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: The world of acquiring work for an auction catalog is . . . It’s quite hilarious because it’s definitely this insane, high-low aspect to everything that we do. Because on one hand there is very much that kind of populist, making somebody rich overnight appeal to putting together an auction, which is very addictive. There’s nothing greater than, you know, when the proverbial elderly lady in Rochester writes you and says, you know, “I saw you on some,” you know, “Internet site. It sounds like you’re . . . I have this piece of furniture. Is this by,” you know, …? My parents acquired it at a department store in 1938 in New York,” and it is! And it’s . . . So there’s that aspect. We have a one off relationship with the client that pulls the Declaration of Independence out of their basement. The other time you have long-term relationships with pickers – the guys in vans who go out there and find the stuff that people are not savvy enough to call us about – the stuff that goes through estate sales; the stuff that ends up in foreclosure auctions; the things that get put . . . left out by the side of the road. If you don’t have a good network of dudes in vans in the post-war design business, you’re finished. And you’ve gotta maintain excellent relationships with them so that they bring the piece to you and not to your competitors. But on the other side, the high side of the coin, there’s nothing more exciting than meeting with curators at a museum who have decided to …_ a piece; who have decided that, you know, this piece isn’t right for their collection and they would like to sell that piece to bring more money in to create . . . get more pieces. In December we sold a grand piano by Gilbert …from the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. And the piano had been in their auditorium and was being used by the Department of Film to accompany silent movies. But as a piece it’s a piano. And even though . . . It was an extremely rare piece by a very unsung 1930s American industrial designer. It’s a piano, and a piano is a very, very hard thing for a museum to display. So they sold it with us; and you know nothing more exciting than, you know, having that kind of provenance when putting together a catalog. And then finally we’re working with, you know . . . I continue to work with some of the great collectors out there. And with them, well they already know much more than I do in many of these areas. It’s more a question of meeting with them and going well, you know, “What do you wanna do now? What do you wanna sell? And is it the right time?”
Recorded on: 1/30/08