Reflections on an Auction and an Iceberg

I was thinking over the weekend about the two Arts & Crafts auctions that took place over the course of the past few weeks. When it comes to auctions, I’m as guilty as the next person of doing what seems natural: looking for the record-breakers. The Rose Valley table that sold for $237,500; the Teco vase that was hammered down for $73,000; the Fulper lamp that brought $36,000; the Edward Curtis photograph that soared to $46,000; or the Gustav Stickley Morris chair that someone once paid $52,250 to be able to take home with them.

And when an auction comes along that doesn’t have a record-breaker, that doesn’t bring to light for the first time a rare and unusual piece few have ever seen, a piece that brings out the Times’ reporters, the celebrity collectors, the major museum curators, there comes this barely audible sigh of disappointment.

In 1986, not long after I had moved from Iowa City to Durham, a new acquaintance offered me a Gustav Stickley umbrella stand he had found in an antiques shop in Greensboro. It was a simple, narrow umbrella stand, signed on the bottom with the red Gustav Stickley decal. I could tell by comparing the dark finish on the underside of the base to the lighter, almost golden oak finish on the outside that the stand had been refinished, but it still had its original metal drip pan that so often became separated from the oak frame.

And I gladly paid the asking price of $500. Big money in 1986, especially to someone who at age 36 had just walked away from a second career to start a new life in North Carolina.

Last week, some 26 years later, at a nationally advertised Arts & Crafts auction someone else bought this similar, but even larger, three-section Gustav Stickley umbrella stand for the same price of $500.

Did I regret not having waited?

Of course not. I’ve had 26 years of enjoyment with my Gustav Stickley umbrella stand, still standing inside the door to my office, still waiting for me to actually put a wet umbrella in it. (Not going to happen.)

At this same sale last week, you had your choice of more than thirty pieces of Rookwood, Grueby, Teco, Fulper and Marblehead pottery — big names in the Arts & Crafts world — each for less than $500.

And for less than $500 you could have bought a matching L. & J.G. Stickley arm chair and rocking chair set, both with an original finish and in excellent condition. Then, flush with your success, a few minutes later you could have added to the pair a classic L. & J. G. Stickley library table with graceful corbels and keyed tenons for an additional $500.

And someone did.

You see where I’m going with this.

Record-breaking pieces are great for website headlines, museum curators and a handful of high-end collectors, but the future of the Arts & Crafts movement is even more dependent on those under-$500 pieces that new collectors and new bungalow owners can afford.

So was this sale reflective of a drop in the Arts & Crafts market?

Not at all.

For the most part, these were pieces of furniture with refinished, recoated or restored finishes. The Rookwood and Teco vases, while still very Arts & Crafts, were from the 1920s. The Grueby had a small chip, the Heintz vase a small dent.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind a small chip, a restored finish or an occasional dent, provided the price reflects the condition. I live in a home, not a museum. My son once put his foot through the glass in a Stickley bookcase. My cat misjudged the height of an Arts & Crafts table and left six claw marks in the finish. One of my desks is actually a Stickley vanity missing the mirror across the back. If you look at the back of the modest Marblehead vase in my entryway, you’ll find a small chip. How else would I be able to display a Marblehead vase in my entryway?

So, when someone complains to you about what they perceive as the high prices for Arts & Crafts antiques, point out that the record-setters are just the tip of the iceberg, that just a few feet away, submerged below the surface and almost, but not quite out of sight, are enough pieces of quality, affordable Arts & Crafts furniture, art pottery, metalware and artwork to fill perhaps not a museum, but certainly a home.

Until next Monday,

Have a great week!

– Bruce