“You should write a book” ...and so the man who produced extraordinarY auctions devoted to John F. kennedY, elvis presleY, princess diana, mickeY mantle and the beatles has done Just that. revealed are the innermost stories behind the $3 million baseball, cold war artwork, the world’s largest sale and some oF the wildest items ever to cross the auction block (like 200,000 pre-castro cuban cigars!)
DEAR READER In 1975, following dissatisfying years as a young art director at a Madison Avenue advertising agency, I started Guernsey’s. Routinely ranked today as one of the world’s leading auction houses, our firm has built a reputation for producing unconventional, unprecedented auctions that have veered off into previously uncharted auction waters. And Guernsey’s pioneering efforts with the leading media networks around the world have allowed news of our events to circle the globe. When asked to make a presentation at some fine university (in many instances, a university that never would have considered me as a student!), I often find myself sharing some of the many back-stories that occur while preparing for some of the most successful - and occasionally, crazy - auctions in history. Invariably, someone in the audience will insist, “You should write a book!” Well, what you’re about to embark upon is just that… a book that documents many of the unimaginable stories that unfolded while preparing for many of the most high-profile auctions in history. The Elvis, JFK, Princess Diana, Jerry Garcia, and Mickey Mantle auctions were produced by Guernsey’s, as was the Cold War auction of art from the Soviet Union and the world’s largest auction, the contents of the ocean liner SS United States. From serious efforts focusing on the Rosa Parks’ Archive and a historic Holocaust-related poster collection, to far-ranging events extending from dinosaurs to sci-fi / horror films onto 200,000 pre-Castro Cuban cigars, Guernsey’s has certainly developed its niche in the auction world. I expect to unleash about half a chapter a week. With sixteen chapters already written (and about ten to go), that should take just about a year for this saga to unfold. (16 + 10 = 26 chapters; 1/2 chapter a week = 52 weeks!) I’ll stay the course unless some important publisher entices me to do otherwise. Better yet, might there be a movie in the making? I’ll grant my looks tend to be more Larry David-ish, I always hoped that the late, great Paul Newman might play the part of Arlan Ettinger in “The Guernsey’s Story.” In any case, I hope you enjoy the ride. And hey, if you’re finally coming around to selling that important collection, give me a call. I’m still here. Arlan Ettinger
CHAPTER 1 A MOST CURIOUS PART 1 BEGINNING... OR HOW TO PARLAY A VESPA INTO A ROLLS INTO A CAREER I might as well tell you that if you’re looking for real auction action, you may just want to skip to the next chapter because there’s not too much gavel banging here. On the other hand, over the next twenty or so pages you can read about how it all got started. And as I look back over the last three decades, some of these early memories are amongst the craziest. I’ll explain. It was the mid-1970’s and I was living in a modest third floor walk-up in that part of lower Manhattan that would soon come to be known as Soho. In those pre-art gallery-infested days, the area just south of Houston - Thompson Street to be exact - had a population that was largely of Italian descent. Not that I necessarily blamed them, but they were highly resistant to change. So when yuppified basketball games started interfering with the Sunday afternoon bocce matches and other forms of newcomer culture got in the way of the established, older way of life, all hell started breaking loose. As someone who grew up barely a mile away, I felt that I had more in common with the current residents than the arriving youngbloods fresh from Oklahoma’s wheat fields or other far distant points. Nevertheless, as one who was both new to the block and not Italian... I was the enemy. No matter how many ham and cheese heroes I ordered from the corner grocery, I never got that extra slice or two of provolone that the locals did. My prosciutto was never sliced quite as thinly as theirs. But resentment was reflected in other ways as well, and this is where our story really starts. As it turns out, to maneuver around the big City, I bought an old, red Vespa motor scooter. Weaving through traffic, though somewhat suicidal, could be fun. The Vespa was to play an important role in this story, as you shall soon see, but it also helped me impress the woman who was to become both my wife and partner in creating Guernsey’s, our auction house. It was our first date... a college basketball game being played at Madison Square Garden. We took the Vespa. During the game, this young woman I had first noted during my college days only a year before, started telling me of a very chi-chi club that was having its grand opening
that very evening. This latest, and soon to be trendiest discotheque, was celebrity-owned and called Arthur. “Wouldn’t it be great to go to the opening?” she suggested. Trying to keep the level of my protests to a minimum, I coolly pointed out that that was a club for global jet-setters and with barely five dollars in my jeans pocket, I didn’t quite qualify for that designation. As I’ve come to know well, Barbara doesn’t give up on an idea easily and that first evening was no exception. Her desire to go to this new dance club was so great that I feared either I take her or there would be no second date. Suggesting that we would never get in was no deterrent to her and so, following our basketball game, we got on the Vespa and proceeded across town to the east fifties and Arthur. Turning off Third Avenue, the side street where the club was located was in total gridlock. Limousines where backed the full length of the block. No one could move, unless you were on a Vespa. Deftly, I snaked my way through that sea of long black cars, arriving squarely in front of the new club. Sure enough, as I predicted, there must have been three hundred people - in black tie - pushing and shoving to get to the small entrance. For those up close, it didn’t matter as is seemed no one was getting in. If recollections are correct, I remember fistfulls of cash being waved by those hopeful of being selected to pass through the small golden portal. Although we had come as close as any vehicle could to the entrance of the place, we were still at the back of the throbbing, well-dressed crowd and as I saw it, stood zero chance of getting in. It was, as I reasoned, a pointless effort anyway, given the fact that I probably didn’t have enough to pay for even a single drink. About to turn around and depart in defeat, I heard a booming voice demanding that people “make way for Mr. Ettinger.” Now to that point in my slightly more than two decade life, I don’t recall ever even having been called “Mr. Ettinger”. To me, Mr. Ettinger was my father. So it took a moment for the coincidence that there was someone else in the crowd with my name to sink in. But then I heard the voice again and people were looking in my direction. Indeed, a path seemed to be forming from me to Arthur’s doorway. Somewhat in a daze, I was trying to make sense of the fact that a tall, blond good looking guy two steps above the crowd at the entrance to the club was gesturing that I come forward. Barbara and I naturally responded - I must confess that she was beside herself with joy - and marched right into what instantly became perhaps the hottest discotheque ever produced in this City. That tall guy, aka the doorman, as it turned out had been a friend during my grammar school days. Only then, he was the shortest kid in the class. I would never have recognized him, but he recognized me and that’s what counted. We were seated near some true international big shots (who clearly were smart enough to size up the situation and paid for our drinks) and from that night on, become something like starving pets of the super rich. We were welcomed from then on. And I owe it all to the Vespa that got us to the doorway.
It wasn’t long before I found myself making frequent scooter trips from the southern end of the City to its northern reaches in Washington Heights where Barbara lived. But between the potholes, truck and taxi traffic and hostile neighborhood youths along the way, the trip, to be sure, was a trek. I loved the Vespa nevertheless and kept it clean and running as best I could. I can’t recall now, but the fact that it was of Italian manufacture may even have entered into my decision to buy the thing in the first place... a symbolic peace offering to the Thompson Street natives. Unfortunately, the young Italian men of Thompson Street didn’t quite see it that way. They viewed the Vespa as a conveyance of an advancing army. Now I suppose that could have crushed the scooter between two cars or otherwise battered the little thing with baseball bats. But their methods of attack were more insidious, and in the end, more fiscally painful. Had they destroyed the Vespa, I would have been out the roughly two hundred I had paid for it. But they didn’t do that. What they did do was move the scooter. Literally pick it up and move it. Every night. Now they didn’t move it to New Jersey nor to another City neighborhood. That would have required a serious effort. They would move it a few feet. A few feet this way or a few feet that. They would move it to within sixteen feet of whatever fire hydrant - pump, in the vernacular - was the closest. Now of course, New Yorkers know that parking too close to a hydrant will generate an instant - and costly - parking ticket. And so it was that each morning, I would start the new day with a summons, which at the time, I could ill afford. I was barely scraping by as a young illustrator and art director. My pleading to the local officer issuing these tickets fell on deaf ears. I tried to reason with him. “Why” I asked “would I park the scooter next to a hydrant when it could easily fit between parked cars virtually anywhere else on the block?” Now either he was thick... or in cahoots with the old timers because the tickets kept coming. And owning the Vespa was rapidly losing its glow.
It was about the time that the Vespa / parking situation was getting out of control when I started developing a wanderlust to, on occasion, get out of the City. Trips to the Hamptons, Cape Cod, New England and other points distant became compelling. Inasmuch as struggling along Long Island’s infamous Expressway on a Vespa with two aboard was definitely not the way to go, I was ready to trade the Vespa in for a car. Two thousand dollars was about all I figured I could muster which happened to be just what a Volkswagen Beetle cost at the time. Not the most glamorous ride, the bug, however, would be more than adequate for our weekend forays. And so it was that on a Friday, I scanned New York Times automotive dealer advertisements for the purpose of deciding from whom I would be buying the VW that coming weekend.
Now as it was in those pre-computer days, the Times classified listing of used cars was pretty much where you went if you wanted to buy someone else’s headache. The way the paper was laid out, the classifieds usually lined up side by side larger, new car dealer display ads. And so while I was looking through the display ads, something caught my eye in the classifieds. The last category of automotive classifieds - following the offerings of modern cars by makes - was a category for “Antique and Classic Cars”. And that is where my eyes landed. Having been an avid reader of Road & Track magazine in high school and having had a brief stint with a very used Jaguar XK150 in college, I was clearly attracted to the old and interesting. “1949 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith, $2,000” was what the ad read. Now you can call it what you like, but to me, it was fate. That amongst all the hundreds of ads, there I was staring at an ad asking two thousand dollars - the amount I had - for a Rolls Royce! What compelled me to start contemplating a possible acquisition I don’t know, because if I really thought about it, I probably couldn’t even afford the gas such a guzzler might require. Paying for repairs would have been out of the question. But these are rational thoughts... and at that particular moment, I was thinking with my heart. And so I made the call. The Rolls Royce was in upstate New York, a Greyhound bus ride away. The next morning, Barbara and I took that ride, meeting up with the seller... and the car. There she was (the Rolls), sitting sadly alone in the middle of a large field. The gentleman offering the car very much fit into his rural surroundings; it was a farming area and he seemed to be a farmer. As I think back, I don’t recall why he even would have had such a machine, but there it was. Never having even ridden in one, the notion of owning a legendary Rolls Royce seemed inconceivable. And so thoughts of how it could be maintained and where it could be parked were not on my front burner. What was, was whether I was insane for even contemplating such a purchase. The maroon paint was peeling, one of the tires was flat and the large sunroof had been open for what must have been a very long time as the interior of the car was filled with leaves. I must have analyzed the situation and realized that were I to spend my two thousand, there wouldn’t be a dollar left over for repairs or, more expensively, restoration. But those big P100 headlamps beckoned and with my encouragement, the farmer-cum-used car salesman pushed the starter button. Somewhat astonishingly, she started right up and continued to run, sounding – to my untrained ears - pretty darn good. Now I have to confess that I think of myself as being at least as clever as the next guy, so on the spot, I concocted a plan. This country-boy seller was not going to get the best of me. Reaching deep into my pocket, I pulled out my role of two thousand dollars, essentially all the money I had in the world. I displayed the cash simply to prove that I had it. With that, I threw down the gauntlet. If this gentleman would drive the Rolls about a hundred and fifty miles to New York City the following morning ( a Sunday) and arrive at a specific corner at a specific time, I would be there waiting, cash in hand. If you are as clever as I, you can figure out what I had in mind. If this man had enough confidence to drive this classic all that way, then the car must be mechanically strong. I could deal with the cosmetics later, but I needed a machine that would get us where we wanted to go...and back. What dawned on me only hours after I met that man at the appointed time and place and bought the car, was the painful truth that he could have trailered the thing to
within a block of our rendezvous point and coasted to my corner. I wouldn’t have known the difference... until it was too late. But whatever, now I owned a vintage Rolls Royce and the road to the auction world got that much shorter.
My concerns (read “fears”) proved groundless as the Rolls Royce ran like a Rolls Royce should. And I must say, we got quite a kick occasionally driving around the City with Barbara in the cavernous back and me the chauffeur. The expressions on the faces of turnpike toll takers suggested that they couldn’t quite figure out if we early twenty-somethings were rock stars or (dare I say it) pimps, but we always received a smile and a “Thank you, sir.” when paying our quarters! As time went on, we started fixing up the car. I found that I could recondition the leather and refinish the beautiful wooden veneers myself. But repainting the body was a whole different deal. One doesn’t take a vintage Rolls Royce to an Earl Scheib paint shop. (Old time car buffs will remember that consummate TV salesman who would “paint any car any color for $99.95!”) If you had a Rolls Royce, you needed a Rolls Royce-calibre paint job which, in my case, I could ill afford at the time. As luck would have it, I somehow met up with a man who owned a top drawer automotive restoration service. And as further luck would have it, he was in the market for a painted portrait of his handsome family. This was a match made in heaven. I, an advertising art director / struggling illustrator / part-time portrait artist could paint his family portrait in trade for having the Rolls painted in his shop! The agreement was reached and, believe it or not, it worked. I hope he was as happy with the portrait as we were with the paint job because the ugly duckling truly became a swan. Painted a heather green (which was to become my “signature” automotive color) the Silver Wraith (all Rolls Royce models started with the name “Silver) was a head-turner. And for the next two or three years, we used and loved that car.
On our many weekend jaunts, we sometimes stayed in motels, hotels or inns, but on occasion visited with friends in their country homes. Increasingly, I felt a longing to have one of these - a place of our own outside the City - and although my income level had not significantly increased, by adding Barbara’s wages as an account exec in a large ad agency, we though we could eke something out. “Twenty thousand was what I could afford for a country place”, I told the Boxwood Realty broker on Montauk Highway in Bridgehampton. We knew nothing about the Hampton’s
real estate prices (we knew nothing about real estate prices anywhere!) but targeted that trendy area which we enjoyed visiting on many occasions. And although I imagined that that amount wouldn’t get us much, all we needed was a small, (hopefully) charming place hidden behind some privet hedge. The broker’s laughter was painful. Maybe, if we were real lucky, we could get a shack she had in mind which was located squarely on the busy highway next to a gas station (location, location, location) for $40,000. But that was as close as she could come to our budget. But, she optimistically encouraged us to come out. “As with the New York Lottery” she said “Hey, you never know.” With very low expectations, we set out for the Hamptons - in the Rolls. Now remember, by this time the car looked pretty. It was indeed something of a sight when one saw this 1949 beauty rolling down the highway. As is often the case in seaside communities, the fog was pretty dense when we pulled up in the Boxwood Realty parking lot, just in front of the firm’s large plate glass window. We weren’t out of the car before we started seeing hands rubbing clear circles in the mist-covered glass. And before the real estate agency’s door closed behind us, welcoming hands were warmly patting me on the shoulder. “Oh, Mr Ettinger, you kidder. A twenty thousand dollar home... and you in that car.” Whether I wanted to be or not, I was immediately upgraded. For our twenty thousand dollar budget (with our available five thousand dollars for a down payment) we started being shown homes in the $100,000 to 150,000 range. (In today market, we’re talking a fair number of millions.) Inevitably, one of these places really struck a chord with us... a 1920’s shingle style, guest house, private hedge, swimming pool(!), etc. And to our good fortune, it could be had for a “significant amount less than it was really worth because the seller had already purchased another home.” The fact that it was available for “a significant amount less” didn’t help us much as we were still miles apart in price. But the temptation for this “bargain” was great and I developed a plan. If the Rolls Royce got us into this situation (remember, the image of the Rolls spoke big bucks, even if we didn’t), maybe the car could help make this unlikely deal happen. With this in mind, we offered our classic ride in lieu of part of the purchase price. Although we didn’t know what the worth of the car was after our restorative work, it certainly was worth a fair amount more than the two thousand dollars we had paid a few years earlier. For a brief moment, it looked like something was cooking. One half of the selling couple (the man, naturally) sort of liked the idea of owning the Rolls and seemed about to give the thumbs up when his wife nixed the transaction. This near-miss made us all the more frustrated as we had almost pulled off a pretty interesting trade: our car (plus every cent we had in the world and a big mortgage) for the house. With the deal gone, we had – for reasons I don’t recall – one month to the day to come up with real cash or the property would be gone. Remember the New York Times’ classified advertising section with the “antique and classic car” category? Well, we went back to it... this time advertising the Rolls for sale. Initially, we had little reaction, but in the end, and just before the thirty day deadline on the house ran out, a buyer (who was the successful author of books educating males in the techniques of how to
“pick up” females) came forward. For forty thousand dollars, just the amount we needed as a down payment, he bought the car, and we bought the house.
