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3 sales, 2 cities, 1 day: nirvana
For Gerard O'Brien, Super Sunday arrives this weekend, and it has nothing to do with football. The owner of a midcentury furniture gallery in Los Angeles is painstakingly preparing a playbook to help him score at three simultaneous modernist auctions.
Over the course of 10 hours, three houses in Los Angeles and Chicago will take bids on 1,800-plus works by hundreds of designers — including architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and decorator Dorothy Draper — in styles ranging from Mission to Memphis.
O'Brien, who will be manning a booth at an antiques show in San Francisco, can't make it to the Los Angeles Modern Auctions sale at the Pacific Design Center or to the two in Chicago, at the Wright and Treadway-Toomey galleries. So, by thumbing through hefty catalogs, he has narrowed his choices to 15 that he will bid on via cellphone.
The influence of home decor television shows and the accessibility of EBay are leading more buyers to participate in live auctions, even if the newbies show up by remote.
Some 300 buyers are expected in person at each auction this weekend, but the houses anticipate nearly four times as many patrons to place absentee bids or to join the modernist marathon over the phone and the Internet.
Although large auction companies such as Christie's and Sotheby's commonly stage themed sales on the same day or during the same week, the practice is a more recent development for smaller independent houses such as L.A. Modern Auctions, or LAMA.
"The first time this happened, in June 1997, everyone was upset and nervous and thought it would be horrible," recalls Peter Loughrey, director of the L.A. auction house. "It turned out to be one of the best sales we've ever had.
"The market is so healthy that offering 2,000 lots on one day is nothing. There's easily that many every day on EBay."
Few of those online offerings, however, can duplicate the research and lavish presentation found in the three current catalogs. LAMA's 430 lots fill a 160-page edition, and Treadway-Toomey packs more than a thousand items into a 224-page volume handsome enough to grace a coffee table.
Wright spent an estimated $50,000 on its current 335-page edition for the "Modernist 20 Century" auction; it looks and reads more like a museum monograph than a sales catalog. Wright catalogs have met with such success that the company is venturing into publishing, with a book on George Nelson's iconic Atomic Age clocks due next year.
Although the items going up for sale can be viewed online for free, decorators collect auction catalogs (which cost $30 to $40 for single copies) as valuable research books. Auction houses help defray their production costs by selling the catalogs, but they rely on them as their primary marketing tool, mailing them gratis to regular bidders.
"There's definitely a synergy when you get three catalogs in the same week," says Loughrey. "It focuses people's interest on modern design."
On Sunday, the focus is likely to be on the designer of a table that sold for six figures at the last LAMA show. "George Nakashima is white-hot right now," says Loughrey, who is offering nine pieces by the master Japanese American woodworker, including a room divider that could bring in $40,000 to $60,000. Treadway has a Nakashima coffee table expected to sell for $10,000, and Wright has seven lots that could bring in well over a quarter-million dollars.
"Sunday is really going to be a test for the strength of the Nakashima market," says Richard Wright, owner of the Wright gallery. "It may not have reached its high point yet."
It will also be a test for Charles Eames, whose iconic designs, Wright says, have hit a price plateau. Wright is offering — for $50,000 to $70,000 — an armchair designed by Eames and Eero Saarinen for the Museum of Modern Art's 1941 Organic Design show that did not sell at a previous LAMA auction. The L.A. house, in turn, has an Eames-Saarinen collaborative coffee table that won first prize in the MoMA show and is estimated at $18,000 to $20,000.
In addition to setting new sales records, Super Sunday is likely to continue to popularize such lesser-known American designers as Paul McCobb, who created streamlined low-cost furniture, and Edward Wormley, who produced elegant midcentury versions of classical furniture for Dunbar.
Treadway and Wright have great expectations for pieces by Harvey Probber, a self-taught modernist from Brooklyn who helped popularize modular furniture and died in 2003. They also will offer fine living and dining room furniture by the influential Gilbert Rohde, whose work in walnut and burled woods bridged Art Deco and midcentury modern.
"Rohde was instrumental in turning around the fortunes of Herman Miller, the company that would later manufacture designs by Charles Eames and George Nelson," says Tom Pegg of Treadway. "They were making historical reproductions, and he was pushing to do modern design."
