The Big Picture: All the Action’s at the Auction

By Regina M. Connell.
All images courtesy of Bonhams.

The auction business is the Grace Kelly of the art world: glamorous but mysterious; beautiful but slightly forbidding. Not surprisingly, people are intensely curious, but engage awkwardly, hesitantly—or not at all.

Bonhams the Auctioneers

Bonhams, London

Think auction, and what typically pops to mind is the world of big ticket auctions—those contemporary and 20th century sales held in packed auction rooms in London and New York. You think Warhol, Hirst, or maybe Picasso. You think wildly wealthy collectors and onlookers, and clean-cut preppy specialists in pearls and sensible shoes with phones glued to their ears, whispering to Russian oligarchs and Chinese manufacturing barons and occasionally nodding discretely to signal a bid. You picture a handsome, glib auctioneer coaxing and cajoling and creating a little competition as the price of the piece—displayed in dollars, pounds, Euros, Rubles, Yen, and Renminbi—ticks up and up and up.  (You think you’ve double counted the zeros, but no, you haven’t: there really are that many zeros in 10 million.)

Bonhams, Auction

Bonhams, Auction

Well, yes, that exists. But there’s a business far beyond that—one that’s a smidge less glamorous but even more mysterious—and it’s growing in popularity and importance as collectors become increasingly interested in design and the world of making. It’s the world of the decorative arts auction, specifically the world of 20th century decorative arts.

But how does the auction business really WORK, especially when it comes to decorative arts?  For a little behind the scenes intel, we caught up with Katie Nartonis of Bonhams‘ 20th Century Furniture & Decorative Arts Department in Los Angeles. As a specialist at Bonhams, she spends her time scouting, meeting with clients and sourcing property for auction. She’s also a maven, having created the Bonhams Design Lecture Series, which has featured intimate chats with legendary Californian craftsmen and artists such as Larry Bell, Garry Knox Bennett, Tripp Carpenter, Michael Cooper, Otto Heino, Gere Kavanaugh, Sam Maloof, and John Nyquist.

Katie Nartonis of Bonhams

Katie Nartonis of Bonhams

So for the uninitiated, tell me the Bonham’s story in general, and about its focus on decorative arts. Bonhams was founded in England in 1793. At first, a specialist print auction house, Bonhams later branched out into the sale of fine art, wine, and decorative arts. Today, it’s one of the world’s largest auctioneers of fine art, antiques, and vintage cars.

In 2002, the company acquired the West Coast based auctioneers, Butterfields, founded in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. Today, Bonhams offers more sales (auctions) than any of its rivals globally.

The 20th Century Decorative Arts Department, which is based in LA, NY, and London, focuses on rare furniture as well as objects (sculpture, ceramics, glass, rugs) made by famous architects, designers and makers from 1900 to today.

Over the last few years I’ve focused on design, specifically from Post-War California. My own passion for the work seems to be a part of a larger growing interest in work created here on the West Coast. The indoor/outdoor lifestyle enjoyed and cultural freedom here has provided a particulary fertile and creative playground for artists, makers and designers. This environment has supported the creation of work that I think of as joyful, exhuberant, celebratory. Many of the artists I’m drawn to expressed a distinct connection to the natural world and their work incorporates a very organic, natural look and feel.  We’re lucky to  have regular access to the material, as it naturally “bubbles up” here from collectors and artists alike.

How do you decide whose work to focus on? I’ve found that it’s key to actively visit with artists, makers and collectors of the material in their respective studios and homes. It’s good to stay a part of the “dialogue”—both inside and outside the auction environment.

I have been privileged to handle objects of great rarity which have been crafted by some of the most celebrated designers, architects and makers of the 20th Century. Each object we handle for sale at Bonhams comes with its own personal and layered story and it is our as job as auction specialists to relate each object’s unique story in a compelling way.

Tell us about what really goes on in an auction house. It can’t be all glamour.  Auction is glamorous and exciting! Almost 20 years since I worked my first sale, I’m still seduced by the heightened theatre of the auction room. A successful auction is about creating real excitement around objects that may only be available to the open market for a rare moment in time. A particularly important example may not come up for sale to the public again for many years, or even in a lifetime.

But behind the scenes there’s been a considered and dedicated amount of work undertaken to bring the object to the public.

In each of Bonhams areas, our respective specialists’ teams will have spent months to examine, catalogue, document, photograph and market every piece (or auction “lot”) we have collected for each specific auction. Every 3 months, we pull together a fresh auction of design items and produce the full-color auction catalog. In effect you can think of auction as high-end luxury “pop-up” art events—with the objects for sale available only for one day. The auction business is a fast-paced and exciting industry and on auction day, the air crackles with excitement.

