Paul Evans, to which I must confess some astonishment, has emerged as America’s most highly valued Modernist furniture designer. Another New Hope master, along with George Nakashima and Phil Powell, Evans produced about 5,000 studio pieces of furniture, many of which were bench made one-off’s, fabricated in and around the Lambertville/New Hope artist’s colony, and about 20,000 factory pieces for the Directional furniture company which was then based in New York City.
Price confusion is to be expected, with Evans’ various periods and lines spanning three decades of production from about 1955 until his untimely death in 1987. We’ll revisit Evan’s work periodically but, for this initial instalment, I thought it best to focus on his massive, mostly brutal, case pieces. While to the casual eye they might appear similar, there are variations and nuance that can add tremendous interest (and value).
Good - Wavy front
Like all of Evans’ major case pieces, this Wavy Front credenza seems to be the avor of the month if prices currently paid for this line are any indication. Welded steel doors mounted on heavy, wooden carcasses, the background colors tend to vivid reds and golds. Like nearly all of Evan’s horizontal cabinets, the top is finished with inset slabs of locally mined slate. There is less work involved with this design, as we’ll see, which accounts for their lower, original sale price of about $400. According to Dorsey Reading, perhaps about forty Wavy Front pieces were produced at Evans’ studio.
Better - Sculpture Front
With rare exceptions, Evans’ Sculpture Front line is considered his premier offering. Every piece, in spite of a design vocabulary that is often repeated from example to example, is bench made. Evans was said to have sketched each panel in pencil, on a napkin, which he handed to his main fabricator Dorsey Reading (whose initials are often found on a hidden, interior corner). Complicated, intense, and similar in theme, each version of this form (he made about 75 Sculpture Front pieces of various shapes and sizes in all) shows variation in pattern, color, brightness, and size. Since “brutal” is the aesthetic, bigger is usually better.
Best - One off
While most of Evans’ furniture is a variation on a specific theme, we are ultimately dealing with the offspring of a creative, artistic mind. “Bench made” means exactly that and, accordingly, there are unique interpretations that venture into the realm of the extraordinary. This cabinet, designed at the behest of a new client who “didn’t like his other work”, is a hybrid between both a Wavy Front and a Sculpture Front and, for good measure, turned on its side into a standing cabinet. Bodacious, brutal, and beautiful, this vertical case piece is considered the pinnacle of Evans’ production and holds the world record for the artist’s work.
www.ragoarts.com Credits – RAGO Arts
Having an eye for high quality design and art can provide an advantage at auctions but you also need to know the mechanics. We learn the best practices from one of the world’s leading auctioneers - David Rago.
(Part 1) – Live Bidding
While there are more ways than ever to bid in an auction, the process needn’t be confusing or intimidating. This article will serve as the rest of four installments on how to be an effective bidder. In addition to laying out the basics, I’m going to provide some insider information, things you’d only know if you spent a lot of time on the podium as the auctioneer. If you intend to bid at auction I promise these articles will prove useful. The main ways for people to participate in an auction are live and in person, by telephone, through the Internet, or leaving “left bids” by absentee ballot. There are benefits and deficits to each of these methodologies so, starting with bidding live, let’s take a closer look.
Bidding live in the auction room is the least convenient way to participate in a sale but probably the most rewarding for the effort. First and foremost, you get to look at and personally inspect the pieces on which you plan to bid (or, after seeing them up close, NOT bid). Auction catalogues, both in print and virtual, have never been better, with digital photography allowing individual print shots of every piece. This is no small thing because, back in the day of color separations for offset printing, many lots weren’t valuable enough to justify the expense. Yet now, on line catalogues make it possible to post multiple images of every lot. Even more, a print catalogue is a static thing, once it leaves the press it’s done. But a virtual catalogue can be modified for weeks, up until the moment a piece is sold. Still, in spite of these technological advancements, nothing is as good as seeing a piece in person, and for that you have to be in the room either before or during a sale. If you purchase “smalls”, things you can fit in your car, you also save shipping costs, so there’s that. You can also speak directly with the auction house experts to best determine the condition of your lots and maybe get from them a sense of how much interest has been expressed by potential competitors.
