James Zemaitis
Senior Vice President & Head of 20th Century Design, Sotheby's

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Zemaitis sees the beauty in 100-year-old wire insulators.

James Zemaitis

James Zemaitis began his auction career in 1996 at Christie's, where he worked for three years in the 20th Century Design department. Prior to his arrival at Sotheby's in 2003, Mr. Zemaitis organized a series of groundbreaking sales at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg, where he was Worldwide Head of 20th-21st Century Design.

From his record-breaking $21.5 million sale total in December 2003 and the landmark sale of the Farnsworth House by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to the National Trust, to our December 2006 offering of New Life for the Noble Tree: The Dr. Arthur & Evelyn Krosnick Collection of Masterworks by George Nakashima, Sotheby's has raised the market to new heights, commanded extraordinary attention from the press and attracted a host of new collectors.

In the past five years, Mr. Zemaitis has been profiled in The New York Times and The New York Times Magazine, House & Garden, Art & Auction, Wallpaper and Cargo. In May 2006, he was voted "one of the 200 most influential New Yorkers" in New York magazine. Mr. Zemaitis serves on the Boards of The Wolfsonian, Miami Beach, and Manitoga: The Russel Wright Design Center, Garrison, New York.

Mr. Zemaitis received a B.A. in Art History from Oberlin College. He pursued graduate work in American Architectural History at Rutgers University.


James Zemaitis Nah. No really, I mean it’s funny. I don’t . . . Again, maybe because I don’t think about . . . I don’t think about it enough. It’s funny because I now live in New Jersey, and I you know . . . I just . . . I just moved out there, and I’m experimenting with the great commute. And so I’m taking a train from the outer, still somewhat pastural suburbs into Manhattan. And on that train ride between the towns of Peapack and …Hills, I was looking out the window the other day. And I looked out of the window, and there on the top of this abandoned line of telephone poles that were in between the fields and the kind of no man’s land of the track . . . On these abandoned telephone poles which dated to probably around 1900 were these gorgeous turquoise and jade green colored glass insulators on the poles. And these were what they used to protect the wiring. Now these glass insulators stopped being used in 1915 and 1920 . . . being actively made, and they switched to more . . . you know more modern materials to protect these. And I looked at this absolute, you know, almost . . . You know it predates the machine age. I looked at these glass insulators, and I have been collecting them for years. So to see them out the window still …, as they would say . . . still in their original moment was just so gratifying. It was like . . . It was like the best moment of the week for me, because although part of me wants to now go out there and climb up the telephone poles and then try and extract them, because I’m like, “No one’s using them. It’s no different from hunting for old bottles in the woods,” you know?

I could be arrested. But you know I have to check with the local Amtrak police there. But I think the thing is that you look at those old insulators on those poles and you see how folks designed something truly beautiful to protect the technology of the time. There was this glass case that went over the one, and it was very about the function because they had to keep the water out to stop the wires from corroding. But these are gorgeous, and I know folks out there who have hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of different examples of these glassed in, you know . . . glass pieces. And so seeing something like that, an artifact from the early era . . . Seeing that out in the kind of . . . You know I love looking out of trains because you’re always looking at people’s backyards. And when you look out there and you see these ornaments that served a function made me think about design again in a fresh way. But maybe it made me wanna just go out and get them too. I don’t know. That’s my style.

Recorded on: 1/30/08