Although we’re still a distance away from the auction world, perhaps you’re getting a sense that I’m into making deals... which, as it turns out, is very much a part of what I now do daily and, I suspect, an integral part of most businesses. But please read on; auctions are not far ahead.
As a city boy with no experience in country living other than summer camps in the Berkshires, I found home ownership to be great fun. And although many of my attempts to make repairs around the property ended in failure, I enjoyed the effort and took pride in finding myself reasonably handy. The fact that I was able to mow the lawn, trim the privet, paint the fence, maintain the pool (barely), etc. actually helped make owning this handsome property affordable and before I knew it, we had some expendable income. In addition to hunting for vintage furnishings (at the many Hamptons antique shops and tag sales), I bought a special interest car to fill the gap left by the loss of the Rolls Royce. More accurately described, I actually bought components of five cars. In the old days, one of the compelling reasons for spending time in the Hamptons was the Bridgehampton Race Circuit. Stemming from road racing that literally took place on the streets of that Village in the late 1940’s, an actual circuit was created and quickly became one of the prime centers for European-style road racing in the country. Interested in this style racing since high school days, I made pilgrimages to “the Bridge” on any number of occasions. One of the classes of cars being raced included a small engine displacement automobile known as the Fiat Abarth. Highly successful, the tiny Italian cars looked - and performed - nothing at all like their far more common Fiat cousins. These sexy, sophisticated machines had aerodynamic bodies that allowed their rear-engine racing power plants to propel the cars rather swiftly. Production of these thoroughbred racing cars was in the hundreds, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands of vehicles traditionally built by the big manufacturers. Clearly, images of Fiat Abarths screaming to victory were embedded within me. And so it happened that an opportunity arose that allowed me to become immersed in Fiat Abarths; as noted earlier, five to be precise. Now I don’t remember how the cars came to my attention but I do remember having hundreds of components delivered to my home where they were spread over a large area of our driveway. There were five engines, five transmissions and pretty much five of everything else. But there was no one complete, running car.
In time, I dumped all these components in the hands of the Car Doctor, a local mechanic whose advertising claimed he could fix anything. When we got together, he revealed that winters were pretty slow in the Hamptons (few of the summer people were there). A plan was developed whereby he would create a single fully functioning machines from the five confronting him. As you might imagine, sleeping was tough that winter as I waited with great anticipation of the racing car to be delivered in the spring. Well, that day did come, and on a bright Saturday morning in late April, the Fiat Abarth arrived, trailered by the “Doctor”. As the car’s owner, “I should be the one to take the first drive.” he said rolling the car off the trailer. Our street was a long one that ran from a main road right to the bay. It was a straight shot. Over the winters, friends that we were making in the neighborhood heard about the race car. (In truth, I couldn’t stop talking about it.) And so, on that clear cool morning, there was something of a crowd forming in the vicinity of our house, waiting to be among the first to witness the Abarth speeding its way towards the bay. Now getting into the Fiat Abarth was something of a task. Whereas our Rolls was one of the biggest cars ever made, the Abarth was one of the smallest. My particular model was known as the 750 Double Bubble, named for the two humps protruding from the car’s roofline. Although the humps looked cool, they were designed to serve a purpose... without them, a normal-sized human being could not sit upright in the car. But sitting upright I was when I turned the key and heard the scream of the rebuilt engine start for the first time. It sounded great as I revved her up in anticipation of the run towards the water and the morning sun. I shifted the transmission into first gear and looked forward to the surge of power. Well, surge I got... except the car didn’t go forward, it went backwards! Reacting as quickly as I could to the unexpected direction the car was taking, I got it under control, lest we smash into something or someone standing behind us. Trying to make sense of what had just happened, I cautiously put the car into second gear (on level surfaces, virtually any car can pull away from a standing start in second) and again looked forward to moving forward. And again, we went in reverse. Only this time faster. To save time, suffice it to say that all five forward gears went in reverse, each at a faster speed that the previous one. The only way to actually move forward was to put the car in reverse! What was to have been a screeching run on a cleared out street in front of all my friends became a halting effort as I slowly progressed. It took weeks before the Car Doctor figured out what he did wrong. (It had something to do with a different set-up Fiat used for these special Abarth-based cars than they used on their standard issue.) But by that time, Barbara, who had grown tired of seeing car parts strewn across our post Hamptons tarmac driveway, insisted that it was going to be her or the Abarth. One of the two had to go. And so sadly, the little race car and its many extra parts, left for Texas to a buyer who didn’t seem to care which way it went.
We followed the Fiat Abarth debacle with the acquisition of other vintage cars, a number of which ended up in debacles. These included a Jag XK140, a 1948 Chrysler Town & Country woodie convertible, a sleek 1953 Bentley Continental (which we have to this day), a very spiffy Mercedes 300SL “Gullwing” and another Rolls Royce. It is this last Rolls that plays a role in this story. This second Rolls we acquired didn’t cost us very much. Essentially, it was a wreck, a 1936 25/30 Thrupp & Maberly Rolls Royce wreck. (The “25/30” was the model designation and Thrupp & Maberly, the coach builder.) The truth is that at the time we acquired this antique car, we had no particular plans for it. Although it was a coach-built, pre-war Rolls, the body styling was not all that handsome. Nevertheless, we had begun getting the car together. The engine was running for the first time in God knows how long and the body was being prepped for paint. Like many around the country, Barbara and I had two lives. On the weekends we were at our country house, while during the week we were at work in the City. The ad agency I was an art director at focused largely on fashion. Among our clients were several women’s shoe accounts. Through one of them, I was introduced to Michael Calter. Barbara and I met Michael at a large scale cocktail party for the shoe industry. He was an engaging, good looking thirty-something year old guy. When, during the course of that evening, the ‘36 Rolls was mentioned, his eyes lit up. Our mention of that car led to his sad story... a story that would ultimately change our lives. Michael told us that he owned a women’s shoe company. Unfortunately, his company had fallen on hard times and he was thinking of changing his life, big time. As he saw it, a move out to LA would net him film roles and ultimately, a star-studded career. He thought large. As we continued to talk, you could see he was working on something. Now to put you in a proper frame of reference, it was getting late in the evening, about 11:00, and we were feeling the drinks. Michael, it seemed, was feeling more than just the alcohol but that matters little here. Then he blurted out with it. “Was the Rolls Royce for sale?” This quickly changed to, “Would we be interested in trading the Rolls?” Far from being in love with the car, we responded, “Trade for what?”
CHAPTER 1 A MOST CURIOUS PART 2 BEGINNING... OR HOW TO PARLAY A VESPA INTO A ROLLS INTO A CAREER Michael then started describing his office which was located on one of the upper floors of a building on 34th Street not far from the major intersection where Sixth Avenue crosses Broadway. He said that unlike any other office he was aware of, in addition to ladies shoes, his office was filled with antiques. That was how he decorated the place. With his lease running out and little business to sustain him, he was ready to close the office. “Why not trade the contents of his office for the Rolls Royce?” he suggested. He went on to suggest that rather than taking a Greyhound Bus to the West Coast, he would arrive in style... in an antique Rolls Royce! “If that wasn’t a recipe for success,” he reasoned, “what was?” Now this sounded like a man after my own heart... a true wheeler dealer. So at about midnight that very evening, we went to 34th Street. Sure enough, he had a large office consisting of what seemed about ten rooms, each of them filled with antiques. I must say that I don’t recall even one item being to our liking - they were primarily heavy and ornate pieces, many gold leafed from the Victorian late 1800’s - but they were antiques and there were many of them. Tall clocks and spittoons, brass cash registers and leaded glass lamps; decorative paintings and engravings of every description. And he had a massive collection of antique shoe-related items... actual shoes, lasts, shoe horns, stands, you name it. “Take it all.” he said “Just give me the Rolls.” When we explained that the car was still a month or more away from completing its restoration, he didn’t care. “Let’s make a deal.” He said. And we did. The very next day, a large moving van, filled to overflowing, headed out to eastern Long Island. To say that we didn’t have a plan was a gross understatement. We stuffed some of these heavy items into our home that up until that moment had a summery painted wicker and chintz feel to it. Many of the things were crammed into the small guest house on the property while the remaining antiques went to a nearby former duck barn we were using to store the old cars.
While we were trying to figure out what to do with our newly acquired antiques collection, the saga of Michael and the Rolls Royce unfolded. The restoration shop lived up to its commitment and completed the car about a month later. Michael was duly notified and promptly informed us that the day the car was to be finished was to be the day he would be heading west. Indeed, his intentions at first seemed well formed as he explained that rather than drive the Rolls cross country, a trip that can stress even the newest of vehicles, no less one depending on a then forty year old engine newly restored but completely untested, he would trailer the car. We met him at the automotive shop just as he was loading the Rolls onto his rented trailer. During the process, we inquired as to what insurance he had for the trip. When he responded “None.” we urged him to get some. Protesting, he claimed to little in the way of funds and nothing that resembled a permanent address in Los Angeles. He would be staying in a motel. Now to this day, I sort of have mixed feelings about what I did next. I told him that I was a customer in fairly good standing (we had never had a claim) with an insurance firm that specialized in antique and classic cars. Their rates were low because the use of these cars was primarily limited to weekend afternoon drives and car shows. Collectors took such good care of their machines that there rarely were claims; hence the low premiums. “Let me” I suggested “register you with them and have them send you the bill at your temporary address out west. This way you’ll be covered for the long trip ahead.” He took me up on the offer and after another phone call or two, driving his rental car with Rolls Royce in tow he was off, leaving Manhattan’s Upper East Side and heading for the far western shore. It was about an hour and a half later that we got his call. Somewhere along Route 80, only halfway through New Jersey, the Roll Royce “flew off the trailer” crashing into a guide rail. Needless to say, it was wrecked. Somewhat remarkably, on the strength of my telephone call less than two hours earlier, the insurance company paid for a two-year long restoration of the car and Michael finally took possession of it out in LA where he had become a successful model, minor actor and then, chauffeur - in his beautiful antique Rolls Royce - for upscale weddings, bar mitzvahs and the like.
The more we looked at Michael’s antiques, the more we realized that we didn’t want to keep any of them. They were dark and ponderous and didn’t fit well into our breezy, multiporched shingle-style Hamptons home. Our neighbors and - despite a big difference in their ages and ours - closest friends on the east end were Michel Bouvier III (Miche), his wife Cathy and their son, JV who lived in a house almost identical to our own. (Actually, there were three houses in a row, built in the 1920’s for three sisters, and now all hidden behind a continuous, long and imposing ten foot tall privet hedge.) We gave Miche and Cathy a few of the pieces. They had been great and most welcoming to us when we first moved into the neighborhood and we loved them for it. It should be noted that Miche was a close cousin and godfather of former First Lady Jackie Bouvier Kennedy and was written about in many books on the Kennedys and Bouviers. I can recall numerous dinners together during what seemed like endless Hamptons’ winter evenings where he would go on with stories about growing up with Jackie, “Black Jack” Bouvier (Jackie and her sister, Lee Radziwill’s father) and other members of that exciting and accomplished family. Indeed, some of those stories proved helpful in our preparations many years later for both the first and second John F. Kennedy Auctions we so proudly conducted. Back to the antiques. We contemplated a huge tag sale but opted instead to another direction. It was this decision that would permanently change our lives. We chose to produce an auction.
Once Barbara and I had purchased our home, we (logically) found the need to fill it. Although I sense we didn’t view it this way at the time, we had started developing collector’s mentalities. That, combined with limited budgets, drove us to garage and tag sales, and, increasingly, local auctions. Some of these were held in old barns and town halls, some on the grounds of antiques shops and others - the estate auctions - often on the very property from which the material came. Bill Doyle, a friend who sadly has since passed away, began his auction business in Southampton before successfully moving to East 87th Street in New York City, where his company continues to produce sales under the name William Doyle. To be sure, once we decided to consider the auction route for the sale of Michael’s antiques, we thought of contacting one of these auctioneers. But then we thought again. Both Barbara and I worked in the field of advertising. I had studied marketing in school. We had the ability, we thought, to promote an auction and it might be fun to actually conduct such an event. Of course we didn’t realize all the behind-the-scene steps needed to be taken, but we were young and energetic and willing to give it a try. Thinking back, I don’t recall whether or not I began viewing this fledgling event as an escape from the world of advertising, but I knew that I was less than thrilled with what I was doing and perhaps subconsciously, I hoped this opportunity might be the pathway to a new career.
Although we considered holding the auction at our home, there were physical issues, not the least of which was the potential to the property a sudden influx of cars and people would create. We opted instead for a Westhampton VFW hall squarely located on busy Montauk Highway. We knew that area well. Just down the road was a California-esque drive-in, an open air dining spot. I long for to this day even though it closed its doors roughly three decades ago. It was called Gene’s and old time Hampton’s goers will remember its truly great oven-baked sandwiches. The menu listed sandwiches that seemed aptly named; and with the waitress shouting them out, the dining experience was heightened. “Depth Charge”, “Atomic Blast”, “Ciao Ciao Bambino”, “Dagmar Blast” and “Arthur Treacher’s Hollywood Special” (my favorite) were some of the choices. “Rene’s Casa Basso” was named for the restaurant across the highway that is still going strong to the this day. Its twelve-foot tall concrete dueling musketeers are hard to forget for anyone who passes their way. “Charles Addam’s Black Maria” took on added personal significance as in time I got to know the famed cartoonist and would pal around with him at legendary Jim McGee’s race car repair shop in Bridgehampton. Addam’s, no matter what the weather, raced around the Hamptons in his open 1926 model 35C Bugatti and was quite a sight. More than a hundred 8” x 10” black and white glossy movie star photos were mounted around the place, all inscribed to Gene who could have been in the movies himself. He was a rugged type; a sort of forty-two year old version of James Dean, with crew cut, cuffed jeans and plain white t-shirt. You never found Gene without a cigarette hanging from his lips, and of course that’s what did him in while he was still in his mid-forties. After his death, and I guess in thanks from his widow Margit for a small portrait I painted of her late and great husband, a sandwich was named in my honor... the “Reo Rusty” with the slogan “It’s Ree-oo Good!”. (“Rusty” was my nickname growing up; I’m not quite sure where the “Reo” came from.) The menu listed it as Freshly Sauteed “Special Recipe” Zucchini -heaped on top of delicious Virginia Ham with Garlic Butter - on Gene’s Famous Oven-Baked Bread. Sauce & Onions optional. Melted Mozzarella Cheese was 50 cents extra (And - my comments - worth ten times that amount!) Sitting outside in the summer salt air, you couldn’t beat it. And the honor of having a sandwich named for oneself remains for me about as good as it gets. A bunch of friends tended to hang out at Gene’s and they became our auction “staff”. Barbara’s mother Esther, who is alive and kicking today at age ninety-three, was our cashier, a role she continued to play well after we could afford to hire professionals. Esther’s feisty nature proved endearing, and when she finally gave up her post many years later, many customers continued to ask for her. I was to be the auctioneer. I recall being pretty sure of myself at the time. Although I had never been an auctioneer before, indeed had never been behind a podium in the past, I had spoken to audiences. During college, I had a part-time job selling Hamilton Beach Electric Knives, “the electric knife with the hole in the handle”. Positioned somewhere within the housewares department of various department stores that were in my territory, I had a table and endless numbers of loaves of bread I was to demonstrate slicing. On occasion, such as in the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, I was given turkeys to slice. That was special. Naturally, while I was slicing, I was giving the sales pitch, the spiel. Although I was no Ron Popeil, I did seem to get the job done, selling my share of knives. (Hamilton Beach offered me
a full time job but I chose to continue my education.) In any case, this was my public speaking experience that gave me the confidence that I could be an auctioneer. That, and watching my share of 1950’s Lucky Strike cigarette TV ads and their mile-a-minute auctioneer selling tobacco leaves.
