John Toomey founded his eponymous John Toomey Gallery in Oak Park in 1987, but his roots in the building on North Boulevard go back to 1982, when he bought the building and rented out booths to antiques dealers. 

A longtime association with Cincinnati’s Treadway Gallery followed, and as Treadway Toomey Auctions they built a solid reputation in the auction world as purveyors of fine art, early 20th-century design, modern design, fine furniture and decorative arts, silver, fine jewelry and timepieces.

In December 2017, Toomey Gallery ended its association with Treadway, and John Toomey stepped down as CEO of the gallery. As Toomey & Co. Auctioneers, the business continues with a honed focus on the new world of specialty auctions and private sales, with John’s daughter Lucy moving up to CEO from her former position of senior vice president.

John Toomey will stay on as President and in a consultant role, working with Toomey +, an element of the auctioneer’s website with an emphasis on private sales.

John Toomey admits that while he had a keen interest in design before opening the gallery, his initial foray into antiques stemmed from a need for employment post-college. 

He quickly established a niche and an expertise. As was fitting for a gallery located blocks from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio, the gallery has always been an industry leader in Prairie School design, and Toomey’s practice of holding four annual art and design auctions per year allowed collectors from around the world to find one-of-a-kind pieces.

Lucy Toomey recalls a childhood spent in the auction house. 

“I grew up in the business,” she said. “I worked auctions when I was little and ran the tags back and forth and ran concessions. It used to be standing room only.”

As an adult, Lucy has been working with her father for 15 years and has seen the auction business change in dramatic response to the internet age.

Enter the internet

She notes that so much is done online, fewer people come in person to view the items up for auction at the week-long previews. 

“We have clients who call us from California, New York, the UK – from anywhere,” Lucy said. “We can do a lot at a distance. With the internet, even people from Chicago don’t always come in to preview a sale. However, our auctions are quite lively events, and we definitely encourage members of the community to attend.”

John Toomey agrees, noting “It’s been a huge change with internet bidding becoming a bigger part of the process.”

He estimates that approximately half of all bidders participate in auctions via the internet. 

While the internet makes it easier for people to discover items offered by Toomey at auction, it also brings in a lot more competition, with anyone able to set up shop without a physical presence in a town.

Reaching a new generation

Lucy Toomey says the internet’s reach can be great for bringing people in the door, figuratively. 

“It’s great to help people find us,” she said. “We want people to call us, and we can give them more information on the condition or provenance of a piece.”

A large part of the revamp of the business will focus on cultivating the next generation of buyers and collectors. 

Lucy Toomey is aided by John Walcher and Joe Stanfield, and all three agree that their generation is the next target. People who might not value fine pieces yet can begin to do so with the right exposure, and many just are not familiar with the auction process or the quality of items available. 

Lucy Toomey sees this as an opportunity for outreach. 

“There’s nothing intimidating about the auction process,” she said. “You don’t have to spend $10,000. You can get something nice for $500. So, for the price of a generic, new item, you can get a quality piece, usually made of superior materials and with a rich history. As people advance in their careers, they often want to set up more established homes. Buying at auction is a great way to do that.”

For Walcher this is the time to move beyond mass retailers that many in his generation embrace. 

“IKEA pieces are not meant to last a lifetime,” Walcher said. “Our pieces last several lifetimes. Some of the furniture here is from the 1800s”

Walcher also notes that as the younger generation becomes grounded in a particular city through employment or families, it can also be a time to decorate a home based on personal style instead of buying an entire living room suite from a big-box retailer. 

“You can find English brown wood furniture for a fraction of what you used to pay, and it’s great to mix in with more modern pieces,” Walcher said. “You can create an eclectic mix based on who you really are by buying unique or one-off items.”

Stanfield says that approach also parlays into the art world. 

“While names like Picasso and Warhol sell for hefty price tags, lesser-known artists can appeal to the beginning collector, and may appreciate in value,” Stanfield said. “It’s always smart to buy something you love that speaks to you rather than as an attempt to garner a quick investment return.”

Lucy Toomey said that while there will be changes around the gallery, many things will remain the same. There will still be four annual art and design auctions. There will still be live previews the week before the sales. They will keep the same infrastructure, staff and location. 

The new website is a way to educate and bring in new clientele. A section called “New and Noteworthy” offers details on current artworks, furniture and decorative arts. 

In addition to the website, an increased social media presence through Instagram Facebook and Twitter will offer more exposure to the auction house. Private sales will receive added emphasis through Toomey , and the tradition of single-owner auctions, such as sales of the estates of Candice B. Groot and Joan and Milton Baxt will continue.

Toomey & Co. Auctioneers will hold its first auction under the new brand on Sunday, April 8.

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