DISPATCHES FROM AN AUCTION HOUSE
Of Consignments and Contentious Estimates
My husband, David, our managing partner Miriam, and I own and run Rago Auction house in Lambertville, New Jersey, a charming 18th and 19th Century manufacturing town on the Delaware River that now peddles coffee, fine meals, and antiques. Running an auction house is a pretty fantastic gig. Besides management and outreach, I take in consignments for our 20th-Century Design auctions, which we hold three times a year
Miriam runs the Estates Department, which comprises the Great Estates, Coins, Silver, Fine Arts, Unreserved, and Jewelry departments. David and I handle the 20th-Century sales, which cover design starting with the Aesthetic Movement (mid- to late-19th Century) all the way to yesterday (Art Nouveau, Arts & Crafts, Art Deco, Modernism, Industrial, Post-Modern) in furniture, ceramics, metalwork, lighting, and glass.
My domain, after years of specializing in art tiles, is Contemporary Glass. I also take in a lot of Crafts, like turned wood, textiles, and studio ceramics, but the glass is what really fires me up. The intake process for that specific field has been a real learning experience.
Taking in consignments can propel you out of bed in the morning. It can also keep you awake, your heart pounding, or your stomach souring in the middle of the night. Still, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There’s the thrill of the hunt and the get, the exhilaration of victory, the slow burn of relief. It requires finesse, diplomacy, and often a good deal of patience and perseverance over several auction cycles or several years. But when that “must have” piece finally comes in, regardless of how it will ultimately perform in an auction, you feel a shared sense of victory.
We usually get property from:
- older collectors moving to smaller quarters;
- children or executors of older collectors’ estates;
- people in need of money;
- art/antique dealers.
Most of the property we handle is old enough that the original ties to its manufacturer or original owner are part of history: a Tiffany lamp, a Stickley chair, an Art Deco cabinet, a New Hope Impressionist painting. It’s not news that after a three-decade long upswing starting in 2005 there has been a significant downturn in the market for most Victorian, Americana, Art Deco, Nouveau, and Arts and Crafts collectibles. Many prospective consignors seem to be aware of that.
The unrealistic expectations we encounter in those property categories are mostly based on high-water marks dating to 1995-2005, when baby boomers were collecting like it was 1999, causing the market to peak (unsustainably). This has made the consignment-negotiating process difficult (to us) and disappointing (to them). But, by and large, owners are fairly up-to-date and easy-going about the estimates we propose.
The heinous part of my particular Contemporary Glass intake process is that the pieces were usually purchased by a smart, educated, savvy collector of means, straight from the artist or the artist’s gallery, or at a big fair, for TOP RETAIL MONEY. It’s much the same as what you get when you buy next year’s Jaguar in a custom color with all-leather interior; devaluation sets in immediately. What the collectors often don’t realize is that once they’ve left the SOFA Show (Sculptural Objects Functional Arts and Design Show) in Chicago, or WheatonArts GlassWeekend in Millville, New Jersey, the piece automatically gets downgraded dollarwise to the secondary market. There’s simply no going back.
So, when a prospective consignor contacts us, and they hear that the five-piece Persian set with red lip-wrap they bought in 2001 for $30,000 at Dale Chihuly’s studio in Seattle will now be offered at auction with an estimate of $8,000-$12,000, they’re often a little miffed. Or their heirs are miffed, because they also expect the art to have, if not gone up in price, then at least retained its value.
Few collectors seem to have access to auction or secondary market pricing, or think to conduct research along these lines. They mostly have the original invoices with the high retail prices, or the well-publicized auction records achieved during “the crazies” (before the crash of September 2008, the high-water mark in pricing decorative arts), or something sold at a tax-deductible fund-raising auction for bubble money; none of which applies today.
Many fine pieces have of course “performed” extremely well at auction and have either kept or increased their original value over, say, twenty or thirty years: the rarified and extremely precise works of Dan Dailey; the lyrical electroformed vessels by Michael Glancy; important installations or large sculptural works by Dale Chihuly or by his former assistant, William Morris; large and rare cast glass sculptures by the Czech duo Libenský and Brychtová.
But, by and large, however stellar the realized auction price of a large laminated cube on stand by Jon Kuhn or a tall dinosaur incalmo piece of Lino Tagliapietra, it’s typically still a good bit cheaper than its original price tag. Often by as much as a third, or a half. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for some, especially those consigning their work for the first time.
In order to get close to the retail price in an auction setting, an object must sell to competitive bidders in a singular, finite moment in time, as opposed to sitting on the floor of a gallery for months where a buyer can take their time before making a serious investment. We need to offer the piece with an exceptionally sweet, enticing, conservative estimate, near a quarter of retail, or a third. And the reserve price, the protection for the consignor, the lowest price at which an auctioneer will put down the hammer, goes just below that lowest estimate.