As you might imagine, the auction we produced had many shortcomings. Not the least of these was the fact that as an auctioneer, I was pretty miserable. But the promotion of the auction – the marketing - was pretty good. We thought big and by spending everything we had to advertise the event, the word got out. It didn’t hurt that the items were coming from our vintage Hamptons home, albeit having been placed in that home only a short while earlier. It was a true “estate” auction and the promotion focused on the home and its contents. (Most other “country style” auction advertisements contained impossible-to-see, tiny blurred images filling the ad space. Ironically, in efforts to include pictures of literally everything being sold, typically nothing ended up being visible.) We didn’t care for Michael’s antiques, but the audience did and the collection - to our very pleasant surprise - brought far more than the worth of the Rolls Royce we had traded for it. And although we didn’t even as yet have a name for our operation, we found ourselves in the auction business.
FLOATING QUILTS & POTATO CHIPS
Our auction of Michael Calter’s collection of antiques - the collection we traded our 1936 Rolls Royce for - went well. Not well enough for Barbara and I to quit our respective “day jobs” in advertising, but well enough to start thinking about running more auctions. We weren’t exactly certain what we might be offering - in truth, we didn’t have a clue - but the auction proved exciting, something we were capable of doing... and, it made us some money. To continue, we needed a company name. We were told by an old high school friend, who now, as a young attorney, was our occasional legal advisor, that New York State required twenty possible corporate names from which one would be chosen for our incorporation. A clerk for the State would start at the top of our submissions, and were it necessary, work his or her way down as names were eliminated because they conflicted with pre-existing ones on the State’s books. We agonized over coming up with our first choice. This was going to be a name that with some luck, perhaps a great deal, we might be living with for some time and hence, our selection was important. With the fear that someone might actually have had the nerve of also choosing our first choice (albeit at some previous time over the last several hundred years), we thought almost as long and almost as hard over our second choice. Certain that the clerk wouldn’t have to look beyond our number two, numbers three, four and five were arrived at more easily. And it continued this way until we exhausted every conceivable name we would like our fledgling business to be called. Our creative juices stopped flowing on number nineteen. Exhausted from the effort, we nevertheless had to come up with one more name or the forms couldn’t be submitted. Perhaps it was because of the serious way we had approached the selection of our earlier choices, but by the time we had gotten to this last one, we were ready to be somewhat silly. There was not a chance in hell that the state would find a reason to reject nineteen selections, so our twentieth was submitted by us as something of a joke. Always hating the cutesy sound of businesses titled from a combination of their owners names - Janbob Hairdressers, Leebill Pet Supplies, Dalejoy Automotive Products - our twentieth and final entry was Barlan Enterprises. “Bar” for Barbara, “lan” for the second half of Arlan. Although you may never have heard of the name Barlan Enterprises before, trust me when I tell you that that was the one we were told we would be called; our nineteen other choices - in our opinion, all far cooler than “Barlan” - had been rejected. So for more than four decades, our corporate name has been Barlan Enterprises. Quickly, we started thinking about a d/b/a... a name we could “do business as.”
When Barbara and I first started dating, we found ourselves often ending up at the model sailboat pond at 75th Street on the east side of New York City’s Central Park. A tranquil and, at times, bucolic setting amidst the chaos that is often New York, the pond was where old men went to sail model boats that, for the most part, they had built themselves. By closing their eyes a bit and dreaming, perhaps they were remembering earlier days when they may have actually been on board the schooners, clipper ships and sailing yachts, the often-exquisite models of which they were now sailing. In any case, we enjoyed going to this lovely place and spoke of sailing a model of our own. Prior to graduation, Barbara had the opportunity to finish her schooling in Spain, and she took it. She was to be gone about three or four months. I decided that I would take that time to build a sailing model that, upon her return, we could sail together. But although my intentions were pure, I had no idea how to actually execute them. This was to be no kit model one could buy at wonderful Polk’s, the fantastic hobby shop on Fifth Avenue near the Empire State Building that now, sadly, no longer exists. This was to be a model made from scratch like the many others that were stored in the museum-like building on the eastern side of the pond. I had a bright idea. Look for the finest model being sailed and introduce myself to the gentleman who had built it. With a little luck, he might be willing to instruct me. And so I did just that. And Stephen Tillwick was just as I might have hoped. Though elderly and somewhat frail, Mr. Tillwick built the most beautiful boats. And he was obviously delighted when I came to him for assistance, immediately offering me unlimited visits to his Bronx apartment where he would instruct me in the craft of model boat building. Three and four nights a week, I would go to his small, dark apartment where, on his fine work bench and under two or three unshielded light bulbs, he taught me what he could. There was a tiny shop, believe it or not, in the lower part of Manhattan (near Avenue A around 12th Street) that actually had miniature parts for models of this sort. One could craft the hull, taper the masts and booms, even sew the sails oneself. But the miniature turnbuckles and shackles and sheaves... these were things one couldn’t even conceive of making. The fact that there was actually a store that sold them was pretty special. Between Mr. Tillwick and the model shop, I built a schooner which, although we haven’t sailed her for many years, I still proudly display. I mention this story because while visiting with Mr. Tillwick, he would speak lovingly of where he grew up... on the Isle of Guernsey. The second largest of the Channel Islands, closer to France than to England in the English Channel, Guernsey instantly had great appeal for yours truly. With its natural and unspoiled rugged beauty, and a culture shared between the British and the French, what’s not to love? Night after night, Tillwick spoke of Guernsey, its 60,000 inhabitants, its capital St. Peter Port, even its rare and beautiful butterflies. During these special nights building a model, the notion of Guernsey as a fine and wonderful place became embedded within me. Which now leads us back to the naming of our new auction business.
We so disliked “Barlan Enterprises” that we immediately felt a need to come up with a working title, a d/b/a we could function under. Recalling how Mr. Tillwick’s description of his native island home always brought a smile to my face, Guernsey’s it was to be. And this was a decision I’ve never regretted. I have, on the other hand, regretted that in all my years (which have included a good amount of international travel), I’ve never visited that lovely Channel Island. And this, despite the fact that I once received an invite from a Guernsey government official. As he put it, “come visit a place that your auction house has helped put on the map!”
Recognizing, back then and true to this day, that the world’s most famous auction houses - Sotheby’s and Christie’s - operated out of substantial settings on Manhattan’s upper east side, we wanted to follow suit. If we were serious about going into the auction business, we wanted our home base to be that swath of land that included Park and Fifth Avenues; we wanted to be where much of the world’s wealth resided. One problem. Our respective day jobs provided barely enough for Barbara and I to get by, no less rent a cavernous space on the priciest island in the world. But then it occurred that one didn’t need a hall 24/7 if that hall was only to be used intermittently, only when an auction was actually being conducted. And so an idea hit us that has remained a signature of our events to this day. Rent a great space short term just long enough to set up and conduct a preview exhibition (one to three days), run an auction (one to two days), break down and get out (one day). Since making that decision decades ago, we have produced auctions in NYC’s legendary Madison Square Garden and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, on board an historic World War II aircraft carrier, under circus tents, on the grounds of the United States Open Tennis Tournament and within several of Las Vegas’ most famous casinos. Back in the 1970’s however, we just were hoping to find a stylish place in an upscale setting where we could conduct auctions of what we did not know. The auditorium of the handsome Unitarian Church, Lexington Avenue at 80th Street, fit the bill. Wth a great space available as necessary, we now had to figure out what to sell. And that’s when the notion of “country auctions in the city” struck. Despite New Yorkers’ sophistication, we had a sense that the kind of auction one might encounter on a Saturday morning in a small Kansas town might just work. Although we wouldn’t be pulling things out of a weathered, Midwestern barn, we could offer country furnishings and folk art created by largely untrained, but often extraordinarily imaginative country crafters. After all, it didn’t require brilliance to note that patinated weathervanes and vintage quilts were starting to show up on the pages of such chichi publications as Town & Country and Architectural Digest.
OK. We were going to run country auctions at a lovely NYC setting, but how did we get the stuff to sell? Enter one of the saddest, most unattractive vehicles set on four wheels; we bought a well-used van. “Well-used” is, in reality, a gross understatement. The thing was falling apart. And although I wish I could say that its exterior had redeeming features, I cannot. In many shades of tan and brown, the truck looked like it had been painted with a broom. But it moved. And with it, we could bring country things from the country to the big city. So what was the first thing I did with this beast? I painted “No. 37” on its side and parked it in front of Sotheby’s! Why did I do this? To put fear into the heart of the world’s largest auction house, why else? With Guernsey’s name and our logo of a pig on the door (I’ll tell you about the pig in a bit), the hope was that the mighty at Sotheby’s would know they had a new competitor in town. (Fat chance.) But going further, not only was there a new competitor to fear, there was a new competitor with a fleet of at least thirty seven vehicles! Did I really think this bit of tomfoolery would work? Never. But hey, we were young and it was fun.
Weekend after weekend, we drove ole No. 37 (yes, amazingly, it most often made it) out to Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County - more specifically, to Adamstown - where massive gatherings of antiques sellers would congregate. Markets with names like Renninger’s and Shupp’s Grove featured hundreds of dealers who would set up early in the morning to cater to other dealers from around the country. Did I say early in the morning? Let me re-phrase that… “featured hundreds of dealers who would set up late the night before.” Why would they do that? Because dealers being dealers, one wasn’t worth his or her salt if you didn’t get there early enough to beat out the competition. And so it went. When the opening time for the markets was billed at 8AM, dealers showed up at 7. To accommodate, start times would be revised to 7 only to have dealers arrive at 6. Eventually, this lunacy resulted in idiots (like us) showing up in the middle of the woods (Shupp’s Grove was just outdoor spaces in the middle of the woods) at 1 or 2 in the morning, with cash in one hand and a flashlight in the other. (The flashlight, of course, so you could hope to see what you were buying!) But there we were, buying every country thing we could find to fill an auction that (hopefully) would provide us with the funds to do it again, and again.
I make fun of those days, but you know, it worked. We had that Unitarian Church auditorium filled every time. We even ran a standing-room-only auction there at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve. And this being New York City, we did attract our share of celebs. The one who had the greatest impact on me? Ralph Lauren. Mr. Lauren was already making waves in the worlds of fashion and design, and hey, he was buying vintage quilts from us. Was it coincidental that we would see patterns in his designs similar to those in the quilts and samplers he purchased from us? Who knows? But if he did, more power to him. We loved Ralph Lauren’s work and felt honored were he to have used some of our offerings in his trend-setting creations.
To this day, I learn lessons at every event I produce. Back in the early days, I learned a lot of lessons. Case in point… my experience with a group of antique Oriental rug merchants. Over the decades, I’ve come to know and do business with some very knowledgeable, and very decent rug dealers. But in describing my first encounter with a particular group of such dealers, the adjective “knowledgeable” might be appropriate, but the word “decent” certainly does not apply. Let me explain. Many fine vintage homes filled with country furnishings sport Oriental rugs over wideboard Heart Pine floors. The look just works. And so it was that we reached out to several rug dealers to provide us with quality carpets to go along with the country antiques we were buying in the country and then selling in the city. Nothing could have been easier. A typical phone call would have gone something like this: Me “We’re having an antiques auction and could use some fine rugs in the sale.” Rug dealer: “How many would you like? I can have to you in an hour.” We indeed did run a few auctions that contained small sections devoted to antique Oriental rugs. And then we had an incident. The auction I’m referring to seemed to run smoothly. And then it ended. Unlike today where purchases often are shipped around the world, back in the Unitarian Church days, buyers were present, paid their bills, and left the hall - purchases in hand - by the end of the evening. I seem to recall having about two dozen rugs in that event. With the auction having just ended, we were locating items to hand over to their new owners. It was just then that a ruckus broke out in the back of the hall. A shouting and shoving match amongst several men suddenly broke out. Within a few moments however, the commotion ended. We didn’t know what had been the cause, but frankly, didn’t worry about it. The incident, whatever it had been, was over. We continued handing out purchases to their buyers.
After a number of the rugs had been handed out, we started noticing that some of the tags on the rugs didn’t match their catalogue descriptions. Quickly, we realized that we had been scammed. The commotion in the back of the room was generated by cronies of the rug dealers. While we were paying attention to the back of the hall, other dealers had come up to the area where the rugs were being stored and switched our auction tags. Due to this, someone could, and did, buy a cheap rug but leave with an expensive one. At the time, it was a tough lesson to learn. But fortunately, bad things like that haven’t happened to us very often. Most sellers, and buyers, have been a pleasure to deal with. There will always be exceptions, but we’ve been very lucky.
And then there was the short, sad saga of the upright piano with built-in candelabra. Barbara and my closest friends were a terrific couple by the names of Mallen and Bill. New York City people, they had a weekend home in a unique, historic community where, in time, we bought a true “fixer-upper.” Knowing that we would be conducting our next NYC auction in a few days, Bill suggested that we include an unusual upright piano with, as I noted above, built in candelabra. Of course I was delighted to be helping our good friends by selling this instrument and so, despite the fact that it weighed something in the vicinity of five hundred pounds, we were able to squeeze in onto a large rented truck to take it, and many other things into the city. The truckload arrived safely at the auction and the items were arrayed for the pre-sale exhibition. The piano did seem to attract attention but unfortunately, the top bid at the auction was a mere $200 or about forty cents a pound. We “passed” (did not sell) the piano although it did not have a “reserve.” (Arrived at by agreement between consignor and auctioneer, this is a pre-set minimum under which an auction item - or lot - will not be sold.) In other words, I instructed the auctioneer to pass over the item because the amount of the bid seemed unreasonably low. By law, we have that discretion. Around midnight, we packed the truck to return to the country setting from where we had departed that morning. The difference was that whereas the truck had been filled a dozen hours earlier, it was now virtually empty. Empty, that is, except for the piano. We had sold just about everything else. Using strong rope, we attached the piano to the tie-downs in the walls of the vehicle and left the city. About an hour and a half later, we arrived at the country setting. All seemed well. navigation the curvy the rural lanes of that community, I decided (for whatever reason) to drop the piano off at Bill’s house. Although he would likely have been asleep, we could lower it into his barn. He might be disappointed that we didn’t sell it, but he would be pleased that we didn’t “give it away for a measly $200.”
It was while I was thinking about this when I heard the big bang. Although this wasn’t the origin of our universe, it sure sounded that way. You guessed it; with nothing but the rope holding the piano to the truck wall, the curvy road and weight of the instrument did it in. In a well-packed truck, nothing moves around. In an empty truck, heavy objects - like a piano - can and do break free. Now imagine that piano pretending it was a billiard ball as it ricocheted within that truck. When, in the middle of the night and in total darkness, we arrived at Bill’s house, the largest identifiable elements from the piano were the keys. For all anyone could tell, everything else looked like half a cord of wood waiting for the fireplace. Not knowing what else to do, I dumped the remains on Bill’s porch, agonizing the coming morning. “You turned down $200! I paid $50 for the damn thing and was thrilled to be getting rid of it.” were Bill’s words. It took about a week or two before we could laugh about the incident.
Our auctions were proving to be wildly popular. In part, this could have been attributed to our unusual advertising campaign and strange choice of a logo. To match our “country auctions in the city” image, we wanted a farm animal as our “corporate” image. We chose a pig. Granted, we named our company after a beautiful island off the coast of northern France. And granted that one of the most popular breeds of cows in the U.S. is indeed the Guernsey. And yes, the fawn and white Guernsey cow originated on the island of Guernsey. So why didn’t we choose a cow for our logo? I truthfully don’t remember, but hey, we really did like pigs. So a pig it was. Along with the Guernsey’s name, a pig was painted on the side of No. 37. More importantly, the pig started appearing in our advertisements which were many. With a degree in marketing, I understood the importance of promotion. We spent everything we had to advertise our events. When larger, more established auction houses than we took half page and full page ads, we took two-page spreads. But it was more than size that mattered. Back then, if one opened the Maine Antiques Digest or Antiques & the Arts Weekly (aka the Newtown Bee), you likely would flip through page after page of ads chock-a-block full with black/white postage stamp-sized photos of objects coming to auction. Inasmuch as the dot pattern on newsprint doesn’t permit a small photo
to reproduce very well, half the time you didn’t know what you were even looking at. But what you did know was that the perhaps one hundred undecipherable images on the page in front of you were about as appetizing as a slice of pizza left out overnight. So you kept flipping pages. We took a different approach. Most of the time, our ads failed to include even a single photo. What they did include was a nineteenth century engraving of a pig with headings alluding to the notion that “the pig was rooting around for undiscovered treasures.” Out of context, one might think the ads non-sensical. But as more and more readers starting recognizing the pig as the symbol of Guernsey’s, the simplicity and uniqueness of the campaign started registering. And the people came to our auctions… in droves. I may have been liked by some, disliked by others. But the pig, everyone loved the pig!
