Peter Loughrey, the founder of Los Angeles Modern Auctions and a beloved guest appraiser on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow,” was this city’s ambassador for modernism.
He was gifted with a connoisseur’s eye, an encyclopedic mind and a natural charm. But most of all, he had an unbridled passion for 20th century art, architecture and design and the unabashed optimism of post-World War II California.
Loughrey died March 16 of cancer at age 52, a tremendous loss not only to a local boutique auction house that grew into a global presence but also to the greater art and design community.
As a former staff writer for The Times, I came to know Peter and his wife and partner at LAMA for 25 years, Shannon Loughrey. In a recent interview, she described her life and work with Peter as that of “two kids who figured it out together.”
“Our focus,” she added, “was what is in our backyards.”
Indeed, after living in a classic California Midcentury post-and-beam home, the Loughreys in 2011 purchased a strikingly unconventional 1972 circular home designed by the L.A. firm Benton/Park/Candreva. The house was featured in the 2019 film “Booksmart.”
“It was the ‘party house,’ which was the main focus of the movie,” Shannon said. “I still cringe when I think how they decorated and what they did in the house.”
In 2012, Peter, an avid entertainer with a penchant for poker and Scrabble, described his house to writer Alexandria Abramian in an L.A. Times article as “the kind of home Mike Brady would have built for some really eccentric clients.”
Abramian recalled the home tour with admiration.
“They left these outdated and charming details — like the pink and purple kitchen — alone, without putting their personal stamp on them. I’m not sure most people in the design world would have made that decision,” she said. “But here is the testament to Peter’s spirit: There was era-appropriate furniture everywhere, but there were also pieces from the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s. So you didn’t feel like you were getting caught in a web of nostalgia.”
Peter was an exhibition consultant for Pacific Standard Time programming at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Book publisher Benedikt Taschen, for whom Loughrey contributed to volumes on modernism, recalled how the auctioneer was “always ahead of the curve” when it came to 20th century design.
“He knew more about the fabric of California modernism than anyone,” Taschen said. “Not just the well-known names, but dozens of people who had been forgotten or never been in the limelight who Peter knew personally.”
In that respect, Peter was an indispensible educator. I looked to him as my erudite speed-dial source for commentary on the aesthetics and market value of artists such as Ojai potter Otto Heino (“He has understood and manipulated clay as well as — or better than — the handful of ceramists whose work transcends crafts,” Loughrey told me in 2008) and Evelyn and Jerome Ackerman.
“Peter loved my parents and they loved him,” said daughter Laura Ackerman-Shaw. “He was one of the early champions of their work. He had an eye for unsung talent.”
Peter also had a knack for presentation, knocking the stuffiness out of traditional auctioneering with pop-up sales at the Pacific Design Center and Santa Monica Airport. He had a youthful scrappiness and created a vibe that felt like a daytime cocktail party for L.A.’s design cognoscenti.
“There was always an atmosphere of academic rigor. Peter would be talking to collectors on the floor and we’d have to drag him away to do the paperwork. And, at the same time, we were blasting the latest Red Hot Chili Peppers CD,” said 20th century design specialist Katie Nartonis, who worked at LAMA in the 1990s. “I remember a client ordering a pizza delivery during the middle of the auction.”
It was so easy for Peter to create himself out here without any restrictions. L.A. breeds creativity and fostered all his passion.
For people who found auctions intimidating and likened auctioneers to fast-talking used car salesmen, Peter was an approachable, inspiring antidote, said Adam Blackman, co-founder of the design gallery Blackman Cruz.
“Peter walked with kings, but had the common touch,” Blackman said, paraphrasing Rudyard Kipling. “He had the perfect mix of trustworthiness, integrity and creativity and instinctively understood that auctions were like a theatrical production.”
Tall and lean with a boyish smile, Peter commanded the auction block in colorful suits by Mr. Turk and Etro worn with pocket squares and lapel brooches.
“He was the most handsome and dapper man I ever met, and clothes gave him confidence,” Shannon said. “He once told a jewelry dealer, ‘One of these days, you’re going to find me an Alexander Calder brooch with my initials and I will go bankrupt to pay for it.’”