Often, my competitors will offer more protection to the sellers in the form of higher estimates and higher reserves. It’s an effective intake method, and they can get a lot of consignments that way, but what’s good for the goose is not always good for the gander. You would easily believe that with a higher estimate, you’d be bound to sell your piece for more, right? Not quite so. You can “buy-in” (or pass) a lot of property that way, overexposing it to an international market, only to have to return it or to offer it again for a lower estimate/reserve.
Our business philosophy at Rago’s is that, if you are willing to trust us to know what we’re doing, please acknowledge the gambling aspect that is the backbone of any auction and all that goes with it, mainly the importance of wagering the lower end in order to have a better shot at capturing the bigger numbers on the higher end. We believe you are much more likely to encourage richer results with inviting estimates than if you insist on being protected by retail-like reserves and estimates. Our job is to create as much feeding frenzy as possible prior to the auction, so that people in the sale room, on the phone, on the internet, and participating via absentee bids all duke it out until the last, most stubborn bidder wins. That’s a lot less likely to happen with retail-like estimates, which fairly communicate to prospective buyers that they might as well purchase from a gallerist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
In order to sell someone on that notion, I often prepare detailed proposals, which demonstrate how the market is trending. I line up photos of pieces by the same artists as the ones offered to me, hopefully of the same series, size, or period, which were offered at auction after 2010 (2010 is a good date to border with, more buoyant than the dreadful 2009, and provides five years’ worth of data to mine). I show them pieces that sold and didn’t sell alike, so they can see what similar pieces are really bringing out there in the secondary fine glass art market. By and large, the numbers don’t lie.
Sometimes, the owners are shocked and refuse to sell until the market comes back. That happens with some frequency. Or they simply retreat. Sometimes, I see their items in a competitor’s sale for a higher estimate. Sometimes those sell, sometimes not. Sometimes they are offered to me after they’ve passed. I don’t (usually) throw away a deal until it is dead and beyond resuscitation, however difficult or unrealistic the consignor’s expectations might be.
But when the owner gets on board with our business philosophy, we offer them white-glove treatment from beginning to end. We send a contract, arrange for pick-up or drop-off, catalog the items, take beautiful photographs, and painstakingly produce a top-of-the-line printed catalog. We display everything for a week prior to the sale in our Lambertville showroom, where everyone is welcome to visit and browse, have a cup of coffee, or talk to the specialists. Often, I will field questions like, “Why are your prices so low?” I explain the “better to see you with, my fair one…” approach of inviting estimates, which often leads to results above the higher price in the range – that they should be prepared.
In 2003, a fine chandelier by Dale Chihuly sold from his studio for $250,000. In June 2015 at our Contemporary Glass sale, we offered the piece – lot 360 – for $60,000-$80,000. When all was bid and done, lot 360 sold for $200,000 (a record for Chihuly’s works at auction, I believe).
In another example, a gorgeous sculptural vessel by the inimitable Italian maestro Lino Tagliapietra presented in the same auction with an estimate of $10,000-$15,000, sold for $46,000 (another record for this artist at auction).
In yet another example, a great vessel by Japanese artist Yoichi Ohira, of glass blown and carved in Venice, offered at …
You can see where I’m going with this, yes?
Suzanne Perrault is one of three partners at the Rago Arts and Auction Center, along with founder David Rago and Managing Partner Miriam Tucker She co-directs Rago sales of 20th C. Decorative Arts and Design. She and David Rago are also private dealers, exhibiting at antique shows nationally and receiving clients by appointment. She is an author who lectures nationally and an expert appraiser for the hit PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, where she specializes in decorative ceramics and porcelain.
Born in St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, Ms. Perrrault received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from McGill University in Montreal. While she began her career as a fashion model in her native Montreal and Japan, she became an independent antiques dealer after serving an apprenticeship with Barton Kaplan Antiques in New York. In 1991, she joined ranks with David Rago. Together they opened the Perrault-Rago Gallery.
In 1994, Ms. Perrault founded the New York Decorative Ceramics Society, a non-profit organization aiming to teach about art pottery by visiting important collections in museums, private residences, and galleries. 1994 was also the year she first curated an all-tile exhibition and sale, followed by a show featuring the tiles of Harris Strong for the New York’s Triple Pier Show in 1995.
In 1996, Ms. Perrault curated an exhibition at Gustav Stickley’s Craftsman Farms museum, entitled “Women’s Work: The Role of Women In The Arts & Crafts Movement.” That summer she also joined the first season of an unknown, unseen PBS program called Antiques Roadshow.
Ms. Perrault’s co-wrote Miller’s American Art Pottery: Treasure or Not?, with David Rago. She contributed her expertise on tiles to American Art Pottery by David Rago (Knickerbocker Press, 1997) and co-wrote the introductory chapter of American Art Tile by Norman Karlson (Rizzoli, 1998).
Articles by Suzanne Perrault
COLUMN – Dispatches from an Auction House