The downside… try driving a van in the countryside with the name “Guernsey’s” painted on its side just below a large image of a pig. The catcalls from country folk claiming that we city slickers didn’t know that a Guernsey was a cow were relentless. Such is the price of success!
It was around 1980 and we were building a reputation. Our auctions were more becoming more professionally produced and we started honing in on what buyers wanted most; most, that is, in the world of country collectibles. High on the popularity scale back then were hand-stitched antique and vintage quilts. Indeed, you could open any style magazine or flip through the Sunday NY Times and you couldn’t miss the fact that these colorful, often charming creations were very much the rage. You could collect them, you could hang them on walls. Some were even so bold as to actually use them to cover their beds. Quilts indeed were the thing.
Amish Center Diamond Quilt
There were the Crown of Thorns, the Hovering Hawks, the Flower Basket and the Wild Goose Chase. Log Cabin quilts were popular as were the Double Wedding Rings. And then there were folk art examples with images that defied naming. The Baltimore Albums were quilt royalty while stark, sophisticated Mark Rothko-esque creations were created by none other than the Amish. Funny how a society that many would describe as antiquated has been responsible for such modern-looking visions. In New York, there were three or four accomplished, successful quilt dealers. We knew them all. But there was little, if any, quilt sales taking place at auction. So we took on that role. From auctions that might have included five or ten antique examples, we graduated into auctions that had nothing but quilts, auctions that had hundreds of them.
Log Cabin Quilt
Things were sailing along. I still kept my day job, but barely. All my spare time - nights and weekends - were spent preparing for our next auction. But then, suddenly, we hit a hurdle. The Unitarian Church auditorium was a great space terrifically located. And then came the summer. With our auctions coming monthly, we hit the wall when realizing that the auditorium was not air conditioned. The place was hot. Good in the winter, bad in the summer. “Summer” in NYC can be a lot longer than July and August. By pausing our events, we feared losing the momentum we had worked hard to gain. What to do? Barbara and I, and our sole full-time employee Sarah (we employed free-lancers as necessary) met in the pub on the ground floor of the Second Avenue walk-up that included our apartment above. Was there a way that we could continue producing auctions during the warm (i.e., hot) months. I offered up the ridiculous notion that we could conduct auctions on board the City’s Circle Line sightseeing boats which, of course, was immediately rejected. But with nothing better being suggested, we started considering floating auctions. Could this possibly work, who knew? But we agreed to look into it. The Circle Line features boats a bit more streamlined than your average ferry. There are both enclosed areas and much open space, all geared to allowing tourists to get great views of Manhattan from the water. As an island, the boats sail completely around the most wellknown of NYC’s five boroughs. Boarding on the Hudson River, you travel around Wall Street and the southern tip of the island (and of course, where, sadly, the World Trade Center used to stand). It is then past the Statue of Liberty before turning north up the East River and under the Williamsburg, Manhattan and landmark Brooklyn bridges. Traveling parallel to Manhattan’s east side, you pass the United Nations and the Mayor’s mansion before merging onto the Harlem River. Separating Manhattan from The Bronx, you skirt by Yankee Stadium and the ghost of the Polo Grounds which old time baseball fans knew as the home to the once glorious New York Giants. In the shadow of the mighty George Washington Bridge, you enter the Hudson River again, following the path that Sully Sullenberger was to reluctantly choose for his miraculous forced landing. OK, enough with the travelogue. Could we possibly hold a quilt auction on board a boat while cool evening breezes temporarily erased memories of the hot sweaty City just yards
away? Who knew, but in time we realized it was worth a shot. We struck a deal with the Circle Line and rented a boat for the evening. The event was to be weeks away. Perhaps it was the uncertainty (would anyone come?) of the concept, but we didn’t spend much to advertise the sale (er, the sail.) A day before the auction, something happened that was to become a Guernsey’s trademark, something that allowed me to stay in business forty three years and counting. I had always hoped that the media (newspapers, radio and TV - no internet back then), might notice us. Indeed, if we could get reporters and columnists to pay attention and create feature news stories about our upcoming auctions, we could reach audiences far larger than our paid advertising could come close to. But it hadn’t happened. Then Rita Reif wrote two sentences. For many years, Rita wrote the auction column for the New York Times. Although I didn’t know it at the time, she had a reputation for being impossibly demanding. Everyone vied for her attention, but few received it. Bombarded by literally every firm in the auction business, she could call her shots. Not knowing any better, I sent her a press release announcing our Quilt Auction on board a Circle Line vessel. The day before the auction, about thirty six hours before the ship was to set sail, the daily New York Times reached newsstands and the front doors of a vast number of subscribers. The Arts section of the paper was where museum news, gallery exhibitions and upcoming auctions were announced. It was where Rita Reif’s column appeared. Deep in that column - sandwiched between talk of auctions of Abstract Expressionist paintings and fine English furniture - was a two-sentence note: “A new auction house (I don’t recall if Rita even mentioned our name) will be holding a Quilt Auction on board a Circle Line Boat. Interesting!” So excited to see our event listed in the New York Times, I raced over to the legendary paper’s 44th Street building (which has since moved south) to deliver to Rita a dozen roses. Handing the flowers to the mailroom, clearly the roses got to Rita because I received an immediate phone message from the noted columnist. “If I ever sent her anything again, it would be the last time we would appear in that paper.”
Rita was tough, but she was scrupulously fair. And it wasn’t long before she became a friend. In the years to come, I’m sure it was the unique nature of many of our events that so often got Rita’s attention. The fact that I got to know her would never have factored in her decisions on what stories to run. You simply had to know Rita to know that that was true. In those days, we stored our equipment, and the auction items to be sold, outside the City. And so it was that on the morning of the Circle Line Quilt Auction, we were an hour north packing our gear and, of course, the several hundreds of quilts to be offered. We had no idea how many, if anybody, would show up for the 7PM launch time. We had no idea (if people indeed did show up) if picnic dinners would be carried on board following our advertised warnings that the hot dogs available on the boat were only marginally edible. We arrived at the 12th Avenue dock at 12 noon. We had hours of setting up quilt racks and auction gear ahead of us, along with paperwork to complete before the ship left the dock. When we pulled within view of the dock, I was struck with a sight that thrills me to this day. There was a line - a line! - of people extending from the River back towards 11th Avenue nearly about four city blocks distant. The boat held two hundred and fifty people. There had to be double that number already on line, and there were still hours to go before departure. Understanding that the Circle Line captain stood on the gangplank with a small clicker to count off boarding passengers, I did what I could. Somehow, I convinced him to essentially “look the other way” as approximately four hundred people jammed on board. In hind sight, of course this was potentially dangerous but as I’ve already said once or twice before in this book, I was “young.” Rita Reif’s words were magical as was the night. Elegant wicker baskets filled with caviar and Champagne were opened as the boat sailed under a moon filled night. The weather was perfect, as it was over every one of the follow-up years, as for nearly a decade we conducted summer quilt auctions on the water. Our customers loved the events, we loved the events. And thinking out of the box worked. We would follow new directions many times over the coming decades.
Famous Amos and David’s Cookies… designer food had arrived! So what does this have to do with auctions? Read on. If you recall, I mentioned that perhaps the most interesting, sophisticated quilts were those produced by the Amish. Broad, simple patterns executed in dark brooding colors… Amish
quilts were in a different world from the far sweeter, more wholesome-appearing efforts created by the rest of the quilting population. Perhaps not for everybody, the work by the Amish sure appealed to us. Now keep in mind that these were the days when we were still traveling to Pennsylvania to seek out quilts and other country treasures. During these excursions, we were repeatedly cautioned that attempted visits to Amish communities would certainly end in failure as the clannish people were well known to be stand-offish. But warnings like this hadn’t stopped us before, so venturing into cloistered Amish communities became part of our routine. Within time, we indeed made friends with folks in a small Amish community. We bought quilts from them and ordered bespoke furniture from Amish carpenters for our home. We even acquired (from an elderly woman in the Amish community of Arthur, Illinois) one of the finest antique Amish quilts known in the world today. Sewn in the nineteenth century and still in pristine condition, the black quilt with a brown/maroon bordered central star is nothing short of a masterpiece. It hangs in our dining room. When we visited with the Pennsylvania Amish, we had the pleasure (honor) of being invited to share meals. Whether midday or evening, the meals, served in their modest homes, were always a joy. And they always contained the most delicious potato chips. Thick, hand-cut and fished directly out of big black kettles that never seemed off the stoves, these chips were from a place far removed from the world of Wise and Lays, then the popular commercial chips. In time, an idea struck us. (Please remember that this was decades ago when names like Cape Cod Chips, Dirty Chips and dozens of other upscale potato products were not even a gleam in their founders’ eyes.) The Amish could make chips which we could market in the big city. Brilliant! And so, “Rusty’s Hand Mades” was born. Growing up, I had sort of had rust-colored hair so it was a natural that I would be called, you guessed it, Rusty. Although only remembered by friends from way back when, “Rusty” seemed to have the right sound for this all natural, delicious product. And so, despite the fact I was running auctions, and still had my “day job” in advertising, I was about to run a fledgling food company. Packaged in a simple cardboard box, these great Amish hand-made chips had little competition. We set up a display at Washington’s Fancy Food Show and wholesale food buyers lined up. Quickly, Rusty’s Hand Mades showed up on the shelves of Bloomingdale’s and Neiman Marcus. And Rusty (me) showed up as well, dressed in overalls and trying to look the part. Neiman ran a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal inviting one and all to “meet Rusty” at their upscale Westchester store. Buyers cued up for me to autograph the boxes. It was something else! The chips created something of a dilemma. Their sudden success was taking my limited time away from the auction business which was also going well. And then it was over. First it was one store, then a second, then an avalanche. The chips tasted lousy. At a loss to understand, it suddenly became clear that part of the reason that the chips were so great was that they didn’t have chemical preservatives necessary to extend their shelf lives. And indeed they were truly great when first boxed. But leave them on a store shelf for a few days and the party was over. Great turned into bad and the fun of the potato business went south.
Perhaps I could have stayed with the chips and worked out the problems. But the world of specialty foods really wasn’t for me. I was at home producing auctions. And for Guernsey’s, the world of big time auctions was about to open up.
ENDANGERED WOODEN HORSES
By early 1983, I had been conducting auctions off and on for about five or six years. Looking back, I doubt I ever referred to Guernsey’s as an “auction house” which was something I viewed as a substantial business entity. I was just a guy who, along with his girlfriend, was occasionally conducting auctions whenever we were able. We had some success (which kept us going), but not enough to “quit my day job”. It was on one of our many forays to central Pennsylvania hunting for quilts and other forms of American folk art to fill out auctions that all that was to change. While walking through the woods of Shupp’s Grove, we came across a husband and wife team of antiques dealers that we had casually gotten to know over the last several years. They had always been pleasant and we frequently purchased things from them for our countryin-the-city-styled auctions. When we approached their set-up (remember, Shupp’s Grove consisted of hundreds of roughly 10’ x 20’ clearings set well into the woods where antiques dealers set up their wares once a week during the mild months... some had tents, others were simply “open air”), they seemed truly excited to see us. “We’ve been watching the innovative way in which you conduct and promote your auctions, and think Guernsey’s would be the perfect firm to produce an auction of the collection of a friend of ours.” Naturally, we were grateful for the thought and anxious to hear what the collection consisted of. But when queried, the antiques dealers seemed hesitant. They stammered when they offered the following: “Don’t be put off by the fact that the objects in this collection aren’t currently worth anything. With your creativity, we’re sure things will go well.” “Not worth anything!” are hardly the words one wants to hear upon embarking on a business venture, but our friends went on. The collection their friend had consisted of old carousel horses... carved wooden figures he had gathered when he was a boy. Now, he was desperate to sell this collection and for a very good reason. His daughter had been in an automobile accident and was in the hospital. The family was underinsured and needed to raise funds any way they could to pay medical bills.
When, a day or two later, I returned home, I tried my best to research the world of carousels and the horses that rode upon them. Unfortunately, I was only able to find one book that included any serious reference to them at all and even that was obviously far from complete. When were these objects made? Who carved them? Were they made in America, or elsewhere? Other than this collection, did others exist? These are many other questions needed answering, but first I had to get a better handle on the collection tentatively being offered us.
When George was about twelve, he noticed some workmen dismantling and then torching whatever would burn from several old amusement park rides. He lived in Philadelphia, not far from an aging park that was attempting to improve business by replacing the older, less challenging rides with newer, more daring ones for a younger generation of thrill seekers. When the workmen started ripping apart the old carousel, he begged them not to burn the animals. (There were more than horses on the machine, but we’ll get into that shortly.) “Rather than destroy the carvings, can I have them?” They obliged, and in short order, George found himself lugging home these large and heavy wooden figures. Fortunately, an unused outbuilding behind his family’s home proved a convenient storage depot and that’s where the carvings were placed. The first few figures gave George the collecting bug and he spent much of his teen years searching for and acquiring - most often cost free - more and more carousel animals. By adulthood, his collection had reached ninety six figures and filled a large barn-like structure on the grounds of his south New Jersey suburban home. That was where I met him and where we laid plans for an auction after he confirmed that $30,000 was the target amount he needed to resolve his medical bills. At slightly more than $300 per figure ($30,000 divided by ninety six horses equals about $312), one wouldn’t have imagined us having a difficult time achieving his goal. On the other hand, even $300 might be viewed as a substantial amount to pay for carvings that not long before were routinely thrown into bonfires! Now naturally, anyone producing an auction would like to think that what they will be first marketing and then selling will be of some value... the greater, the better. Going into an auction where the items to be sold had no previously perceived worth, indeed had proven to be nothing more than kindling for a fireplace, was risky business. But we were young and besides, found the carousel animals fascinating. Some were beautiful, some had bizarre carved features, but they all seemed to deserve a better fate than the almost certain extinction they were facing. We agreed to go forward with an auction. It wasn’t long before we were introduced to a woman who was writing a book about carousel carvings and she immediately came on board as our expert. In exchange for promoting her soon to be released book, she would assist us in identifying the figures. Even still, there were times we had to do our own grassroots research, reaching out to the families of long-deceased
artisans who had crafted carousel animals as much as a century before. In time, I became something perhaps a little shy of an expert myself on this most interesting field. As it turns out, carousels finely hand crafted carousels, that is - were made in the United States starting in the 1880s and continuing through the end of the 1920s and the beginning of the Depression. In the “golden age” of the carousel, when an amusement park prided itself on the beautiful merry-go-round that graced its grounds, there were five thousand operating machines in the U.S. By the time I met with George in the early 1980s, that number had dramatically dropped to about one hundred and fifty. In other words, only three percent of the beautiful hand made carousels, carousels often sporting extraordinary carved decorations and magical band organs, had avoided the wrecker’s ball and survived the century. (Today, it should be noted, most carousel animals are made from molds out of some form of resin or aluminum.) The majority of the original carvers immigrated from Europe or had parents who had started there. In the end, it is generally accepted that there were nine carving studios. These studios produced anywhere from roughly twenty to sixty horses and other animals that rode each carousel. (It should be noted that any animal other than a horse is referred to as a “menagerie” figure, be it a lion or tiger, dog or cat, rabbit or goat or mythical sea serpent.) Some of the figures - jumpers - move up and down on brass poles, while others - standers - stay stationary. Interestingly, although most think of the jumper as the most typical of carousel figures, it is the stander that more often than not was the grandest. Standers tended to be outer row figures (carousels typically had from two to four concentric rows of animals) and it was the outer row standers that routinely were the most magnificently carved. After all, it was the outer row that attracted customers within the fairgrounds and when a given park or fair had several competing carousels, the public was attracted to the machine with the most extraordinary figures. Carousels were created in Europe prior to being built in the States and there were also a number created in Mexico. But for whatever reason, the very finest were carved in the U.S. I’m not quite sure why that was, but a quick review of the now many books produced on the field will reveal that the most beautiful and most realistic, the most imaginative and the most stunning, were all carved within the continental U.S. More specifically, the majority of those came to life not far from the shadow of the towering rides of America’s first great amusement park, Coney Island. American carvers have come to be grouped into one of three categories: the flamboyant Coney Island Style featuring the work of Charles Carmel, Marcus Charles Illions, Charles Looff and Stein & Goldstein; the elegant Philadelphia Style that came from the studios of Gustav and William Dentzel, Daniel Muller and the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC);
and the Country Fair Style as executed by Herschell-Spillman and C.W. Parker, primarily for smaller traveling carnival carousels. Within George’s collection, the wooden animals existed in essentially four different surface conditions. These were a. original paint as applied when they were first carved (by far the rarest condition); b. park paint, the paint annually applied by carousel owners in an effort to cover up the previous year’s wear and tear; c. restored, as in new paint applied (artistically or otherwise); and d. stripped, as in no paint. Collectors that sprung up from our first pioneering effort tended to prefer one surface condition over another. For example, some people only wanted the animals in a restored state, while antiques and folk art purists almost violently shunned restored or stripped figures. Then again, back when we first held carousel auctions, collectors of folk art categorically ignored (as in, look down their noses at) carousel carvings as being “commercially created”. It is therefore interesting to note that today, just about a quarter century later, outstanding carousel figures are often featured in the antiques show booths of the finest folk art dealers and in such prominent institutions as the American Folk Art Museum.