Attending an auction in progress allows you to understand the pace of the sale leading up to the lots in which you have interest. Is the auction soft, with limited bidding from all fronts, many passed, or unsold lots, frustration emanating from the auction staff? Or is the sale a barnburner, with things blowing past estimates, nearly all lots selling, and the air in the room crackling from all the competition? While this is no guarantee that same energy will exist during the brief time any of the lots you want are selling, this can often give you an indication of what you might expect when the things you want come to the auction block.
Who’s your competition during a live sale? While more and more bidders compete on line or over the phone, there is no better way to get a sense of where other interest is coming from, and how you might best respond in the moment. Each lot takes about 45 seconds to sell, and a great deal of information is conveyed during that brief window of opportunity. Like poker, you are “playing auction” with incomplete information, making the best decisions possible with the cards you can actually see. Nowhere is more information exposed than in the auction room.
You can tell a lot about a buyer by where they choose to sit, if they choose to sit at all. The most serious bidders are either directly in front of the auctioneer or standing in the back of the room. The former position ensures that your bid won’t be missed in the heat of battle, allowing for the clearest communication with the auctioneer. Also, because there is virtually nothing to distract someone sitting in the front row, you can focus entirely on the task at hand.
Conversely, the person standing in the back of the room may occasionally risk not getting the auctioneer’s attention, but they get an overview of the room, watching the entire crowd, the action from the phone tables, and the competition from the internet. Another advantage, to those so inclined, is the machismo effected by standing up, bidding with confidence, and staring down the cluster of dealers invariably huddled beyond the last row of chairs.
If you see a group of people (almost always a cluster of men) sitting together in the back of the room yet only one or maybe two of them bid, you’re probably looking at a “pool”. These are dealers who work the auction circuit and who have made an agreement not to bid against each other. Don’t be intimidated. If you are willing to pay up to a retail price you will almost always be a stronger bidder because the pool is looking to make a profit, buying at a wholesale level.
A few pointers:
Somehow, live bidders have come to think that not bidding until the last second will give them the upper hand in auction wars. For example, two or more people have been bidding on a lot for half a minute, the price going from $1500 to $3500, until it finally stalls. The auctioneer says, “Last call”, or “fair warning” and only then does a new bidder raise their paddle. The problem is that so many people employ this strategy that the only impact I’ve seen it have on an auction is to drag out the bidding for another half a minute (which, over the course of a 1,000 lot weekend, is a tremendous waste of time). Imagine tracking the bidding on a lot for forty seconds and then, at the last moment, two or five paddles raise at once, all thinking they’re going to nail the piece for one more increment. Instead of closing the bidding all this accomplishes is pushing a higher price.
Some bidders like to sit beyond the back of the room, sometimes behind a column or a piece of furniture. I guess this is one way to hide your intentions, but it’s also a perfect method of having the auctioneer miss your bid entirely. Privacy is one thing, but if the auctioneer can’t see you clearly, expect to have your bid missed at least occasionally.
Bid with your paddle, at least to start. It’s impossible for a civilian to visualize what the auctioneer sees while on the podium. But imagine a room with over 100 people in attendance, a splash of color and flesh, and a guy 2/3 of the way back waves his hand to bid.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t see that. It’s best to bid first with the paddle supplied by the auction house and then, once the auctioneer knows you’re in the mix, THEN you can blink or nod or whatever it is you choose to do. You MUST establish a connection with the auctioneer or risk losing out. Don’t take any crap from the auctioneer, and don’t let them bully you into going beyond your price limit. This happens more than you might think, and it’s best to remember at all times that YOU are the client and the auctioneer, and his or her staff, is working for you. You are paying their wages in the form of a Buyer’s Premium, just as the consignor is paying in the form of a commission. That said; make sure the auctioneer is your friend. You have so much to gain by maintaining a good relationship with the person who ultimately runs the auction. This is no small point, and I’ll describe how a good relationship will reward you in many ways. For now, when bidding, a smile always helps.
Read the terms of sale before you bid. If the auction is “as is-where is”, you have no recourse if you find your purchase has damage or is something other than what you thought (even if the auction house’s description is wrong!).
