At auction, bargains are possible

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

One pair sits in the front row. A woman knits with red yarn as they wait for their desired finds to be called.

Two rows back, another couple, the man is a serious bidder when it comes to several Chicago Silver treasures. First item of interest is Kalo Shop trays. There is a bidding war between this buyer and a phone bidder, but the man in the room is determined. He ultimately goes home with both trays and several other items at the late 2019 auction of Silver & Objects of Vertu.

It's all part of the business at Toomey & Co., Oak Park, here since 1987, when John Toomey ran the auction house. Now daughter Lucy Toomey is CEO. Tucked into a storefront space at 818 North Blvd., when one walks by, perhaps a chair in the window catching your eye, you may not realize the full extent of the treasures within.

But enter during a preview week, such as the one going on now for this Sunday's Art & Design Auction, and it's like entering a 20th century art and design museum — Gustav Stickley furniture, Peter Max art, Rookwood pottery, Tiffany Studios pieces, Charles and Ray Eames designs, the list goes on — and it is all up for sale to the highest bidder.

But there are also significant pieces of the period with lesser-known names and affordable starting bids. Some items aren't bid on at all, or are easily won with one or two bids, keeping the sale price below or within the lower end of the predetermined auction estimate, "a range based on comparable estimates and results by the artist or maker," according to Lucy Toomey.

"There is a price point for anything and everything," said John Walcher, vice president and senior specialist. We sell items in our Interiors sales that are $100 to up to $5,000 or more and our Art & Design sales, we'll still have items in the lower hundreds and upwards of $100,000 or more."

"This is great art and design you're not going to find anywhere else," he continued. "You can have an individual item that tells a story, that can become a conversation piece; it can become a family heirloom. These are objects that have stood the test of time and will continue to do so. They're well made and you're not going to see that in a lot of retail shops."

Once an item has been won, the purchaser pays a buyer's premium — 25 percent on site, via phone or absentee bid, 30 percent online, sales tax is also added.

On auction days, most customers bid online, a shift from years back when roughly half the space was filled with chairs and 200 to 300 interested buyers, according to Toomey. Online bids go through Invaluable and LiveAuctioneers, while phone bidders work with Toomey employees, including Lucy and John Toomey, president. There are still a handful of in-person bidders.

Both Walcher and Lucy Toomey encourage attending live auctions. Upon arrival, an interested bidder signs up for a paddle with a number, which tracks that buyer. If it is the first time, the process can be explained. Walcher, one of the auctioneers, speaks at a reasonable pace and is easy to understand. There is no fee to attend and no obligation to buy or bid. Walcher recommends arriving early and watching other items come up and seeing how the bidding occurs.

"Being at the live sale you can see what's happening and you might have seen something and it's selling for less than you thought it would, and you can raise your paddle," Toomey said. "At the live sale there is more opportunity for a surprise. And it can be an educational experience."

Both recommend attending the preview to view items in person beforehand to talk to a specialist in the area and learn more about the piece, examine the condition, see the scale, and touch or hold the item.

The preview for the upcoming Art & Design Auction (Sunday, March 8, 10 a.m.), runs from Wednesday, March 4; Friday, March 6; and Saturday, March 7, 10 a.m., to 5 p.m., and Thursday, March 5; 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. (reception 5 to 7 p.m.). For Auction photos/more: toomeyco.com.

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