John Walcher (left) and Lucy Toomey of Toomey & Co. (Provided by Toomey & Co.)

In a storefront on North Boulevard, currently reached by strolling through Cucina Paradiso’s inviting outdoor dining setup, is a vibrant business that has called Oak Park home for 40 years this month. It is Toomey & Co., a mid-level auction house, which attracts buyers and sellers from the neighborhood and around the world. 

While the pandemic hurt many businesses’ bottom lines the past two years, and affected the supply chain for consumers, the story for the arts and antique market was quite different. 

“Following the largest drop in sales in 10 years in 2020, the global art market bounced back in 2021, with aggregate sales of art and antiques up 29 percent to approximately $65.1 billion, surpassing pre-pandemic levels,” according to the 2022 Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report, written by the cultural economist Dr. Clare McAndrew. “All segments of the market grew in 2021, but the auction sector showed the strongest year-on-year advance, with public auction sales increasing by 47 percent.”

Toomey, 818 North Blvd., went along for the ride, shifting some of the ways they do business such as halting in-house bidding during auctions, and saw their sales increase during the pandemic. 

“For a while we were closed to the public, but we still had lots of bidding, very active bidding on the telephone, absentee bids, and particularly on the internet,” said Lucy Toomey, CEO of Toomey & Co. Auctioneers. “For some people it became a new hobby.” Online bidding is done through LiveAuctioneers or Invaluable.

“We saw more bidders coming in online, so it was more competitive,” said John Walcher, vice president and senior specialist. Without travel, entertainment, and going out to dinner, he said, there was more disposable income among buyers. “And, spending the amount of time they were at home, they wanted to re-evaluate their living environment and wanted to add to their aesthetic space.“

Before each auction date, items may be viewed by appointment or virtually, or on Toomey’s online catalog (toomeyco.com). 

Toomey & Co. is known for holding focused, curated sales of Early 20th Century Design, Modern Design, Fine Art, Decorative Arts, Silver & Objects of Vertu, Ceramics, Post-War and Contemporary Art, and Interiors. In this ripe auction market, some art auctioned at Toomey has reached far beyond its pre-auction estimates in recent months. 

Oil on canvas by Alphonse Mucha, “Young Couple from Rusadla,” 1920, was purchased from Toomey & Co. by a Czech casino owner and art collector for nearly $1 million, well above auction estimates. (Provided by Toomey & Co.)

An oil on canvas by Alphonse Mucha, “Young Couple from Rusadla,” was given a pre-auction estimate of $100,000 – $200,000. This fully realized study for another Mucha painting, “Rusadla,” shows a young couple embracing. It is described as “rediscovered” and was authenticated by the Mucha Foundation one month prior to Toomey’s December 2021 Art & Design auction. The Czech artist’s work from 1920 sold for a surprising $965,000. 

The buyer, also Czech, is Leon Tsoukernik, an art collector and owner of King’s Casino, which has the largest poker room in Europe. He has also been an antiques dealer.

Work by a female Chicago surrealist also exceeded estimates at Toomey’s February Modern Design + Post-War & Contemporary Art auction. Gertrude Abercrombie’s “Leaf, Ribbon, Domino, Dice, Shell, Pieces of Eight,” sold for $185,000, and her “Old Phonograph” sold for $209,000. Both oil on Masonite works from 1954 were originally sold at Marshall Fields, and each had a pre-auction estimate of $30,000 – $50,000. 

Most sellers looking to consign with Toomey come in based on word-of-mouth, Toomey’s reputation, knowing Toomey’s auction schedule, and looking at past auction records and artists sold. At times, some items arrive with a little nudging. Take art by Chicago women artists, who Walcher said they are constantly pursuing.

“For a long time, they’ve been overlooked and as of late, a lot of institutions and collectors alike are avidly seeking those works,” Walcher said. “And we know where a lot of those works are, so it’s a matter of, if those people are ready to sell yet. We are constantly watching the market and reminding them of how the market is doing. Over time that has worked out well in getting consignments.”   

A Frank Lloyd Wright weed holder with Oak Park roots, auctioned by Toomey & Co., sold for $161,000. (Provided by Toomey & Co.)
In this archival photo, Frank Lloyd Wright weed holders appear next to a Wright-designed chair and a statue of his son, John. John Lloyd Wright said of the weed holder design in My Father Who Is on Earth, “Not satisfied with the bric-a-brac of the day, Father designed his own. Father liked weeds!” (Provided by Toomey & Co.)

A notable item with Oak Park roots came up in the December auction – a copper weed holder, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. According to the catalog note, it “was one of a pair owned by the Burdick family of Oak Park, Illinois. The other example was donated to the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust by Dr. and Mrs. A.L. Burdick Jr. on December 29, 1995; it is currently on display in the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in Oak Park, Illinois.”

The slender, nearly 28-inch-tall tapering obelisk sold for $161,000. 

On April 7 Toomey will host The Ira Simon Collection: Sold for the Benefit of the Art Institute of Chicago on April 27. 

Simon, an art collector who focused on late 19th to early 20th century pieces, bequeathed the contents of his home to the Art Institute “to choose items to keep for the permanent collection or to sell the remainder for future acquisitions,” said Walcher, who knew Simon. 

By-appointment previews will continue for now, but they hope to return to open hours and exhibition preview events. The auction house sees a time when they will return to in-house bidding during auctions, too. 

“I’m one of the auctioneers,“ Walcher said. “I always prefer to have an audience to auction in front of – it makes it more interesting.”

Auctions have been occurring in the space since 1987. John Toomey, Lucy’s father, purchased the building and opened a gallery on April 1, 1982.

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