in Philadelphia, and also deals in secondary-market work by glass masters. He can see the dealer-auction relationship from both sides, having been a 20th-century decorative arts specialist at Christie’s in the 1980s. “For me, the auctions have been great,” he says. “It gives you, the dealer, the opportunity to buy work if the prices go low enough, to then resell. And if prices go high, then it helps the market. So I think a smart dealer uses the auction to their advantage in the marketplace.”

Leslie Ferrin, a veteran dealer in contemporary ceramics, worries that perceptions of the marketplace might be distorted by auction prices posted online, since listings don’t necessarily provide context – the condition of the piece, the circumstances of the sale, and so on. Benefit auctions add to the confusion, she says, because those are about raising money for a cause, not a true reflection of the market. She stresses the importance of scholarship to elevate the fledgling secondary market for craft.

“Journalism and curating will help to define this era, to put it in perspective,” Ferrin says. “It’s time for the field to pay attention to the building blocks of establishing a legacy. Thorough documentation of both practice and provenance will help build value and create a road map for present and future writers, critics, and curators. Creating opportunities for career retrospectives, accompanied by print and online catalogues, is incredibly important at this time. This phase of legacy building needs the support and participation of both collectors and artists to move past making and acquisition, and toward defining the period.”

One traditional hallmark of the craft field – that is, a personal connection with a maker, friendship between artist and patron – doesn’t count for much on the secondary market. “I think in the beginning stages of any market, those personal relationships and stories are obviously very important,” says Christopher West, who handles fine art and 20th-century design at Ripley Auctions in Indianapolis, another house that regularly presents craft. “Then, as that market matures, we start to see trends. Some of the work can really stand on its own, and it no longer necessarily needs that studio visit to sell it. People know what it is, they are familiar with it, they know what they want, they know they want it. It becomes a good time for the auction at that point.”

Certainly auctions are catnip for the dedicated connoisseur in search of treasure, ideally at a bargain price. “If you’re a serious collector, there’s going to be stuff [at auction] that will not come up anyplace else,” says David Rago. He and his wife, Suzanne Perrault, run Rago Auctions in Lambertville, New Jersey, offering a wide range of art, design, and decorative arts, including early 20th-century art pottery, “organic craft furniture” by the likes of Nakashima, Paul Evans, and Phillip Powell, and, lately, contemporary glass. Rago is writing a book that will be a personal memoir (he started out as a teenage flea-market dealer in 1972 and opened his auction house in 1984) as well as his insider’s take on the auction business. (“I promise you it will be a compelling read.”)

He sees great potential in studio craft, especially by lesser-known, undervalued masters. “I would pay attention to the secondary markets being born for contemporary craft materials, because they represent really good opportunities to buy things for well under what they originally sold for.” Rago also makes a point of offering lower-priced items to entice the younger or entry-level collector (as does Cowan’s + Clark + Del Vecchio, with its periodic online Potter’s Market).

Spikes amid a rising market
More than ever, auctions expose new audiences to contemporary craft, now that bidders all over the world can view pieces and bid live online. At Christie’s New York, 20th-century decorative art and design director Carina Villinger sees growing interest in craft on the part of eclectic art lovers such as the late Alice Lawrence, whose collection was sold there in 2008. “She had  fantastic art deco, fantastic contemporary art, and also interesting American studio craft. She was really a crossover collector.” (One piece in that sale, the whimsical wood and bronze Monkey Settee by furniture maker Judy Kensley McKie, was estimated to sell for between $20,000 and $30,000, and ended up going for $134,500.) There are crossover craft artists as well, whose work appeals to collectors of painting, sculpture, and design; one of Ruth Asawa’s sculptures sold in May for a whopping $1.4 million, for example.

“The boundaries are very fluid between those fields,” Villinger says. She echoes other auction pros in observing that, after an overall lull in the last six or seven years, interest in contemporary craft appears to be on the rise.

“It has really picked up, and I think it’s going to continue this way. People are recognizing what incredible work these artists have been doing. And there’s still a lot of ground to be discovered.”

Joyce Lovelace is American Craft’s contributing editor.

Auctions 101 
Interested in buying or selling? Here are a few basics.

Whether you’re bidding on items or consigning at auction, it’s important to do some research first. Reputable auction houses want to demystify the process for prospective clients, and they offer lots of helpful information on their websites, for a start.

Learn the lingo
There’s a fair amount of terminology that goes with an auction, much of it pretty simple; the auctioneer says “fair warning” just before a “lot,” (an item or group of items sold as a unit) is sold, and “pass” if it doesn’t.  Other terms are less familiar but important to understand, such as “reserve price” (the lowest a seller is willing to accept) and “buyer’s premium” (a fee paid by the buyer in addition to the amount of the winning bid). Auction houses usually provide a glossary on their websites, along with a basic explanation of their policies, which vary from house to house.

If you’d like to consign
Some auction houses are full-service, selling everything from fine art to coins to firearms. Others have a narrower focus. Craft objects might be offered in their own stand-alone sale, or as part of a larger grouping of contemporary art, modern design, or decorative arts. Talk with experts at various houses to determine where your pieces might fit. Get their sense of the fair market value of your things. Before a sale, the auction house will set high and low “estimates” for each item, a price range in which it expects the object will sell. When the actual bidding takes place, of course, that price can always go higher – or fall short.  

‘How high should I raise the paddle?’
Many of us are intimidated at the prospect of bidding for the first time. The good news is there are different ways to do it, and auction houses want to make it as easy as possible. Try attending a live auction to see how it’s done. If you can’t be there in person, telephone bidding is an option. And thanks to the internet, you can now click and bid from anywhere. (Some auctions are online-only.) Registration for online access is usually free, so even if you don’t participate, you can watch the bidding in action, on-screen.

‘It sold for how much?’
If you’re curious about the price an item has fetched, websites such as artfact.com provide, for a fee, access to an archive of auction results. Many auction houses also list this information on their websites. Remember, though, that a listing may not always tell the whole story; an unusually high price may simply be the result of two determined bidders duking it out. Before you buy, learn all that you can about a piece. The auction house will publish a catalogue (print and/or online) before a sale, with photos plus descriptive details, history of ownership, and other information about each lot. And sometimes the auction house will display the work in its gallery before the sale.  ~Joyce Lovelace