Over 18 seasons on “Antiques Roadshow,” Peter exuded “that certain something,” executive producer Marsha Bemko said. “It wasn’t just that he was generous and enjoyed sharing his knowledge. He had a really warm and loving way with guests. And I remember him once hugging an Eames chair, and it was just so sweet. He was very telegenic.”
The Loughrey life story reads like a movie script. Born Feb. 20, 1968, in pastoral Salisbury, Md., he was the second son of Theo, a physician, and Claire, a homemaker. The couple took Peter, brother Joe and sister Helen to galleries and antique stores, but Peter’s passions were daredevil stunts and fast cars. At age 20, he dropped out of the then-Salisbury State University, moving to Los Angeles to try his hand as a stunt driver and appearing in the 1990 film “Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III.”
Short on cash and living out of van in Marina del Rey, he began buying and selling antiques and vintage designs by Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles and Ray Eames that he often found on trash day in Beverly Hills. In 1989, Peter and his brother opened a gallery, Bedrock, on La Brea Avenue. He was ahead of his time, purchasing classic designs by Hollywood Regency legend William Haines that had been consigned to auction at Abell in Los Angeles.
“I don’t think I paid more than $200 for anything,” he told me in 2005. “I had a store back then and put on a show called ‘Bel-Air Modern’ with pieces by Haines, Paul László and Samuel Marx. I didn’t sell a thing.”
In 1992, Peter founded Los Angeles Modern Auctions to sell off some of their inventory. Then tragedy struck: Joe Loughrey died in 1993 of AIDS complications, and Peter was diagnosed with a rare form of lymphoma the following year. While undergoing treatment at the National Institutes of Health, he reconnected with Shannon Carragher, a childhood friend working at NIH.
“Peter was an avid cyclist, and my father had the only bicycle store in our town. Peter would come in and I was the girl in the corner doing her homework,” Shannon recalled. “That’s how we met.”
Peter recovered and completed half of a two-year “Works of Art” course at Sotheby’s in London before marrying Shannon and returning to Los Angeles in 1995. It was the ideal setting for a young and driven cancer survivor to build a legacy.
“In California, no one asks you who your parents were or what school you went to,” Shannon said. “They look at what you’ve done and how you can succeed. It was so easy for Peter to create himself out here without any restrictions. L.A. breeds creativity and fostered all his passion.”
By 1999, after selling the contents of architect Richard Neutra’s Silver Lake offices and setting a still-unbeaten world auction record for Charles and Ray Eames, LAMA began to turn a profit. Slowly but assuredly, Peter began to add fine art to his auction offerings and burnished his expertise when he authenticated a Keith Haring painting by matching a thumbprint on the back of the canvas to fingerprints taken by the New York Police Department in connection with defacement of public property.
In 2008, LAMA purchased an 11,000-square-foot studio in Van Nuys where Stan Winston built dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park.” It was an ordinary industrial building just off the 405 that had millions of dollars of furniture and art stacked on shelves, which reminded me of the warehouse in “Citizen Kane” where Rosebud was stored. During their previews, Peter staged his consigned goods in residential vignettes.
“We were probably one of the first auction houses to show paintings on the wall above a couch or buffet,” Shannon said. “Peter had a great design aesthetic to make a beautiful living room setting that would make it easier for people to experience what this might look like in their home.”
As an occasional buyer and consignor at LAMA, I looked forward to these auction previews and was particularly happy when Peter gave me a tour, complete with running commentary and geeky attention to what made each piece unique. On one such visit, I had my own “Antiques Roadshow” moment, when a friend with me noticed a large David Cressey ceramic pot.
“That looks just like those two lamps I made you buy in that junk store in Ventura,” she said.
“Send me a photo or bring them in,” Peter replied.
He identified them as a 1963 Cressey design from the Pro/Artisan Series by Architectural Pottery and put them in the October 2015 auction, where as Lot 59 they sold for a hammer price of $2,812 — not too shabby for a $25 purchase. And though the financial rewards were certainly great, they could not match the sense of satisfaction and validation that came with being selected by Loughrey.
“Peter was able to connect and bring the excitement and enthusiasm out of people,” Shannon said. “It was all about making your heart pump as fast as his was.”