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 wear a lot of hats when you’re in the auction house. And it’s tough because in many ways I’m a generalist of 20th century design. I mean if you think . . . If you think about it, I am supposed to be able to talk with equal confidence to my clients about a Tiffany lamp, and about Ron … And you know that completely goes against the gallery world where you have very much specialists in certain areas; or certainly, you know, in the museum world. So I consider myself to be a faux curator who is kind of imitating what curators do at museums, and what museum directors do. You’re working with your patrons, with your clients. You’re helping them shape their collection. You’re twisting their arm trying to get them to sell something with you. And you’re twisting your arm . . . twisting their arm trying to get them to buy with you. At the same time I’m some sort of, I don’t know, kind of odd wholesaler. You know guys in vans drive up from Indiana with this piece that they found in a garage sale. And I look at it, and I look at it and I select it and I say, “This is gonna do great. This is something that really speaks to me, and I think speaks to the clients. This is a forgotten piece of Noguchi that’s quite rare.” And I guess the other aspect to my job is I am really like a faux editor-in-chief. I am taking everything that I find, I’m editing it. I’m always on deadline. You know an auction catalog has to be out, you know, three to four weeks before the sale. You have a very time-sensitive situation. You can’t dawdle. You can’t delay. You can’t get a deadline . . . a deadline extension. You have to get that magazine out. So I’m a little bit of a hybrid.
Recorded on: 1/30/08