What Price Provenance?
AUCTIONS prove that BEAUTY (and value) truly are in the eyes of the BEHOLDER BY DEBORAH GORE DEAN
Years Years ago, my mother told me to call my store Provenance, and to only sell things that once belonged to famous people. I thought for certain that she was showing a little too much of her lean Tennessee upbringing; certainly, people with breeding and education would take a pass on such obvious grabs for glory. I won’t bore you with how many times my mother had people pegged, but she was way ahead of the pack in understanding what makes them tick. When Sotheby’s Greta Garbo catalog came out-complete with interior shots of La Recluse’s bedroom and where she had hung her Monet-the bar was set. This was followed closely by the first Jackie O sale, also replete with photos. The blinds were up! Now everyone could peer into the personal lives of the most private and celebrated citizens among us. Their Gauguins and tattered curtains proved a visible feast for those who could never otherwise imagine how the upper echelons really lived. What proved that Provenance counted was the Katherine Hepburn sale, although you just wished that, out of respect, Sotheby’s had run a vacuum through the house before they photographed the obviously unpretentious lifestyle of the intellectual Kate. Such down market antiques had never graced the floors of Sotheby’s before that day. And they sold for a fortune.
At that sale, I was delighted to purchase for $9,000 a truly ugly painted bureau that perhaps no one else will ever appreciate. I certainly did wince, however, when an almost identical one was sold at Sloan’s and Kenyon a month later for a few hundred dollars. Still, mine was Kate’s and my mother was right: Provenance had become the new black and now in today’s auction world that means power.
A Gauguin is a Gauguin. A masterwork’s natural rise in the market is set by rarity and condition. It is dependable and out of reach for all but a wealthy few. But J-Lo’s engagement ring, Jimmy Cagney’s tap shoes and Betty Davis’ sunglasses all sold for record prices at auctions to people who probably couldn’t recognize a Gauguin, much less buy one. To have a sense that you too, can peer through the shades that inspired the song Betty Davis Eyes is a great feeling. Had I known about that sale, I would have been in the front row, paddle in hand. Heck, it’s great to own a piece of history. The auction market is now very high-tech, all online and available to every gazillionaire all over the world. Americans will sell anything, even a copy of our own Constitution overseas. If a piece has genuine interest and pedigree, it’ll make it to center stage. Washington auctioneers like Weschler’s and Sloan’s have both sold sleeping treasures for record amounts. Who could forget the Liz Whitney Tippett estate sale at Weschler’s some years back? The room was chockablock with British antique dealers on cell phones who had flown all day to buy back some of their country’s best exported period paintings. Nonetheless, New York has always been the center of the art and auction universe. Sotheby’s has the very capable Aurelia Bolton prowling about looking for hidden treasures and grand estates. Christie’s set a record sellng a massive $144,000 Asprey picnic hamper from John’s Kluge’s sale of the contents of Morven Park, his Albemarle County, Virginia, estate last December. Bonhams and Butterfields will no doubt be most interested in the modern furniture collected by the likes of Steve Sumberg and Conrad Cafritz. But it is Doyle New York which has moved into D.C. with full force and vigor, planting Reid Dunavant in the middle of Georgetown to pull in semiprecious possessions of local residents. And what a coup Doyle’s had on February 8th, when a Russian Gilt Silver Dinner Service, which had been owned by Ambassador to Iceland and allaround good guy Nicholas Ruwe and his wife Nancy sold not for its $125,000 estimate but a staggering $912,000.
What price provenance? …a million dollars.