The smart collector: Select an auction house with eye to marketing, fees

2013-08-04T00:00:00Z The smart collector: Select an auction house with eye to marketing, feesDanielle Arnet The Smart Collector Arizona Daily Star
August 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Q: My late father's estate includes 64 pieces of George Nakashima furniture. We have original correspondence between George N. and my father concerning the creation of one item.

My brothers and I have decided to sell. We're currently researching auction houses and need some guidance on what we need from each auction house before making an informed decision on where to sell. Any opinions?

A: This is one very smart (and lucky!) collector. With a windfall of valuable items, she wants to consider all possibilities before making a decision.

Anyone who follows this column knows that we always advise, "Research before you sell or buy." You have just one chance to dispose of a treasure. This reader knows what she has, but "how" to sell is the issue.

Born in Spokane, Japanese-American wood craftsman George Nakashima (1905-1990) was trained in architecture but became a self-taught woodworker. His workshop/studio in New Hope, Pa., became a center for creative design and modern ways of working with wood. The studio has always been staffed with top craftspeople.

Nakashima accepted commissions and involved buyers in the creative process, hence the reader's original correspondence. As his reputation grew, secondary market prices rose. Today his works are in important museums and collections worldwide.

Since his death, the studio compound is under the direction of daughter Mira - also an architect - who worked alongside her father for many years. Today, Mira's designs are collected as well. Her sons will succeed her.

Seen in photos with this column, a set of eight Conoid (a Nakashima line) walnut/hickory chairs made in 1981 sold this June at Rago Arts and Auction for $42,500. The client's name is on the lot. In the same sale, a cross-legged desk of French olive ash and walnut woods brought $68,750. Produced in 1987, late in the master's career, the piece shows the design influence of Mira.

Here's my primary opinion: The collection must sell intact. Breaking it up invites cherry picking. That's not a good scenario.

This is a good time to state that I have no interest in the sale of the pieces other than writing this column. Note also that many tips in this column apply to selling any item at auction: Victorian glass, jewelry, cars, you name it.

Consigning the collection to a prestigious New York auction house seems good until one considers fees. Any ego gratification derived from "I sold it at (you fill in the name)" will be diluted by hefty insurance, photography, storage, promotional and other fees. Expect a higher premium for the house: One charges the seller 25 percent of any result up to $75,000.

Checking around, we learned that our reader has already contacted auctions. But she asked for our opinion, so here goes.

Ask each auction house how they would market the consignment. Get details, and have them in writing before you sign. Also: Would they create a separate catalog for the collection? What kind of personal service will you get from a specialist? Will the house relist any unsold lots without charge? Will they negotiate on fees? Get an itemization of those fees.

Research online to determine what houses sell/have sold the most Nakashima. Bookmark those that realize good sale results on a regular basis. One or two spectacular sales do not build a reputation.

We contacted Jad Attal, Modern specialist at Rago Arts in Lambertville, N.J., because the house is known for depth of action when it comes to selling Nakashima of all kinds, all ages. We wanted to pick his brain about the current market for Nakashima. Note: It is strong.

Attal catalogs an average of 35-40 Nakashima pieces from all decades in each of three Modern sales per year. That's about 600 lots from the studio sold in his six years at Rago.

"We're a 45-minute drive from the Nakashima compound," he told us. "We have a relationship with Mira." That matters when items need to be spruced up before auction. One cannot do better than having the original studio rework damaged or worn pieces.

Attal agreed with us about keeping the collection intact.

"It's like a crown," he said. "Remove the jewels and you have something of lesser value."

He suggests that the seller think like a buyer. See the item(s) from their point of view. Buyers want to buy smart as much as the seller wants to sell smart.

This collection offers buyers goods fresh to the market (a major plus), selection and variety. If marketed smart, buyers will trip all over themselves to throw money for the best. Secondary pieces will get swept along in the tide and boom! Everyone wins.

Armed with facts you need, it's time to act. Over thinking and fretting with what-ifs can paralyze. The main problem might be getting family members to agree on a course of action.

That I cannot help with.

COLLECTOR QUIZ

Q: The furniture of George Nakashima marks the revival of this in America.

a. Woodworking

b. Artisanal furniture

c. Craft

d. Commissioned works

A: The answer is c. craft. His furniture was mostly handcrafted and individually made, though he designed furniture for Knoll in the 1940s.

Source: "Collecting Modern Design." This Miller's Guide, published in 2001, is now out of print.

Danielle Arnet welcomes questions from readers. She cannot respond to each one individually, but will answer those of general interest in her column. Send e-mail to smartcollector@comcast.net

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