Jack Rogers Hopkins (American, 1921-2006) Sculpted Chair with Attached Table, 1970s Est. $15,000-20,000

Jack Rogers Hopkins (American, 1921-2006)
Sculpted Chair with Attached Table, 1970s
Est. $15,000-20,000

How does an artist or maker’s work find its way into the auction world? A great majority of the artists and makers we handle at auction already have established bodies of work and an established “auction market.” Very rarely, we will introduce a piece by an artist whose work has not had any auction record previously. But in order to do so, you must first be convinced that your buyers will support the work with a bid on auction day. In addition, as specialist handling the work, you have to be able to defend the inclusion of newer work vigorously. This can be done by documenting substantiated interest in the work such as museum shows, gallery representation and close ties artistically to other known artists who are sold at auction.

Let me give you an example: About 5 years ago, our team had gotten a very interesting lead on a radically off-beat sculpture by the respected Bay Area artist Michael Cooper. The owners of the piece had for many years lived with Cooper’s “Soap Box Racer” hanging on a wall in their redwood house in Mill Valley. When I first saw the Racer in person it was being stored near rural Sebastopol, hanging from the rafters of the artist’s studio. The owners who had purchased it back in 1976 had just retired and moved to a lovely all glass architectural home on the Oregon coast, where they no longer had room to display the piece. (See photo, vintage).

Michael Cooper (American, born 1943) Soap Box Racer, 1975 Sold for $25,000

Michael Cooper (American, born 1943)
Soap Box Racer, 1975
Sold for $25,000

By the time it came to Bonhams for sale, the Racer had been exhibited extensively on both coasts since 1975, most notably to much acclaim in the late Eudorah Moore’s legendary California Design ’76 (1976) and in Cooper’s travelling retrospective of 2012/2013. Moore, who passed away in 2013, curated the seminal “California Design” exhibitions at the Pasadena Art Museum from 1962–1976.  These legendary bi-annual shows featured the best of design in California and included furniture, textiles, ceramics as well as functional and industrial design. It was clear that this piece was an important part of California design history and we should take a chance in offering the work of an artist who had not yet come up at auction.

In April of 2013, Bonhams auctioned Michael Cooper’s “SoapBox Racer” for $25,000, a world record for the artist at auction.

Let’s now ask about the M word: money. How on earth do you value work? It seems so subjective. Valuing work for sale at auction in some ways is both an empirical science and an intuitive art. There are many factors that influence that final “hammer” result on auction day. Auction specialists spend a good bit of time doing the necessary research to build a case for the auction estimate that we then list in the auction catalogue next to the photo of the piece. This estimate is a price range that reflects what we feel, in a well marketed and attended auction, the piece will sell for. We rely on dogged research of previous auction records and results in the larger market as well as other factors to ultimately determine the “current auction value.” At Bonhams, specialists have access to department libraries as well as comprehensive online reference tools for the research of current auction results.

Bonhams, Colin Sheaf Auctioneer

Bonhams, Colin Sheaf Auctioneer

You see so much, touch so many lives, see so much inspiration. What’s your philosophy about what you do? You know, I always think back to this quote by Samuel Beckett: “The object’s role is to restore silence.” I’m convinced that there is a movement afoot to surround ourselves with objects of deeper meaning. Our fast-food, consumer culture has left many of us hungry for a more meaningful sense of place. A careful consideration of the objects we bring into our lives is one way we can make a small shift toward a more considered environment. I’ve observed a cultural shift toward a more conscious lifestyle, and I believe that buying at auction may be the ultimate in carefully considered acquisition. It’s a rarified form of re-cycling!

An even more radical stance may be that as much of the actual value of the pieces we sell is in many ways contained in the idea, the meaning or intent of the object. Whether it be a rare early Tiffany Studios leaded glass lamp, an Art Noveau bronze sculpture or a 1970s off-beat artist’s made kinetic sculpture—each one of these pieces are a product of the time in which they are made. Each artist’s story and the ideas their work espouses adds meaning and context to the object. The art object, while concretely lovely and valuable, can also be considered as a remnant from our collective cultural past.

Bonhams Auction of 20th Century Decorative Arts takes place April 16, 2014, in Los Angeles, CA




About Katie Nartonis: 

Katie Nartonis is a Business Development Specialist in the  20th Century Furniture & Decorative Arts Department at Bonhams Auctioneers & Appraiser. She is based in Los Angeles.

This summer she will lecture in Seattle at the Furniture Society of America’s upcoming Symposium “FS14”: Rooted in Place with a talk entitled “Seachange: Visionary Coastal Hand Built Architecture.” She is currently in the process of curating the museum show “Jack Rogers Hopkins: California Maverick” for the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles which is slated to open 2015.

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One Response to The Big Picture: All the Action’s at the Auction

  1. Thank you for this inside look at the auction world. I love this:
    “Our fast-food, consumer culture has left many of us hungry for a more meaningful sense of place. A careful consideration of the objects we bring into our lives is one way we can make a small shift toward a more considered environment. I’ve observed a cultural shift toward a more conscious lifestyle, and I believe that buying at auction may be the ultimate in carefully considered acquisition. It’s a rarified form of re-cycling!”