As preparations proceeded for the first-ever Carousel Auction, we found that efforts to attract the media were paying off. Some of the figures in the auction were charming, while others were wild and frenzied, but all were compelling objects made during a period of our nation’s history long since past. The fact that the vast majority were destroyed could be attributed to our capitalist system. Amusement park and carnival owners wanted rides that attracted the public. The leisurely pace of the carousel failed to challenge younger generations looking for thrills and so the merry-go-round became expendable. In settings where every square foot had to produce maximum revenues, the carousel made way to the Tilt-a-Whirls, Flying Carpets, Sizzlers, Zippers and Crazy Mouse rides that multiplied as fast as the advancing pace of amusement technology. But the media came to agree with our promotion focusing on the notion that these large, handsome and joyful figures deserved a better fate. They deserved to be preserved. And before we knew it, articles starting appearing in newspapers (The New York Times, for example, ran an exciting piece), while television stations started asking us to bring one or two of the carousel animals to their studios where they could be shot for feature stories. It was the first time that anyone could recall where the media jumped on board an auction bandwagon and helped promote an upcoming sale. (By the way, if you haven’t noticed it yet, I use the word “auction”, “sale” and “event” almost interchangeably. I do it for the simple reason that using auction over and over and over again can get awfully tedious.)
As we neared the date of the auction, George alerted me to a letter he had received from an antiques dealer from the South. The letter was clearly critical of us (it was downright libelous and insulting) and questioned our consignor’s decision to go with us. Now, I’m not above criticism; as an individual and as a company, we’re far from perfect. But this particular attack was baseless. Indeed, we hadn’t at that point been in business long enough to be as bad as the author of this letter suggested. I later learned that the person who wrote the letter, a person who I had never met nor spoken to and who had never participated in any of our auctions up to that point, was attempting to build a reputation for selling carousel animals himself. To his credit, he must have seen the same thing in these vintage figures as we had. It was simply his method of attempting to discredit us that was so unnerving. Unfortunately, this professional jealousy happens all too often amongst business rivals and like this particular person, is often driven by anger.
As I’ve already made clear, I had made a conscious decision to rent venues “as needed” for our events. Without a long and accurate schedule, and with the knowledge that one day we might be selling tiny lead soldiers while the next date might feature large, voluminous objects (like, for example, carousel horses), we had to seek out an appropriate setting in which to conduct the Carousel Auction. Although there were many large halls in outlying areas surrounding New York City that could be had for reasonable amounts, we not only wanted to be in the City but, more precisely, wanted to be in an affluent part of town. And that was hard to do. The truth was, in an area that often is described as the square foot by square foot most expensive real estate on Earth, finding a large hall was virtually impossible. Impossible that is, until we saw it staring us in the face. The Seventh Regiment Armory is a huge structure on Manhattan’s stylish upper east side. More precisely, it takes up a full square city block from Park Avenue to Lexington Avenue
between 66th and 67th Streets. Most New Yorkers refer to the grand building as the “Park Avenue Armory” or simply, “The Armory”. The Seventh Regiment lives in the history books as the first militia to respond to President Lincoln’s call for volunteers in 1861. Less than two decades later, the Armory designed to house that Regiment was built. The officially designated landmark structure has a 55,000 sq. ft. drill hall, an eighty foot tall barrel-vaulted, fully sky-lit ceiling. With some of the magnificent interior spaces designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, it was considered a marvel of engineering. Unfortunately, about a decade ago it was named as one of the world’s 100 most endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund. In 1983, it was a tired place. Other than occasional weekends devoted to the National Guard, the magnificent drill floor of the Armory was being used for tennis. The once truly glorious Tiffany-designed massive front rooms were falling apart. But the Armory had what we needed... its huge spaces were ideal for showcasing nearly one hundred wooden horses, tigers, deer, goats and an array of other wildlife that ranged from three quarter to full life-sized carvings. We rented it. Today, the Armory has very much come under the preservation spotlight. Restoring and preserving it is very much a labor of love for many New Yorkers. Barely a weekend goes by when the building isn’t filled with the finest art and antiques money can buy. For example, the very best antiques shows in America (and perhaps the world) - the Winter Antiques Show and the International Show - are annually held there. Rare books, modernist designs, art work on paper and a myriad of other genres of art and collecting interest are featured in their own glamorous showings at the Armory. Opening benefit previews for some of these events command $1,000 ticket prices just to get in. And you don’t even get a single antique anything for that money! But you do have a chance to mingle amongst New York’s most affluent in a fully transformed Armory filled (in addition of course to the antiques, collectibles and art) with breath-taking floral displays, Champagne and the best hors d’oeuvres you ever ate. But as I noted earlier, when we moved into the Armory, it dark and forbidding. The carousel animals brought it to life.
George’s collection naturally included horses. I don’t know what the actual percentage of horses versus menagerie animals ever carved is but my guess is that for every menagerie animal, there were eight or nine horses. 90% horses, 10% other would be my guess. With the collection we were selling, the ratio was more like 75% horses, 25% menagerie animals. There were also a number of “chariots,” which is fanciful name given to heavily decorated benchstyled seating (most carousels had two of them) for those not daring enough (or not able) to ride the animals. Like the animals themselves, the chariots had most of their decoration carved into one side. Known as the “romance side”, this was the side that faced out to the public. Logic dictated; after all, what would be the sense of elaborately carving the inner
side of a horse that faced the central core of the carousel... the side the public didn’t see? Not that this is some ground shaking revelation, but this carved-on-one-side-only fact and the additional fact that all carousel animals carved in America rode on their carousels with their heads to the right are amongst the little known information one picks up when producing thematic auctions. You can’t help but become knowledgeable in areas you never dreamed of. (English animals, by the way, faced left. Just thought you might like to know.) In addition to the animals and chariots were a wide variety of rounding boards, shields and mirrors. Carved in beautiful shapes and vividly painted, these were attached overhead on the outside of the carousel and to the center core which hid from public view the strong center pole from which the entire mechanism was suspended. Virtually all of the animals had carved “trappings” decorating their flanks, necks and hind quarters. Ranging from swords and weapons of many descriptions to roses and other gentler designs, the rule of thumb was fairly simple: the more trappings an animal had, the more valuable it likely was. Amongst the most extraordinary horses were the ones created by Charles Carmel and then decorated - with “jewels” - by M.D. Borelli. A poor Italian immigrant, Borelli ended up building carousel platforms while adding extraordinarily imaginative decorations to the animals placed on his superstructures. Borelli’s jewels were in reality, colorful glass beads. But whereas others also occasionally used this glass here and there, Borelli covered his animals with them. The overall effect was stunning. Although extremely rare, George’s collection contained about ten Carmel/Borelli creations.
Following two days of public previewing, the auction was upon us. Although it was extremely nerve-wracking - despite the fact that the event was generating a great deal of press - we were still conducting the first auction ever in a field that had no track record for any prior sales. We were flying blind. Pretty much all our monies were invested in this, the largest scale and most complex event we had produced to date; and it was scary. Among the many expenses was the first proper auction catalogue I had ever created. If I guessed wrong, this could easily have been the last auction I ever produced. Fortunately, I guessed right.
The carousel figures were displayed in the Armory’s Clark Room, and Tiffany Room, plus the long and wide hall between them at the Park Avenue end of the building. Although the enormous drill floor would have been far more spacious, it wasn’t available. As it turned out, that was a blessing in disguise.
Although each of the aforementioned rooms we were using were large (they measured 40’ x 50’ with very high ceilings plus each had a sizable ante room), the carousel figures arranged there for the preview quickly took up most of the space. For the auction itself, we emptied out the Clark Room (this handsome wood-paneled club-like setting has been used in many motion pictures) and filled it with chairs. Unlike our auctions today where the lots being sold are projected on large screens through a powerpoint presentation, in those days we brought the items - one by one - up to center stage when they were being sold. This is easily accomplished when we sell vintage wristwatches, historic baseballs and other small items; it is much more difficult when handling large, heavy, awkward and sometimes fragile carousel animals. It is far more difficult still when every inch of the auction room, entrance area and adjacent hallways are filled with people. Which was exactly the case with this Carousel Auction. Picture the people jammed into Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Now move that image to an indoor setting and you have the near chaotic goings-on for this event. The Clark Room was so crowded, moving the carousel figures in and out was difficult, to say the least. But although this proved something of a logistical nightmare, it was wonderful for the overall auction. With every seat and all the standing room taken, bidders were almost fighting to get in from just outside the hall entrance. Feeling that they were missing out, these “outside” bidders were frantically waving their arms in an effort to attract the auctioneer and bid. Although we didn’t plan it this way, this overcrowded scene encouraged bidding. Had we been on the drill floor and had all the room in the world, I doubt prices would have been as strong. The lesson learned was clear... when holding an auction, it’s better that the space you’re working in is a little too small rather than far too big.
For the life of me, I can’t find a “prices realized” sheet from that event. Therefore, I can’t for the most par recall individual prices that the figures sold for that evening. The prices realized sheet is simply a listing of the prices actually achieved at an auction and distributed sometime later. Many like to include this sheet with the auction catalogues they save. It serves to remind collectors and other interested parties what actually happened months, years, and
even decades before. This is particularly handy when considering a purchase from a seller other than an auction house. One further note. I’ve always found it curious when people call - and some do - asking for prices realized when they hadn’t even acquired the associated catalogue! Without that book, the prices realized sheet is meaningless. It is simply a list of prices corresponding to lot numbers. There are no descriptions, pictures or anything else to indicate what people paid good money for. Now, to the auction. The first lot was a restored carousel pig that had been carved in the Philadelphia Style by the Dentzel Studio, circa 1912. To the best of my recollection, that figure brought roughly $11,000 (or about thirty seven times the $300 amount the figures had to average to meet George’s goal) and the race was on. Smaller middle and inner row horses (that had far less in the way of decorative carving) brought between four and six thousand dollars while more impressive outer row figures were bringing three times those amounts. The top lot in the auction was a remarkable figure unlike any other in the auction or any other I’ve seen ever since. Surprisingly, it was not carved by one of the great carvers who produced carousels for large amusement parks. Rather, it was carved by Allan Herschell as part of the Herschell-Spillman Studio from N. Tonowonda, New York which was primarily known for producing smaller, less impressive figures for traveling carousels. The carving was a massive polar bear that weighed in at something approaching five hundred pounds. It was a wonderful animal that I think would have held great appeal even from those who couldn’t have cared less about carousels. The big bear brought $27,500 which, by virtue of being the top lot in the first carousel auction, constituted the world auction record for a carousel figure. Interestingly, this very same polar bear was re-consigned to us about a decade later. On its second go-around, it sold for more than $100,000 which at the time was a new world record! The overall auction generated just about a million dollars. And although the million dollar mark is one that we and a number of other auction houses routinely reach and often exceed these days, back in the early ‘80s, it was a big deal. It was particularly noteworthy given the untested, previously unloved nature of these wooden carvings that only years earlier had barely escaped a scorching fate. Needless to say, our consignor George was overjoyed. The day following the Auction, I quit my day job.
Our consignor did well. And I did well. But there were far greater implications from this unique sale. I’ve already told you that the number of existing carousels had dramatically dropped from 5,000 machines during the “golden age” of the carousel back a hundred years ago, to the roughly one hundred and fifty machines that existed at the time of our first carousel auction.
Looking back, my clear sense is that most of those hundred and fifty would now be gone had it not been for our sale. The auction, accompanied by strong media support, alerted the public to the fact that these joyful, artistically crafted objects were very much part of national heritage. As such, they needed to be preserved. Today, there are actually more antique carousels than there were a quarter century ago at the time of the auction. How is that possible? With a vastly increased interest in these devices, aging machines, in some cases located disassembled in old barns and warehouses, have been discovered and resurrected. Whereas then there had been one book that included a single chapter devoted to the carousel, today there are many terrific and comprehensive books. Museums devoted exclusively to the carousel have sprung up, while prominent existing ones, including our National Museum, the Smithsonian, contain actual carousels and carousel figures. Please forgive me for taking a certain pride in the fact that our commercial auction event, held more than a quarter century ago, helped provide a spark that has led to the preservation of these beloved objects. It also led to some nasty business.
About two weeks after the Carousel Auction, I received a multi-page letter. On blue-lined notebook paper, it was written with a shaky hand. It appeared to have a few dried water drops (or tear stains) on it. The author - Lloyd Smith - described himself as an aging grandfather who was losing his sight. As he put it, he had only one true wish left in his life... to see his grandchildren go to college. With the family otherwise lacking tuition, this old man wanted to fund the schooling of his grandchildren by the sale of the only things he had of value... a collection of antique carousel figures! As many others had, he read the news reports of our auction and its extraordinary results. Realizing that like George, he also had a - now valuable - carousel collection, he contacted me. And with Guernsey’s first big auction success just recently tucked under my belt, I was thrilled by the contact and eager to meet with him. (Today, I would almost always ask to see photographs first, but this was a different time and my enthusiasm sometimes spoke louder than my good sense.) He lived about a three hour drive from NYC, out near where New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania all converge. Within about a day, I was in my car and on my way to see him. I remember clearly as I pulled up to his home set back from the rural road by about fifty yards. Still in my car, I saw the door open and a thirty-something year old man almost spring from it. He bounded towards me across the lawn. Just as I was rolling down my window, he enthusiastically called out “Arlan”.
It wasn’t his familiar tone (I encourage people to call me by my first name) that caught me off guard; it was how it seemed like he knew me that got my attention. Before I had the time to even assume that he was a relative or friend of the old man coming to greet me, he said something like “It’s me, Lloyd.” I was two thirds out of my car when he said this. It sort of stopped me mid-step. What I was hearing didn’t make sense. I had just driven three hours to meet a man who might well be in a wheel chair, or at best, was barely able to get around. Losing his sight and way up in years... this Lloyd was neither of these. Before I had time to wonder if this was Lloyd Junior or Lloyd III, he urged me to follow him around the back of the home. There, for all the world to see, were three men working within the threshold of a small barn. They spoke Spanish and from all outward appearances, looked like they may have come to this Country from South America. Two of them were carving. One of them was, for lack of a better word, chaining. Well let me tell you folks, they weren’t carving religious icons or baseball bats. They were carving horses that looked like crude versions of what we had just sold. As for the chainer, he had a large black chain in his hands and he was whipping the chain across the girth of several other carved horses lying on the ground. Dumfounded by what I was seeing and before I could speak, Lloyd jubilantly informed me that it was he who had written the letter. The story about being old and nearly blind... all concocted. His objective: to get me out to this place and “allow” me into his scheme. “As you can plainly see” he was saying “I can make carousel horses all day long. And I can make them look old and distressed (through, of course, the chaining). The only thing he lacked was someone who could sell them for a lot of money.” As he saw it, I was obviously his boy. This was my introduction to the flip side of the coin, the seamy underworld of fakes and frauds. In his mind, Lloyd would have had me produce auction after auction selling his new carvings as genuine vintage figures. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Over the next several months, I started noticing advertisements this character was running. Sometimes he called these carvings antiques, other times he pranced around the word. But certainly one would get the impression from reading his ads that these were genuine. I began a one man campaign to see Lloyd stopped, including appearing on a network investigative-style television show. After a year or two, I stopped seeing his ads. But for the longest time - at least a decade - I would be contacted about once a month by someone who “found” a vintage carousel horse and either bought it or was planning to buy it. They wanted
my opinion regarding its worth. Some suggested that they would be buying it to only turn around and offer it to us to auction. When they told what part of the Country they found it in (Lloyd had developed a network of “antiques” shops he was selling his fraudulent junk through), I knew - without even seeing the photographs what was being spoken of. When pictures arrived, they almost always confirmed my suspicions. If it wasn’t the inferior carving that was the tip-off, it was the curious green-painted bases that he included with these figures. They were a dead giveaway.
