On my way to the 20th Century Art and Design Auction at Toomey Gallery in Oak Park, I consider popping into Walgreens for a pair of fake reading glasses. If I am to gain true insider access to the art game and hob-knob with a few of its biggest players, I’ll need to look the part. Some funky but smart-looking horn rims might help me get in without triggering the riff-raff alarm. And later, when I am bounced out onto North Boulevard for snickering over a $10,000 vase or some such thing, maybe no one will recognize me as I limp to the car.
Having visited the gallery earlier in the week, during a five-day auction preview that allowed nobodies like me to come in off the street for a stroll through the goods, I know pretty much how things are going to go down at this, the big May 7 event. Gallery Director Jane Browne, who’d greeted me warmly and shown a surprising lack of haughtiness while I was stumbling around the open house asking stupid questions, will surely be busy greeting important people today.
“Have a seat in the dark over there,” I expect her to say when I enter. “Don’t touch anything. Don’t talk to anyone. Don’t make any sudden movements.”
I know that toward the back of the gallery (which shows like a small North Boulevard storefront from the curb but is actually a rambling two-story warehouse), a large section of chairs will be set up before an auctioneer who will speak at break-neck speed to move 100 lots of original paintings, furniture, pottery, glasswork, lighting, prints and sculpture per hour. That amounts to about one item per 40 seconds and makes for some pretty swift action, according to Browne.
With the day being broken into three sessions”Arts & Crafts, American & European Paintings, and 1950s to Modern”the last of some 1,100 pieces is expected to be sold somewhere between 9 and 10 p.m. tonight. By then, I will surely be home on my scratch-and-dent couch from Wickes beneath a hokey oversized print from Ikea, detailing the day’s absurdities to my husband.
Off to the sides of the auction floor, I’m told, a few long tables will be set up with phone bidders and eBay liaisons to communicate the whims of absentee art buyers from all over the world. Robert Kaplan and Beth Cathers, Arts & Crafts dealers from New York, who oddly enough did not flag security when I initiated a conversation with them at the preview, will be among those participating from a distance today.
“We won’t be attending the auction,” said Cathers, who claims to have caught the Arts & Crafts bug at a 1972 Princeton exhibition and has been a regular at Toomey events for years. “But we always fly in to get a look at what’s here. … It’s nice to see everything in person.”
While Cathers indulged me, Kaplan could be seen behind her, turning a Mission-style chair upside down, removing the cushion and at one point actually sitting in the thing! Having heard that some of this stuff was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and that famous Stickley guy, and having been on local tours where chairs like the one Kaplan was manhandling were protected from human contact by velvet ropes, if not laser webs, I’d been pretty shocked that no one had come over to cuff him.
I’d also been surprised to hear that almost all of the featured artwork and furniture is stored and displayed onsite for these events, which occur four times a year at Toomey in cooperation with Treadway Gallery in Cincinnati and are among the most internationally recognized auctions of their kind.
Building the buzz
A quick chat with gallery owner John Toomey, who ignored a steadily ringing phone and an assortment of staff members vying for his ear while he attempted to give me a greater appreciation for what went on here, revealed that some of today’s most anticipated lots included a George Maher window triptych (Hey, I know that guy! He designed Pleasant Home!) and some Robert Jarvie candlesticks (apparently this guy was a primo, turn-of-the-century metalsmith whose original light fixtures are much coveted by Arts & Crafts fanatics).
“And we have a couple of big collections coming back on the market,” Toomey added. Resale is a big part of the game for obvious reasons. Sometimes clients move or renovate and their pieces no longer fit their space. Others are looking to turn a profit. Others still are simply looking for a change.
If only that were how it worked at Target, I thought. “Here,” I’d say to the nice lady at the customer service counter, “I’m re-doing my foyer and this welcome mat is all wrong. Post it for $15, and we’ll see what we can get. I’ll go as high as $17.50 for that one with the Fourth of July firecracker design.”