All three houses have items by Verner Panton, the Dane who created mold-injected plastic chairs and Op art upholstery; Gio Ponti, the preeminent Italian futurist; and French designer Charlotte Perriand, whose low stools could easily be mistaken for the work of sculptor Jean Arp. Scandinavian work, as well as designs from the 1970s and '80s, also appear to be an emerging and affordable market.
"An awful lot of modern design is still relatively inexpensive," Wright observes. You may buy a new sofa for $2,000, he reasons, "and if you decide you hate it in two years, you'll be lucky to get back 10% of what you spent by selling it. For a little more money, you can get top-quality modern pieces from an auction that have proven resale value."
Resale is the name of the game for O'Brien, who owns Reform, a furniture gallery on La Cienega Boulevard in L.A. Most of his prep time for Super Sunday involves getting detailed reports from the auction houses on the condition of the items he is interested in. "I may fall in love with a piece, but if it is flawed or has been refinished in a way that will make it difficult to resell, I have to rely on the auction house to say it's not right for me."
O'Brien takes copious notes, entering items on a master sheet that is organized by auction house and lot number, which determines the order of sale.
"I never write in a catalog unless I'm at an auction," he says. "Then I will write the sale prices next to the item like a dad keeping score at a Little League game."
Normally, he would be in the audience at the LAMA sale and making phone bids to the Chicago houses, but the auctions conflict with a San Francisco "Deco to '60s" show in which he participates. He's used to it.
"Last year, LAMA and Wright were on the same day. I had people looking at things in my booth, and I would have to say, 'Excuse me, I'm on the phone with an auction house.' Fortunately, I think people are more intrigued than insulted by that."
As modern furniture becomes increasingly popular, O'Brien recommends shopping around. Many East Coast and regional designs first come up for sale at Wright and Treadway or at Rago Arts and Auction Center in Lambertville, N.J., which has set its next modern auction for April.
There are even bargains to be found at auction in midcentury-obsessed L.A. "You may be able to buy something like an Eames chair that might be a little played out in Los Angeles for much less here than in the Midwest," O'Brien says.
LAMA is a must for O'Brien because of its passion for local modernism and previously undiscovered or underrated designs, such as a 1972 plaster table with toes carved into its three feet by San Franciscan John Dickinson.
"At this auction, they have that prize-winning table designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen and that just crushes me, because I had tried to buy it but the owner put it up for auction," O'Brien says. "It's super rare and exactly the kind of thing LAMA gets because of their emphasis on California design."
O'Brien is likely to bid on a smaller number of items at the Wright sale, which specializes in rare midcentury designs from Italy and France as well as custom furniture pieces by American decorators Samuel Marx and James Mont and others that frequently sell in the five figures.
He is more aggressive at Treadway. "They have a lot of merchandise. Many decorators and collectors who are priced out of items at Wright are able to find good modern furniture and get the best bang for their buck at Treadway," he says.
After registering with the auction houses to bid on specific lots, the first phone calls placed to O'Brien, a few minutes before each item comes up, could come as early as 10 a.m. local time. From noon to 3 p.m., he is likely to have active bids at all three auctions. Despite the potential for confusion, O'Brien prefers the immediacy of the telephone to being tied to a computer making online bids or missing out on something by placing a low absentee bid.
"If you leave an absentee bid, you're saying, 'This is my ceiling, this is as high as I am prepared to go.' Auctions can be very visceral and some people make absentee bids so they don't get carried away," he says. "I'm one of the dummies who always gets on the phone and gets caught up in the emotion of the auction."
David A. Keeps is a frequent contributor to Home. He can be reached at email@example.com
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For the auction-inclined
Los Angeles Modern Auctions' "Modern Art & Design" sale, which features American and European furniture, California ceramics and '60s and '70s art and sculpture, begins at noon Sunday. Items can be viewed today through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at the Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Ave., Suite B203. The catalog can also be viewed online at http://www.lamodern.com . For further information, call (323) 904-1950.
For more information on auction items and bidding for the Italian, French, Scandinavian designs and custom American furniture at Wright, go to http://www.wright20 .com, or call (312) 563-0020.
For Treadway-Toomey, which is conducting three sessions — Arts and Crafts, including Stickley and Tiffany; 20th century painting; and 1950s modern — go to http://www.treadwaygallery.com or call (708) 383-5234.
— David A. Keeps