Although over the years I’ve found most people to be honorable, there are always the Lloyds of the world to muck things up. Being vigilant and somewhat suspicious (which is very much against my nature) is the way one must be when dealing in the vast array of art, antiques and collectible objects that Guernsey’s has become known for. It’s simply a sad fact of life.
CHAPTER 4 PART 1 THE SS UNITED STATES ...A MONUMENTAL SAIL For a Manhattan boy growing up in the 1950’s, the SS United States, projecting out into the Hudson River from the City’s Westside, was nothing short of a marvel. The third largest ocean liner ever built, the ship was perhaps best known for its remarkable, world record-setting speed. Designed and constructed at the half-century mark and prior to passenger jet transport, speed counted. And the ship that owned the coveted Blue Riband – the trophy awarded the vessel that most swiftly crossed the Atlantic - was the one that many sophisticated travelers chose. At an average of forty-two knots blistering across that miserable, savage body of water (seventeen knots faster than the previous record holder, the Queen Mary), this was then - and still is - as fast as it got. At a thousand feet long and seventeen decks tall, it was a wonder that it could move at all. Indeed, the SS United States was a floating city. It had eight hundred staterooms, four dining rooms, a ballroom, five lounges, three smoking rooms, a writing room, a library, two movie theaters, two main galleys (kitchens) and many secondary galleys, a gymnasium, indoor swimming pool, auto garage, fully equipped hospital, substantial kennel for pets and eighteen elevators. there were locksmiths, tailors, printers (its magnificent menus for each meal were printed on board), beauty parlors and barber shops. Speed and safety were the two qualities most sought after by William Francis Gibbs, who - having been born into money - had been dreaming about building this ship since childhood nearly six decades earlier. Fortunately, one material - aluminum - met both of his demands. The lightest of suitable metals (it was said that more aluminum was used in the ship that in any city on earth at the time), it allowed the ship to move right along. And aluminum couldn’t burn. Conveniently, aluminum also lent itself wonderfully to the late 1940’s / early 1950’s art Moderne design of virtually everything on board.
And virtually everything on board was in fact made of the metal. Just as the hull was, so were all the interior walls. But the use of aluminum went way beyond that. The chests of drawers, chairs and desks were made of aluminum. The staircase railings and wall sculptures were of aluminum. Even the paintings on the stateroom walls, created by many of the leading artists of the day, were painted on aluminum panels. The first advertisements for the ship promoted the fact that only the butcher blocks in the galleys and the eighteen Steinway pianos were made of wood. (And Steinway was propositioned to create aluminum pianos but refused.) Lightweight aluminum was one of the reasons why the SS United States was so fast; the most powerful engines ever built (their 240,000 horsepower was not eclipsed until the Saturn moon rocket of the late 1960’s) was the other. In truth, the propellers that took the ship’s immense power and pushed her through the waves get a large part of the credit. What made these propellers so special remained a secret until well after the ship left service. And left service she did. Launched in 1952, her last voyage was in 1969. The SS United States travelled between New York and Southampton, England. Her glamour attracted royalty - the Duke and Duchess of Windsor liked her so much that they, and their pugs, stayed in the “Duck Suite” (named for the gold leaf wall paintings of Mallard ducks) so often that it essentially became their own. American royalty came in the form of Jacqueline and John F. Kennedy and, of course, all the presidents who served during her years of operation. and although Cary Grant, Bob Hope, John Wayne, and countless others enjoyed the melodies of three Meyer Davis Orchestras, the many charms of the great ship were not enough to keep her going. Many believe that the introduction of transatlantic jet service was the death knell for ocean liners, but in the case of the SS United States, it was labor union strife on the New York waterfront that did her in. Although she always sailed to capacity, the troubles on the docks were so great (see On the Waterfront, Marlon Brando, 1954) that the ship’s owners - U.S. Lines - suddenly and unexpectedly took her out of service on an annual cleaning in Norfolk, Virginia (not far from the Newport News shipyard where she had been built.) Under the thuggish demands of the dockworkers, she just wasn’t profitable. Normally, when a ship leaves service, the wrecking yard quickly follows. That, or wretched stints in some of the more stinking harbors of the world. But in the case of the SS United States, life was to be different. For no sooner had she left service than the United States Government stepped in. Having subsidized the building of the ship by providing partial funding for its private owners, the Pentagon realized that its size and speed, coupled with the fact that it was fireproof, made it ideal as a potential troop carrier in time of national emergency. Rooms
that had accommodated couples preparing for white tie dinner dances would now be capable of holding sizable numbers of troops being ferried to battle zones. And so the SS United States was prepped. Strangely enough, nothing on board able to be moved was moved. things stayed exactly in place. Desks, beds and dressers remained in place just as linens remained in their linen closets. Paintings remained fixed to the walls (nothing hung loose) while massive amounts of silverware remained in their vaults. Even the crewsâ€™ outfits, left in their closets with expectations of being returned to service only a week later, remained hanging limply in the crewsâ€™ quarters, deep below the water line. From the linen to the lifeboats, nothing changed. Except now, a different crew came on board. Government technicians swarmed over the ship, installing massive amounts of interior dehumidification equipment. Others hung from ropes with steaming buckets in hand, painting the crevices between porthole and frame with tar. In this way, thousands of exterior openings - openings that would have allowed the damp sea air in - were sealed. And there she sat, the SS United States - once the glory of the American fleet - now more like a floating tomb. To the observer able to get clearance to approach the ship at Norfolkâ€™s naval facility, she looked like hell. The tar may have sealed up the inside, but nothing was done to protect the outside of the ship. Paint from her massive black hull, her shivering white superstructure and enclosed promenades and the red and blue from her signature pair of smoke stacks peeled terribly. (Ocean liner buffs could easily identify her at the horizon by her two raked and enormous stacks.) Four men took eight-hour shifts 365 days a year stationed in a single small room just inside the ship where one of the gangplanks entered. A small space heater provided minimal warmth while a few light bulbs ran off long extension cords coming from shore. The staterooms and crews quarters, the dining halls and galleys, the beauty parlor and veterinary hospital, and the endless corridors that ran the full length of the ship down its spine all were in total blackness. She stayed in this condition for fourteen years.
During the early spring of 1984, I attended a cocktail party within the magnificent halls of one of the great Tuxedo Park mansions, I heard a rumor about the ship. The SS United States, the ship I loved passing as a boy, was about to be towed out to sea for the purpose of dumping her contents. Tuxedo Park, an hour north of New York City and once described as the wealthiest community on earth, was where I had a weekend home. Far short of a mansion, the property I owned was nevertheless architecturally fascinating, including a courtyard full of Tudorstyle stone stables built a century before... and in a state of virtually total collapse. Tuxedo Park had seen better economic times but the descendants of old money still had their stories.
And so it was that this other lady, the one formerly shining in the finest aluminum, had lost her luster as well. It was a Tuxedo Park story. Big money... gone. Intrigued by the mention of the Big U (that’s what her fans called her), I listened to this sad tale. The teller was affiliated with a Hawaiian-based consortium which had (amazingly) acquired the ship from the Government with the plan to convert her from this once-glorious ocean liner to the world’s grandest cruise ship. They were going to create a “love boat” like no other. In her original life, the SS US had once made it through the Panama Canal. It was certainly off her normal New York - United Kingdom route, but on rare occasion she deviated. The ship made it through the Canal, but just barely. (It was said that there was a spot where side clearance was inches.) With that voyage as inspiration, the reconfigured ship was to travel from America’s west coast, south through the Canal and then northward to the U.S.’s east coast. Her extensive network of enclosed promenades (designed to protect travelers who couldn’t possibly walk on an unprotected open deck during one of the frequent North Atlantic storms) were to be replaced by open decking. Outside swimming pools were to be created to supplement the one single pool five decks below the water line. And this once thoroughbred of a ship was to hobble along using only a quarter of its unprecedented power. After all, there was no rush when cruising through the Caribbean. As this gentleman spoke of the future of the ship, he spoke of an entirely new interior... art Moderne, that slick replacement for art Deco, just simply didn’t work for relaxed cruising. So all the furniture, all the artwork, all the everything was going to be thrown out. Even the lifeboats and navigational equipment on the bridge were going to find a watery grave two hundred miles out to sea.
“About the most foolish idea I’d ever heard of,” was how I put it to the fellow at the Tuxedo Park party, and again to the ship’s owners who I asked to be put in touch with. “Why spend millions (it was going to take a crew of hundreds) to dismantle the ship and throw its contents overboard when the material could be sold?” As I saw it, countless ocean liner buffs and the many thousands who sailed on the SS United States would be likely buyers. Why not conduct a major auction that would potentially bring in millions (as opposed to spending millions)? Plus, there would be an important added benefit. The enormous publicity the auction would likely generate could be used to promote the ship in its new configuration. The concept met with immediate enthusiasm and I was encouraged to visit the ship where it was moored in Norfolk, Virginia. One phone call to auction columnist Rita Reif at the Times (author’s note: there will be extensive reference to Rita Reif in at least one earlier
chapter) and I had a traveling companion. When Rita and I got to the ship, it was a sad sight. Indeed, it seemed like there was barely an inch where the paint wasn’t peeling. Hiking up the gangplank, we were met by a gentleman stationed in the previously described fifteen by fifteen foot office on board. He was quick to mention that only about ten people had gone beyond this office and into the ship proper over the last decade. Armed with flashlights (there was no electricity on board), we embarked. Imagine looking down what appeared to be an endless, pitch black, narrow hall and one might begin to get a sense of how the many passageways on the SS United States looked. Intimidating in their one thousand foot length under normal lit conditions, in total darkness they were terrifying. One immediately, and completely, lost one’s bearings. Due to the government’s installation of dehumidification equipment, the dryness was palpable. When we did find our way to exterior rooms with natural light, the effect of the dehumidifying effort struck our other senses. Keeping in mind that the decision to remove the ship from service was a sudden one, food remained in some sinks. Remarkably, sitting there for nearly a decade and a half in the dryness, it looked preserved. There was no visual evidence of spoilage. And when we entered a room where plans of the ship were laid out, there was a heavy smell of cigar smoke. We later learned that years before, cigars had indeed been smoked in that space by visiting engineers. With nowhere for the air to go and with nothing pushing it along, it seemed like the smoking had taken place only hours earlier. Most importantly, walking around the ship truly felt like being encased in a time capsule. Dishes, linens and silverware - by the tens of thousands of pieces - were precisely where they belonged. Staterooms were awaiting their next guests. Fabric coverings, from such fine firms as Scalamandre, remained crisp. Even the crew’s uniforms were freshly laundered and awaiting to be donned. The 1950-state-of-the-art the Chelsea clocks, engine telegraphs, radar consoles and helm’s wheel seemed ready to jump back into life. Raised aluminum sans serif lettering pointed the way up or down, forward or aft to any of the multitude of amenities one could partake in aboard. It certainly wouldn’t have been hard to conjure up the sounds of the Meyer Davis Orchestra as couples in all their elegance entered the First Class Dining room. (The SS United States was the last to be a three-class ship, with approximately the same number of staterooms dedicated to First, Cabin and tourist Classes.) Even Rita Reif, with her decades of experience describing fascinating collections to her legions of New York Times subscribers, was somewhat overwhelmed by what lay before us. Purely and simply, it was as massive and complete an assemblage of dedicated material as might ever come to auction. Back in New York, Guernsey’s proposal for a major auction was submitted to the ship’s owners. Silence. Days, and then weeks, passed without a word. And then the phone call came that was to ultimately set our corporate ship on course... to put Guernsey’s on the map. But the call didn’t start on a good note. The owners telephoned to say that they had presented our proposal to Sotheby’s and Christie’s - well known as the world’s two oldest and largest auction houses. If the concept was as great as we made it out to be, they reasoned, it certainly warranted the greatest and largest auction houses in the world to deal with it. And Guernsey’s, as they saw it, with only a few years under our belt and less than a handful of employees, could hardly be expected to be up to the task. Without apologies for taking our idea elsewhere, we were told that the other two firms
questioned whether or not the project could be produced even if there were ten years in which to pull it off. When they were informed that there would be a total of three months in which to inventory this remarkable body of material, produce a catalogue, market the collection around the nation and around the world, and then conduct an auction all in ninety days, they laughed. Impossible. Ridiculous. It could not be done. And so the owners returned to us. Upon hearing that they had taken our idea elsewhere, I became livid. What nerve. The threemonth window of opportunity didn’t even dawn on me (this was the first mention of that minimum length of time) as I was so incensed by the chutzpa of these people. For about fifteen seconds I seethed. And then I began to calm down. We were being offered a shot at the big prize. Who cared about the owners’ ethics, business was business and we were being offered our chance. Thinking back upon that telephone call twenty-five years ago, I don’t recall even thinking about whether we could pull this off within three months. I just remember saying that “we’ll do it.”
In short time, it became clear why we were only given three months for the project. It had been discovered that when the ship was built with all the aforementioned aluminum, there was another substance also liberally utilized. All of the interior walls of the ship, all the furniture, virtually all of everything on board consisted of two thin (roughly one sixteenth of an inch) aluminum sheets sandwiching a thin slice of what looked like cardboard like one would find in a Chinese hand laundry. Only it wasn’t cardboard. This innocent looking material proved to be asbestos. And in 1984, the revelation of asbestos as a carcinogen was fresh upon us. Just mouthing the word put the fear of god in us all. The fact that the asbestos on board the SS United States was well contained within its aluminum casing and not a cause for great concern was meaningless at the time. As the ship’s owners saw it (or, better put, as the regulators who oversaw the re-emergence of the ship for passenger use saw it), the asbestos had to be removed. Now not too many people within our native shores were thrilled with that assignment, so the ship’s executives looked elsewhere. They found a willing crew amongst the people of Haiti. The Haitians, as one of the poorest peoples on earth, essentially would take on any work they could find. And so it was scheduled that following the auction, the SS United States was to be towed to Haiti for the purpose of asbestos removal. Following its tour of Haiti, the glory of the American fleet was to be towed to Hamburg, Germany for a complete refitting. It turns out that the Germans gave a price quote for the refurbishing that was substantially lower than the quote from the folks on the Newport News docks where the ship was built. So off to Germany from Haiti.
It should be noted that the reason the ship was to be towed to Haiti and then Germany was the same reason why the auction we produced was not in New York City. We had argued that as New Yorkers, we should hold the event in the Big Apple. After all, NYC was - and remains the auction center of the planet. Furthermore, although the ship was built in Virginia, it sailed from New York. And passengers tend to have more to spend than welders and rivetters. But the enormous steam-driven turbines of the SS United States that created all that horsepower (240,000), hadn’t rotated in a decade and a half. And although the ship never had a serious mechanical malfunction with its engines throughout its seventeen year run across the high seas, starting them up after all this time was problematic. As so it was decided that when the ship was to be moved, from the U.S. to Haiti and then on to Germany, it was wiser to tow it than attempt to power her up. Bringing her to New York City’s harbor, therefore, would have required another tow. But with the tricky nature of the waters surrounding Manhattan island, towing represented an insurance nightmare no one wanted a piece of. And so the auction, which probably should have been held in NYC, was held in Virginia.
Following preliminary preparations, our effort to produce the auction of the contents of the SS United States began in earnest on July 11, 1984. The setting for our activities was the Norfolk International Terminal, Norfolk, Virginia. We worked on and next to the ship. Ninety days later, on October 8, the first day of a seven-day auction was held. It proved to be the largest auction (in terms of numbers of items sold) ever held. Here’s how it unfolded. For starters, words cannot truly describe standing next to this thing. We’ve all been towered over by skyscrapers. And as skyscrapers go, at the height of seventeen stories, this one wasn’t all that big. But now imagine that this was a skyscraper one thousand feet - well more than three football fields - long. And then picture it with the thought that you, and some of your friends, have been given the task of taking it apart! And you’re not even an engineer or in construction!! Daunting. At first, we thought we caught something of a lucky break. The time in which we were given to produce the event was in the summer. That meant that there were college students off for the summer and possibly available for this seasonal employment. We guessed right, and a quick ad campaign for people to catalogue (the auction word for taking an inventory) was fruitful. Students lined up by the droves for the chance to work on the greatest passenger ship our nation had ever built. Unfortunately, we had not considered the fact that there was no time to attempt to remove the tar sealing the portholes and entranceways on board. The ship was sealed essentially airtight.