Having entered the auction scene in 1987 with a 200-lot sale that turned his passion for Arts & Crafts into a fledgling enterprise, Toomey said some of the biggest challenges he and his 10 full-time staff members face in pulling these auctions off are related to geography. “After every sale, we send trucks to New York and California,” he said. “You have to get pieces dropped off and pieces picked up.” With appraisals and consignment deals going on all over the country year-round, the shipping logistics can get pretty hairy.
Customer service, which is critical to the success of a business like this, also takes up a lot of the Toomey crew’s time. Lisanne Dickson, who orchestrates the Modern Design sessions, told me she gets 100 e-mails a day from clients with questions and research requests. And although many of these inquiries will not translate into actual bids, she obliges them anyway.
“The key on our end is to be knowledgeable but accessible,” she said. “If you can make people feel comfortable, then the whole thing is not so intimidating.”
In the auction catalog, which provides color photos of each lot and a projected range in which the top bid is likely to fall, I’d seen a wacky, steel-frame sofa with circular, candy-colored cushions estimated to fetch somewhere between 15 and 20 thousand dollars, and I wondered how these guys ever knew what was going to turn someone on. Or what someone was going to be willing to pay.
Tracking the results of eBay sales and other auctions on the Internet has helped trend-spotting and price assessment, Dickson said. “But I’m always surprised at the things my regular clients choose.” Over-the-top, ’70s design”pairing wood and metal rather than bright color and molded plastic”is hot today, according to Dickson, but might not be tomorrow. You never know when a bidding war might lead to a record sale, and conversely, you never know when something will go for significantly less than predicted.
Through the looking glass
Preparing to enter the gallery, having opted against the art-smart disguise after seeing a woman walk out wearing blue jeans, I hold my chin up and step in like I belong here. And to my astonishment, after a quick visual scan of the scene, I come to the conclusion that maybe I do.
Of the 30 or so people sitting in chairs, no one is formally dressed, and no one fits neatly into my preconceived art buyer mold. No one frisks me at the door. No one sneers while I clunk up the aisle to an empty chair. No one is nibbling on foie gras or toasting a fine fetch with a trendy Riesling. And while I do spot a few sets of horn rims, no one appears to be whipping out a monocle or sporting a neckerchief. From what I can gather in the first five minutes, there’s not an outward snob in this house.
Even the auctioneer, while certainly quick-talking and professional, wears a black T-shirt and occasionally smiles. And there’s nothing intimidating about the auction floor. In several locations, TV monitors are set up to display the item on the block and it’s all really quite easy to follow. Most of the bidding seems to be coming from the phone and computer tables, but once in a while someone in the crowd will raise a paddle. It’s kind of exciting, really. There’s a definite charge in the air.
As the lots progress, I find that some of these things, when you examine them closely and read about their histories and craftsmanship, are pretty cool. I guess I can understand how some people, if blessed with the means, could get jazzed up over buying an umbrella stand or a painting that speaks to them. And I can only assume the prices, while certainly mind-boggling, are driven by supply and demand, like everything else.
I watch as a George Nelson cabinet”which looks a lot like a $300 piece from Dania employed to support paper piles in my dining room”sells for $5,000. And while I’m tempted to think I got a better deal, I suspect the Nelson piece will not be coming apart at the hinges, like ours is, any time soon.
One of the day’s most pleasant surprises, as Jane Browne had predicted, is that there are people in here getting bargains, or at least fetching things for well below their projected price points. You don’t have to be rich to walk away with something special, she said, just patient.
Eyeing lot number 139, a groovy bronze and glass lamp designed by a guy named Handel, I begin to think I might want in on this. It sure would brighten up the living room, and I’d have a great story to tell. If no one else is interested, maybe I can snag this thing for a song. Somebody get me a paddle!
But seconds later, the auctioneer calls fair warning at $13,000, and I sit on my hands.
Going once. Going twice. Gone.