How do you assemble a collection for auction?

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

 

 

There's definitely a populist, get-rich-quick element to acquiring objects, Zemaitis says.

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