On the other hand, if you are bidding in a “guaranteed” sale, what exactly is the auction house guaranteeing? You have a responsibility to yourself to know this and, if you’re not clear about it, to ask someone at the auction with authority and find out.
Find out more about Rago Arts: www.ragoarts.com
Credits – RAGO Arts
This article is the first in a series resurrecting an approach to understanding art, first introduced by the famous New York furniture dealer Israel Sack (before anybody reading this but me was born). I will pick a different maker and form every three months. If there is something you would like to have included here, please write to me directly.
“Good, better, best” should read exactly as it sounds. Today we’re looking at three levels of coffee tables by the famed New Hope, Pennsylvania designer George Nakashima. As many of you know, Nakashima is the man who first popularized “free edge” furniture, working from the late 1940’s until his death in 1990. His daughter Mira, a formidable designer in her own right, carries on the tradition through today.
Nakashima made furniture of every stripe but he is best remembered for his coffee tables, the prices of which are supported by a world-based market. As Mira once noted while giving a lecture at my auction hall, her father used roughly hewn, “flitch cut” pieces for his creations because they were inexpensive cast-offs. When given lemons, make lemonade, and so rich a tonic was never produced with such vitality and distinction.
Good: Slab coffee table, New Hope, PA, 1973; Figured walnut; Signed with client name; 14” x 53 1/2” x 22 1/2”
Sold for: An elegant, basic Nakashima coffee table - The base, or support structure, is simple and more typical of George’s work from the 50’s and 60’s rather than this later date. As we shall see, the idea evolved into more architecturally complicated and pleasing. The wood used for the top board is interesting enough, though it lacks the intensity of his best work. The edges are relatively restrained, and there are no butterfly joints reinforcing in gaps at the top.
Sold for: $9,375
Better: Fine Minguren I coffee table, New Hope, PA, 1975; Figured walnut, rosewood; Unmarked; 15 1/2” x 77 1/2” x 32”
A better table in several ways - First, the top board is clearly more organic and exciting, yielding to an asymmetric edge. Further, the gaps and weak points in the board are secured in several places by Nakashima’s use of butterfly joints, usually of a contrasting material like rosewood. Additionally, the base structure, “Minguren 1” is a radical departure from his earlier work, more in line with traditional American furniture. This is a very strong piece of Nakashima.
Sold for: $30,000
Best: Exceptional walnut burl and East Indian laurel Conoid Long Coffee Table, 1966; Provenance: Toby Royston, Folly Cottage, Exton, PA, copy of original invoice available; Unmarked; 15 1/4” x 82” x 22 1/2”
Nakashima studio, at the risk of oversimplifying his work, produced three levels of furniture. The first are fairly simply, functional pieces, either mild or straight edge. Most of his padded lounge chairs, sofas, and ottomans come to mind. Next, like the two pieces mentioned above, are one-offs of fine quality but typify most of his production. The third level seem to be pieces made for friends of the family, or at least people with whom George had a deeper relationship. These have at least one of the following: Rare wood type, extraordinary free edge, numerous structural details, and unusual function. This table made for a friend of Nakashima who lived in a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house “without a right angle”, is a “one in a hundred” piece in several ways. The piece of wood used for the top was both rare in Nakashima’s work and posed an unusual problem in making a compatible base. Nakashima made a sleigh base for this table, one of a small percentage found on his coffee tables. The scale is also atypical, longer and thinner, serving more as a piece of sculpture than a functional table. I am sure there is something else like this out there, but I haven’t seen it.
Sold for: $146,40
Read in DESTIG Magazine
Learn how to protect yourself at auction with the owner of a leading U.S. auction house. He says: “This advice won’t make me many friends in the auction world.”
At the age of sixteen, David Rago began dealing in American decorative ceramics at a flea market in his home state of New Jersey. Today, he oversees the auction house that bears his name and sells privately in the field. He is an author who lectures nationally and an expert appraiser for the hit PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, where he specializes in decorative ceramics and porcelain.