Now factor in that the Big U had a big (enormous) black hull (black being the operative word here. the black painted hull soaked up the sun’s rays both directly and as they reflected off the water. With this being the summertime in a reasonably southern latitude, the air temperature was already up there. Mix in the sealed ship and the solar absorption and you have a perfect equation for a floating, roasting tomb. “Hot as hell” was never better used to describe working conditions. Some said it was 120 degrees on board, some said more. Frankly, looking for a thermometer was not top priority. Keeping employees was. As quickly as students lined up at one gangplank to enter the ship, a second gangplank was filled with students leaving. In short, no one would work in the unbearable heat on board. Here we were, barely a day into the project and panicking. How often I’ve found myself over the years asking what a textbook would say about such a situation only to realize that there is no textbook written about creating unprecedented large-scale auctions. One of these days, we may have to write just such a book. In any case, as we ourselves were ready to jump overboard, someone came up with a brilliant - or insane - idea. (twenty-five years later, I don’t have a clue whose concept this was.) The concept: for employees, I should look to a nearby halfway house being lived in by people recently released from prison - recent ex-cons. With this thrilling prospect in mind, I met with the halfway house’s Director. After he stopped laughing (which was quite a while), he asked if I was crazy. He viewed hiring these people to count silverware as somewhat akin to inviting a bull into a china shop. A big bull into a small, crammed china shop. He reminded me that a good percentage of those living under his roof had been incarcerated for theft and felt we would be lucky if we were left with half the items we started out with by the time the auction came around. Whether I listened to his words carefully, or not... it didn’t matter. We had a job to do and we had to make do. And so it was that the next day, two hundred new employees - all ex-cons – showed up bright and early for work. Now perhaps their former living quarters were just as hot, or perhaps their desperation for work simply won out, but they set to doing what they were asked and did it without complaint. Looking back on the project, working with those people proved nothing short of thrilling. We worked side-by-side seven days a week, sun up to sundown. Many nights, we shuttled over to a nearby beach for campfire dinners. Friendships were made that, in a few cases, remain to this day. That every one of these people was black may indeed have said something about our judicial system back then in the South. You had to wonder how many of these hard working folk had been railroaded into prison. In any case, they did a remarkable job on this project and we will be forever grateful.
Looking back now, it’s easy to say that the cataloguing process went seamlessly, but I’m sure it didn’t. On the other hand, there were no major catastrophes. The number of items recorded was astounding. Consider that the ship accommodated two thousand passengers and one thousand and fifty crew. It almost always sailed to capacity. To give a sense of the volume of material, consider the silverware. Although not Sterling, the service was the highest quality silver plate (extra heavy hotel plate Silver Service marked “U.S. Lines 52”) made by International Silver to the “Manhattan” pattern. Place settings could include (and often did) as many as twelve utensils. Passenger silverware alone could account for more than twenty thousand pieces. Add coffee pots (in both 28 oz. and 14oz.), creamers, sugar bowls, many trays and platters, parfait cups and soup bowls, beverage servers, wine coolers, champagne buckets, chafing dishes and their holders, demitasse servers, salt & pepper shaker tops, sauce pans, warming stands and handsome silver flower vases for every table plus an extensive array for the crew as well and it starts to add up. By our count, there were at least sixteen different styles of drinking glasses, not to mention glass pitchers, carafes, food covers and ashtrays. The number of pieces of china was almost staggering. There were the show plates with a central S.S. United States Eagle insignia in gold, the Lamberton China Gray Star Design and Hall China earthenware in Addison Gray. Naturally, there was every conceivable size dish and plate, cup and saucer. The linens ranged from bed sheets and pillow cases (plus handsome Chatham woolen blankets), summer spreads and regular spreads, drapes, tablecloths, napkins (no paper here), towels –from hand to bath with everything in between - on to a myriad of stateroom blankets, crew’s uniforms... it was almost endless. Even though we took seven full days in which to conduct the auction, starting at 9:00 AM each day and sometimes ending at 2:00 AM, of necessity we had at times to create huge “dealer” lots. Running down one listing of lots from the auction catalogue made it seem we had enough for an army. 1,000 pillow cases, 2,000 bed sheets, 500 bed spreads, 2,000 napkins, 400 tablecloths, 2,500 face towels, 2,000 bath towels and 80 dozen hack towels. That’s 11,360 items in only eight lots. And we had hundreds and hundreds of lots... each day! And we haven’t even touched upon the many styles of chairs, tables, desks, chests of drawers, deck chairs, works of art, terrific (and I mean terrific) shower heads, etc., etc. Nor have I mentioned the tens of thousands of paper items in the form of beautiful menus and other sophisticated issues from the Ship’s own on-board printing presses. We got into the habit of saying we were selling everything from “the linen to the lifeboats” and we did.
A week before the auction, I was standing on the deck of the ship. That afternoon I was to be traveling to New York to oversee an invitational black-tie preview followed by a public exhibit of sample contents from the auction. The two events were being held at the prestigious and vast Seventh Regiment Armory at 66th Street and Park Avenue. We had decided to create tableaus of rooms aboard ship for those unable to attend the auction in person but nevertheless wanted to bid in absentia. As with our previews in Los Angeles and Houston, we had struck a deal with Mayflower Van Lines, whose tractor-trailers were transporting hundreds of samples coast to coast. I recall that preview morning being beautiful and sunny when I was approached by the ship’s last First Mate. I had casually gotten to know a number of the United States’ past officers and hands who took time that summer to visit the ship. In most cases, these were melancholy visits by aging men who viewed the trip to the Ship as their last. At the very least, it was the last time they would be able to come on board the SS United States as an ocean liner. Many cringed at the thought of her as a cruise ship. I vividly remember a small work of folk art we discovered deep within the crew’s quarters. It was a painting of the Ship done on a varnished wood panel. Adhered to the painted areas were small pebbles giving the picture very much a nautical feel. Hand-lettered beneath the Ship was her name, the SS United States. Arched over her were the words “Home Sweet Home”. After chatting with the First Mate for a short while, he suddenly asked, “When your crew was taking apart the ship, did they ever come across the Ship’s bell?” I didn’t understand what bell he was referring to and so he went on to explain that all ships, no matter their vintage, had a bell… even if only for ceremonial purposes. It was a throwback to days when bells were used in adverse conditions… fog, storms and in times of danger. In any case, we hadn’t found a bell and I told him so. The First Mate pointed upwards towards the Ship’s tallest tower. “That’s where it used to be positioned,” he said “but I had it removed on the day it was announced that the Ship would be leaving service. I feared that it might be stolen.” He went to explain that he had hidden the bell… obviously in a place we hadn’t looked through. With that, he started walking towards the bow where the Ship’s massive line was in a coil roughly twenty feet high. Normally used to secure the Ship to a dock, this extra rope, nearly a foot in diameter, was not needed in this semi-permanent mooring. This mountain of a coil looked snow-capped as it was heavily caked with the droppings of sea gulls that had roosted on it over the years. “If you remove the line, I think you’ll find the Ship’s bell” was I think how he put it. Make no mistake about it. Aside from being filthy, this line was heavy. And without the aid of a forklift or other mechanical device on board, the job required about fifty men. For about an hour they struggled. Sure enough, at the end of their effort, as they were removing the last lengths of the enormously difficult to deal with rope, a bronze-appearing object was spotted. and sure enough, we had found the Ship’s bell.
CHAPTER 4 PART 2 THE SS UNITED STATES ...A MONUMENTAL SAIL When uncovered, the bell measured about thirty inches tall with a maximum diameter of about twenty inches. Around its base were the simple, strong sans serif letters spelling “SS United States”. It was indeed solid bronze and weighed an estimated three hundred pounds. As one might imagine, the discovery of the bell caused quite a stir. While we were deciding how to handle it (both in the upcoming auction and physically), the local news crews rushed to the Ship. One dispatched a helicopter to catch the scene from overhead. And quite a scene it was. Imagine two groups of twenty five strong men each - one high up on the deck of the Ship and the other on the dock fifty feet or more below - attempting to lower the bell on an angle without it falling into the waiting ocean below. By the time the bell made it safely ashore, we had decided that, if possible, we would fly the bell to New York on the plane that I was taking. With a little luck, it could be the centerpiece of our gala that evening. For reasons that escape me now, we were obliged to purchase a seat on the commuter-sized plane for the bell where it was strapped in next to me as if it were a fellow passenger. But make it to New York it did, and indeed it looked magnificent centering the impressive display at the armory.
In today’s world of auctions, it wouldn’t be likely that objects for an auction be toured prior to the event. It has become easy to rely on the internet - and the media - to get the word out. But back in 1984, times were different. And with this enormous auction looming only weeks away, we decided that touring samples from the Ship would be a good idea. Mayflower Van Lines painted images of the Ship along with the slogan “We moved the United States” on its entire fleet. They then proceeded to haul a wide variety of items - from the smallest pieces of silverware on to full rooms of furniture and art - first to Los Angeles, then crossing the country from west to east, stopping first in Houston, then Chicago, on the way to New York City. Following the last preview in NYC, the items would be taken back to Norfolk to be joined with all the rest of the items to be sold at auction.
The New York City preview was nothing short of pandemonium. The Armory, as New Yorkers know, is one of the largest structures in the City. Built more than a century ago, it has stunning design elements... many created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. People around the country, and indeed around the world, may be familiar with the Armory without knowing it, as it has been used as the setting for many popular movies. Following our successful invitational gala, we were set for the public exhibition/preview the following morning. What we were not set for were the enormous crowds waiting to get in when the massive oak doors - created, no doubt, to give the impression they could keep armies out - opened at 10am. Four abreast lines formed around the block. It was a madhouse. We set aside a group of smaller items - towels, glassware, china - that we had an overabundance of and hence could be sold at the preview. At the sales desk, crowds were ten deep literally with handfuls of cash attempting to buy these items. One noted actress was dead set on buying sample pieces of furniture for her son’s room. She would not be deterred when we tried to explain that the furniture on display was going to be sold at the auction. Unlike the smaller items earmarked for retails sales, we had not anticipated this kind for demand of items used in our temporary displays. She didn’t skip a beat when we advised her that the particular furniture she was eyeing had not had its sandwiched asbestos removed. In the end, she signed a waiver acknowledging the asbestos and made her purchase.
Following the New York preview, the bell, along with all the other samples, made their way back to Norfolk to be merged with the other material to be auctioned. Items for the auction had been removed from the Ship and stored in an adjacent warehouse. It had been a painful process as everything had to be carried by hand from one or another of the seventeen decks where it had been found. We were not permitted to use any of the Ship’s sixteen elevators, simply because elevator inspectors in the State of Virginia had not gotten around to inspecting these. To make matters worse, most of the larger objects on board were attached to walls, flooring, or each other in ways that required the use of wrenches, screwdrivers or drills to remove. The path a typical object from the ship needed to take prior to auction was as follows. Let’s say that writing desk was located on the fifth deck above the water line (tenth deck up from the bottom). That desk would first have to be unbolted from its attachment points, then carried on average five hundred feet down a long, narrow and dark corridor. When the central staircase was reached, the desk would have been carried down five flights to the exit portal of the ship. Once there, it would be walked down a narrow and somewhat steep gangplank onto the dock. From there, and only from there, it could be loaded onto a truck for the very short ride to the warehouse where it was stored.
This process was necessary because as appealing it would have been, conducting the auction on board was an impossibility. As large as the ballroom and several of the dining rooms were, it was sensed that it was too logistically difficult to handle large crowds on a ship that hadn’t seen passengers in more than fifteen years. There were just too many risks, not to mention the intense heat on board. So the auction was held in a warehouse. The auction warehouse was a different structure than the warehouse used to house the auction items. The auction space was open sided (i.e., though there was a roof overhead, large trucks routinely drove through the “building”. It was in clear sight of the ship a few hundred yards distant. We filled this auction arena with about five thousand chairs in anticipation of huge crowds. We were not disappointed.
