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: You have to know when to say goodbye to pieces that you love but just don’t make economic sense. It’s the toughest thing for me to do because I think I fantasize myself as some sort of, you know, curator on a deadline every season. There are always the $2,000 to $3,000 experiments that do not make economic sense, and which I get wrapped on the knuckles you know . . . you know by fellow executives at Sotheby’s. Without a doubt the trend in the better 20th-century-design auctions is to focus on the higher and higher value. It’s what makes economic sense. And without a doubt I spend much more of my time focusing on the few pieces that are worth in the six figures than I can with collections of objects that are worth a few thousand dollars apiece. So the most difficult thing is to say goodbye to a piece that you know that if you really treated it with . . . with a kind of reverence, you could, you know, introduce to a new group of collectors; but that it’s just not ready yet for prime time. And then you hate it if that piece ends up at a smaller auction house, and maybe it doesn’t get photographed very well. Or maybe it ends up on E-bay. You know but you have to know when to say when.
Recorded on: 1/30/08