David Rago entered the world of auctions in 1984. His auction series was the first to introduce the famous Puck Building into the world of antiques. He founded David Rago Auctions, Inc. incorporated in 1995 and relocated to Lambertville, New Jersey, midway between Philadelphia and New York City. With partners Suzanne Perrault and Miriam Tucker, the size and scope of the sales gradually – and then rapidly – expanded.
Today, Rago Arts and Auction Center (known as “Rago”) is a leading U.S. auction house with $30 million in annual sales. It serves thousands of sellers and buyers yearly, providing global reach, personal service and competitive commissions for single pieces, collections and estates. Rago holds auctions of 20th/21st c. design, fine art, decorative arts, furnishings, jewelry, Asian, militaria, coins and currency, silver, historic ephemera, and ethnographic property. Rago also provides a range of appraisal services conducted by USPAP (Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice) compliant appraisers, performed to the highest standards set by the IRS, insurers and the Appraisers Association of America. Rago is located in New Jersey, midway between New York City and Philadelphia.
To give you an idea of the scope and tone of this column I’ll end this first installment with something little understood by many auction buyers, especially newer ones.
How do you protect yourself from any undisclosed or undiscovered condition issues, and what is your recourse should a problem arise?
Damage and misattribution are certainly factors of value and may also affect your decision of whether to even bid in the first place. Is there an aggressive rip in or permanent stain on the fabric of that sofa? Is the hole in the bottom of that pot original (made for a lamp base) or did someone drill it after it left the kiln? Was that coffee table really made at George Nakashima studio in New Hope? Especially if you’re buying from only photos and/or an auction house’s description (“sight-unseen”, in trade parlance), you really need to understand what the seller
is selling, and whether or not they can be held accountable for nondisclosure.
Remember this first and foremost. YOU are the customer, and YOU have every right to press an auction house not only on condition, but what their guarantees encompass, on record. Some auctions are “as is, where is”, in that they make no guarantees about anything. There is nothing wrong with this, but they should tell you this up front and you should bid accordingly.
Most auctions however, especially when selling more valuable objects, make claims of vintage, originality, authorship, and so on.
Questions you should ask:
What does the auction guarantee? Condition, maker, date? Begin by reading the terms of sale, usually in the back of an auction catalogue and posted on line. Then, ask specific questions
and demand specific answers. If you are at all uncertain of a company’s guarantees, GET THEM IN WRITING! You can request an email or a fax, or anything that memorializes what they are saying about the pieces you are buying. Have the department head or if a smaller firm, an owner, sign off on it. If they refuse, don’t bid. An email trail is usually sufficient here, one that claims a guarantee of the condition report memorialized in the exchange.
Does the auction offering the material know enough about what they are selling to really offer valid assurances? To be fair, not all auction houses are experts in everything, if they are experts in anything. Ask them how well they know the material, asking specific questions, and then use their answers to determine their level of expertise. You should expect more transparency and experience from a specialty house (more on this in another column). I mean it’s obvious that a firm selling vintage Eames furniture for decades should know a whole lot more than a local firm that chanced into a few pieces.
You should also direct questions towards collectors and dealers you know who’ve dealt with a particular house that is new to you. What is the word on the street about the level of knowledge of a company’s department head(s), and do they live up to their word?
When your purchases arrive, inspect them all IMMEDIATELY. If you have an issue with something, call the auction’s employee or owner with whom you dealt before the auction. Do this as soon as possible. You’ll have an easier time getting a refund if you request a return before the auction house has paid the consignor who owned the piece. If an object has a minor flaw that you honestly feel lessens value BUT you would like to keep it anyway, you can often negotiate a lower price. But please, don’t be the sort of buyer who manufactures a problem, using it as a wedge to save some money by beating up the auction house. That may work once but we auctioneers have seen every trick you can possibly imagine. Is it really worth blowing off
a viable source to save a few bucks? A good negotiation is a two-way street, with both parties bringing value to the equation.
Act in good faith and extend the benefit of the doubt. That said, if you are cheated or otherwise fare poorly with no offer of suitable restitution, tell everyone you know. This advice won’t make me many friends in the auction world. Expect more of the same in future columns.