It was decided that the bell would be sold on the final day of the auction. The auction calendar looked like this. Monday: broad range of many type items, sold in smaller sized lots. Tuesday: china, silver and glassware. Wednesday: linens, galley equipment and paper. Thursday: railings, deck chairs, small stateroom items and signs. Friday: stateroom, dining room and lounge furniture. Saturday: navigational equipment, stateroom artwork. Sunday: broad range of items including singular and more substantial art and artifacts. Because the bell had only recently been discovered, and because it was certainly one of the more substantial and recognizable items from the Ship, it was designated to be sold on Sunday. By the time the bell came up for sale, there was a full house. It seemed like all five thousand seats were filled and many stood around the perimeter of this vast warehouse space. It looked more like an indoor football game than an auction. In the days prior to the sale, we had discovered that the world record for the top recorded price for a bell was not terribly impressive... four thousand dollars. I don’t recall what bell achieved that mark but the assumption is that it was one of some historic value. In any case, it set a standard; if we topped that mark, we set a new world record. The bell was scheduled to be sold at about two in the afternoon. Each auction day started at 9:00 AM. But auctions are unpredictable. They take more or less time to conduct based upon the pace and volume of bidders. Most of the previous days continued well into the night,
ending in some cases in the small hours of the following morning. Perhaps because it was the last day of the auction, the finale, there were fewer items to be sold on Sunday than on the other days. If we guessed right, the auction would be over by five in the afternoon. The bidding on the bell opened and quickly reached the four thousand dollar mark. It was clear that this would be yet another item that we could boast set a new “world record”. As the bidding got to five, six and then seven thousand, it was obvious that there were two aggressive bidders. One was a gentleman seated directly in front of the auctioneers’ dais. (Unlike most auctions with a single auctioneer and single auction podium, for the SS United States we had a team of auctioneers who did their stuff along the length of a dais.) The other bidder was in fact a group of bidders from the Mariners’ Museum from nearby Newport News. The curators and directors of that wonderful Museum had become our friends over the course of the previous months. They frequently asked for and received permission to come on board. Clearly they had great interest in what was not only the glory of the American fleet, but a ship that happened to have been built just up the coast from their institution. An aside. I always chuckled when we were contacted by a higher up from the Pentagon asking permission to board the ship. As it turns out, the reason why the ship was as fast as she was in large part was due to her five bladed propellers. Her massive strength, sleek design, and light weight completed the equation. But this combination remained a secret. When the news of the auction spread, Navy admirals and other high ranking officers would call, hoping to view the engine room and other areas that previously had been off limits. When, following our permission, they arrived at the Ship, I sometimes felt like telling them to “drop and give me ten” (pushups, that is). As someone who never achieved great rank in the army reserves, the thought just seemed pleasing. Back to the bell. The Museum group seemed capable of out-muscling the lone bidder who finally dropped out of the race at the fifteen thousand dollar mark, nearly four times the world record! But just as the auctioneer was about to gavel down the bell to the Museum group (who already started high-five-ing), a bidder paddle went up in the very rear of the space. Indeed, the bidder was so far back that you couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman. You could judge the bidder’s determination and aggressiveness, however, by the manner in which he or she bid. His (or her) bidder paddle was permanently up. Most bidders at auction raise their paddle somewhat tentatively. They’ve given thought to making that next bid, but whether they can comfortably afford to spend the money or not, there is a hesitation in the way most express their bids. There was no hesitation in the way that Malcolm Forbes, scion of Forbes Magazine and the Forbes family, bid. He would walk into an auction hall, not bother to register to become a bidder, but proceed to the rear of the place. When something came up that interested him, his hand - often holding a piece of paper or something that made his presence more visible - would rise. But where others would bid by raising and then lowering their paddle (or whatever they were holding at the moment) when the auctioneer caught their bid, Mr. Forbes’ hand remained aloft. He didn’t waiver. Indeed, there were times he would be in discussion with a person near him, seemingly uninterested in the auction proceedings. But his method of bidding spoke loudly. He was going to get what he was after no matter what others might bid. His hand was permanently up until the fight was over. Well, the bidder in the rear of the hall employed the Forbes method of bidding. The paddle
was permanently up. The bidder was so far rearward that we hardly could see body language, but we could see the body language of the people representing the Museum. And it wasn’t happy. No sooner than they made the decision to go to the next increment, their bid was trumped by the permanent bid in the rear. As the bidding cleared the twenty thousand dollar mark, the Museum bidders were getting more and more depressed. It seemed clear that they had a budget... and they were rapidly getting to the point where it would be topped out. At twenty five thousand dollars, the Museum stopped bidding. The victory was going to the bidder in the rear. Now although twenty five thousand dollars may not seem like an astronomical sum today, keep in mind that this was over a quarter century ago, and this was a bell being bid on, not a Picasso. The audience was hushed, about to break into applause as sometimes happens at auction when an item of some importance is sold for an impressive amount. But that moment was delayed when, shockingly, another bidder’s paddle flew upwards. This bidder had two things in common with that first arrogant bidder with the unwavering paddle. The first was that he/she was in the back of the arena (albeit in the opposite rear corner) and hence could not be seen from the stage. The second was that like the other bidder, this bidder’s paddle was in the permanently up position. Not that this happens often, but something within us says that when with this scenario, an auctioneer could, and perhaps should, move up the increment scale as swiftly as possible. What’s to hold one back? If the bidders didn’t waiver, why should we? And so, the bidding meteorically rose upwards from the twenty five thousand level at which the Mariners’ Museum dropped out. Forty, then fifty thousand, then sixty. At one hundred thousand dollars, the huge crowd - all five thousand of them - was stunned. But the bidding continued to rise. Finally, and incredibly, the top bid reached two hundred thousand dollars and then one of the bidders, the one who first raised that permanently raised paddle, dropped out. The last bidder in was successful. And the crowd was besides itself. Applause changed to cheering. In part because of the huge sum just spent for a bell, but in part also I suspect, in honor of the great Ship the bell was from. Had the auction been in New York City, the audience would no doubt have consisted of many who sailed on the SS United States. The audience in Norfolk consisted of many who had built the ship. The bell to them was symbolic of the love they had for this vessel. That someone would pay two hundred thousand dollars for its bell said a lot. After a solid five minutes of cheering, the audience settled down and the auction continued. There were about three hours left in the auction and some very cool objects left to be sold. Inasmuch I was not then nor am I normally the auctioneer, I decided to walk rearward and introduce myself to - and thank - the successful bidder. It just seemed like the right thing to do. As I walked along the side of this huge building, I came first to the bookkeepers area. Unlike today’s auctions that are largely recorded by computers, in the early 1980’s everything was by hand. And so it was that I decided to look up the bidder information about this bidder before introducing myself. It might be nice to know if the bidder was the CEO of a prominent corporation, a very serious collector or some other wellheeled party. The system we used back then had us making index cards for each registered bidder. The successful bell bidder had a number well beyond five thousand. When I found that card in the file, it indicated that the bidder had not established any credit! Now the reader might
think that this was a moment for panic but I had come to realize that oftentimes, when a VIP attends an auction, they don’t feel the need to do paperwork like most of us mere mortals. The aforementioned Malcolm Forbes was that way. He would walk into the auction hall... bid sans paddle... and when successful, announce that he was who he was and to please assign him the next available bidder number. Who was going to question or berate him for not following standard procedure? As I viewed it at the time, now there were two reasons for introducing myself to the buyer; the first being to thank him (or her) for the purchase, and the second to inquire as to how the bell would be paid for! By the time I reached the rear of the building, a ring of reporters circled the bidder. Television crews’ camera lights were flooding the area. I peered over the shoulders of the press and got my first glimpse of the buyer, a young African American woman. All of perhaps eighteen years old, she was seated, wearing farm overalls and holding an infant on her lap. Now I hope that I can be considered a fair person, not one steeped in prejudices. Projects we have been involved with over the years relating to African American history and culture have been particular sources of pride for us (see Rosa Parks in one of the concluding chapters of this memoir.) And so it was that at that moment, when I first saw this young woman, I would hope not to have come to any premature conclusions. But as I made my way through the media, I found myself saying that this person did not even come close to the profile of any of the possible types who I imagined would have purchased this record-setting bell. Her age, what she was wearing, the child on her lap... it didn’t make sense. As politely as possible, I extricated her from the reporters’ circle and introduced myself. Before the question of payment could be asked, she provided me with a telephone number with the instructions to speak with the gentleman who answered. Going back to the bookkeeping area, I made the call. Sure enough, a gentleman answered. I explained who I was and how I had been given his phone number. In return, he explained that he was the pastor of a rural Southern Baptist Church outside of Norfolk. When I informed him of what had transpired, he responded by saying “Oh sir; if you have to arrest that young woman, you have to do what you have to do.” He went on to describe a sermon he had presented to his parishioners the previous Sunday morning. In that talk, he reminded the Church members of the damaging storm that had wracked their modest building’s steeple. He reminded them that during the storm, the Church’s bell plummeted to the ground, self-destructing in the process. And so it was that he urged these good people to keep their eyes open for a new bell to replace the old. Indeed, to go out and search for one. Now by “search” he explained, he meant that if someone were passing a junkyard or perhaps an open air market, maybe providence would shine their way. Maybe for twenty five dollars, they could find a somewhat suitable bell for the steeple they hoped would soon be repaired. When the young woman at the auction saw the bell, she knew no better. She did what she hoped would help her Church. Did she know she was bidding two hundred thousand dollars? Who could tell. But although her actions were clearly capable of causing us serious grief - and money - we weren’t about to bring trouble down on her because of them.
What we did need to do was immediately re-offer the bell. Although we would not be likely to duplicate the previous results, with the other person who demonstrated that arrogant style of bidding and outbid the Mariners’ Museum, at least we could be assured that the bell would fetch at least twenty five thousand dollars, the level that the Museum initially pulled out at. The fact that we would have to answer to our consignor - the Ship’s owners - later, was a nightmare waiting to happen. As I was about to make the decision to re-offer the bell, the word quickly reached me that the under-bidder, the aforementioned first to thrust his paddle in the permanent upwards position, had left the premises. Through his bidder number, we were able to ascertain that he was a local, well-known attorney. He had a great interest in the SS United States and was intent on getting certain choice items... the bell being one of them. With substantial funds available to him, he boasted to friends prior to the auction that he would just not be outbid on the bell. When in fact that happened (being outbid), he stomped out of the auction venue, not ever to be seen by us again. Despite efforts to reach him at his office, his home, even his country club, we had no luck. (We later learned that in disgust, he grabbed his son and went to the movies.) While we were undertaking the search for this bidder, our friends from the Museum came up to us all hot and lathered. Somehow, rumor of a “problem with the bell” had circulated through this five thousand-person audience (like an audio version of “the wave” I suspect) and had reached the Mariners’ contingent. Sensing we were in a tough spot, they quoted a nonexistent Virginia auction law which, according to them, demanded that the item - the bell - be immediately put back up for sale. They realized that with both bidders in the back - the young woman and the now long-gone attorney - out of the picture, they would get the bell for about fifteen thousand, the amount that lone gentleman in the front of the hall had bailed out at. We realized that too, and were doing everything in our power to prevent that from happening. It’s funny how, only minutes before, had we been offered fifteen thousand dollars for the bell, we gladly would have accepted it. Look, it was nearly four times the world record any bell had sold for publicly. But after the two hundred thousand dollar hammer price, we were instantly spoiled. And so surely would have been our consignors. Unlike the previous six days where the auction ran late into the night, or even later into the next morning, this seventh and last day of the auction was winding down. We designed it to conclude about five that afternoon and we were looking like we were on target. The bell had been offered at 2:00 PM and by the time my conversation with the pastor had ended, and our quick search for the disappearing attorney was well underway, it was already 3:00. The bell was tolling... unfortunately it wasn’t our bell. Now understand, at this point, with roughly ninety-five per cent of the auction behind us, it had been a truly wonderful event. It might be said that for Guernsey’s, it was career changing. So to have this glitch occur at the very last instant seemed particularly cruel. We had inventoried, catalogued and photographed what seemed like zillions of items. We had marketed the auction to the world including television, radio, print and touring exhibit, we had been creative (to say the least) in our hiring practices... and it all had worked. And to do it in three months to the day, remarkable. Now to see it tarnished by a simple act by a person who meant well but knew no better... we were starting to feel the pain.
As time was slipping by, we realized that a decision had to be made. Pretty soon, we would have run out of auction. At about 4:30, I gathered the troops. About six or seven of us huddled (a la “two hand touch”) when I announced the decision to “sell the bell now”. But just as I was mouthing those words, I felt a tug on my jacket. I turned. Standing in front of me was a woman of diminutive stature; a woman I had come well to recognize. Over the entire length of the auction this woman had positioned herself in a front row seat, closest to the auctioneers. I don’t recall her buying - or even bidding on - a single lot over the previous six and a half days (which would certainly have been her prerogative), but I do recall her frequent interruptions of the auctioneers with questions of truly no importance. I’ll explain. Picture a huge stage measuring roughly two hundred feet from left to right. At the front of the stage was a long row of tables on which samples from the ship were placed. These items were held up each time a lot containing one or more of them was to be sold. (Today, we present items by impressive, large scale powerpoint presentations; but in those days, we did it the old fashioned way. We held up by hand what was being sold.) But these were just samples. So, for example, if we were to be selling forty dozen bath towels as a lot, we would hold up one bath towel as an example. (It should be noted that a “lot” at auction refers to a selling unit; it can contain anywhere from a single item to any number of things.) Despite the fact that we made every effort to point out that the items on the stage were simply samples, and indeed opened a ship’s store where one could purchase a single towel, teacup or similar item for just a few dollars, the woman now standing in front of me didn’t seem to get the point. In mid (auctioneer’s) stream, she would stand, interrupt the speaker by asking when she could bid on one or another of the precise small – and individually inexpensive - items on the stage. Following days of her interruptions, you might well imagine how I felt when she came up to me with yet another question, albeit of a completely different nature, at that very stressful moment. In any case, is should be obvious that this was not a person I felt like assisting right then. Indeed, she might have been the last person I felt like assisting right then. (I would also like to make clear the fact that throughout the history of Guernsey’s, we as a company have taken pride in being understanding and helpful to the very best of our ability. This was an exception.) But before I could shoo her away, she sort of shouted out, “I hear that there is a problem with the bell... and I want to buy it.” Now if you were in my position at that very instant, you might have done what I did. Thinking that this woman didn’t have a clue about the bidding on the bell, I suggested to her that perhaps she was in the Ladies room at the time the bell was sold. Sarcastically, I made it clear that that was perhaps the only moment over the last seven days when she was not present in the auction hall. In any case, I then asked her to leave us alone as we were just about to move forward by re-offering the bell. She did not leave. Instead, she repeated her request to buy the bell. At that point, I said “the bell sold for two hundred thousand dollars. Now will you leave us alone?” As if it were yesterday, I recall her saying “I wasn’t exactly sure of the amount but...” and with that, she reached into her pocketbook and produced a check book. She promptly wrote out a check and handed it to me. And believe it or not, the bell was sold. As it turned out, this little lady proved terrific on every score. As we got to know her, which
we did in the days immediately following the auction, we found out that she was a prominent doctor and business woman, and good friend. She most generously donated the bell to the city of Nags Head, North Carolina where she owned several establishments. And that, my friends, is the bell story.
I wish it could be said that all worked out well for the SS United States following the auction, but it didn’t. The Ship’s owners, who had saved millions by not executing the original plan of dumping the contents in the Atlantic, and then made millions from the auction, ran into some form of financial difficulty. Although we were not privy to such information, it was reported in the press that this was the case. Eventually, she was taken to Turkey, made a few other stops, and then finally returned to her homeland. She sits today on a bend in the Delaware River, just north of downtown Philadelphia. Flying into the City of Brotherly Love, you pass right over her, and she looks worse than ever. But there are preservation groups aplenty... all dedicated to her and one day, bringing her back to life. Every so often, we get a telephone call or email asking about our involvement with the Big U. We talk about some of the other stories – stories that I’ll save for a follow up to this book - that now, a quarter century later, we reminisce over. Whenever possible, we are happy to assist. The auction of the contents of the ocean liner SS United States is now generally regarded as the largest auction (in terms of numbers of items sold) ever held. I seem to recall that it was once listed in the Guinness Book of World records just that way. Certainly, it helped put Guernsey’s on the map, and gave me the belief that there was no project we couldn’t handle.
HOW TO SET A WORLD RECORD BUT NOT MAKE A SALE
If there was ever a wrong way in which to consign an item to an auction, this has got to be it. Although the experience occurred fairly early in my career, the foolishness of a single consignor pains me to this day. On the other hand, I can’t imagine that it is a pleasant memory for him either. The story goes something like this. In the mid-1980s, we were contacted by the prestigious Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Invited to visit, I found myself surrounded by a truly wonderful assemblage of objects of every description relating to our nation’s history. Looking back, I suppose that prior to my visit, I would have imagined the Henry Ford to be all about Model T and Model A Ford automobiles, but it is so much more than that, that that very thought seems foolish when I think about it. (Did I just use “that” three times in a row?) From violins to steam locomotives, it is overwhelming. Go visit. In any case, the reason I was invited to Michigan was to view a stunning collection of HO gauge model railroad trains the Museum wanted to sell. (Actually, wanted to “deaccess,” which is the far more proper-sounding word museums tend to use when looking to part with something.) Unlike Lionel and other electric trains so many of us remember from when we were kids, the trains in the Museum’s collection were truly exquisite, handmade precision models made in Japan following World War II. Now if you grew up in the 1950s as I did, the expression “Made in Japan” was not necessarily a confidence builder. Products from war-torn Japan tended to be inexpensive and poorly made. The cheapest toys that always seemed to fall apart, for example, all seemed to be “made in Japan”. To therefore suggest that these HO trains were made in Japan was, on first blush, not a good thing. (“HO”, by the way, stands for “half of O” gauge or scale. “O” gauge, the size most kids played with growing up, is 1:43 scale. HO is approximately half of that.) But for reasons unknown to me, the Japanese rose to excellence when they produced extremely limited quantities of model train engines, made out of brass to extraordinary detail. Just about every nut and bolt was included in these beautiful models that are barely 1/100th the size of the real thing. Perhaps to better show the details, the models remained unpainted, allowing the bare brass to truly shine. Individually and handsomely boxed, these trains were true gems. And so it was that the Henry Ford Museum wanted to deaccess its collection of eight hundred
HO gauge, handmade brass train models. We felt honored for the offer and quickly took on the assignment. Now at that time, and probably no time before or since, has there - to my knowledge - ever been a value guide to what these trains might have been worth. Today, one need only go into a Barnes & Noble or go online to avail oneself of books listing what specific forms of collectibles supposedly are worth. Updated every so often, these value guides report on prices achieved publicly; i.e., at auction. Of course that any two items are exactly alike as condition and other factors play important roles in determining value, but one can get a sense of what something theoretically is worth through these books. However, no such books existed for these Japanese trains. Although we were excited to be representing as prominent an institution as the Henry Ford Museum, we knew that the event we would be producing was going to be costly and hence had some concerns, not knowing what the trains might fetch. Accordingly, we set out to do what we frequently do when preparing for an auction... seeking out additions.
Inasmuch as the name “Henry Ford” stands for transportation, we decided to expand the auction by including other forms of collectible objects relating to the history of transportation. (In the end, we were so successful in gathering a comprehensive assortment of such things, we ended up labeling the auction “The History of Transportation.” In addition to the train collection, we took in the Roger Johnson Collection of antique and vintage bicycles, large collections of both model ships and model airplanes, artwork and posters relating to the field, a small collection of vintage motorcycles (real motorcycles, not models) and a number of actual vintage and antique automobiles. True to the name of the event, we had been fortunate in gathering a great array of appropriate and exciting items that would grace the massive drill floor of New York City’s landmark 7th Regiment Armory on Park Avenue at 66th Street.
About two months before the auction, I received a telephone call from a gentleman I will refer to as Mr. I. Mr. I asked me if we were open for additional consignments to the transportation auction and when I answered in the affirmative, he told me the following. Five years earlier (as I well knew), Nelson Rockefeller had passed away while serving as Governor of New York State. Well liked as Governor, it was a sad day in New York when he died. Although Mr. Rockefeller lived what might be described as a fairly open and public life, what was not well known was the fact that he collected antique cars. Mr. I, who also had an interest in antique cars, in time was offered, and ultimately purchased, the Nelson Rockefeller Automotive Collection. The Collection consisted of twelve cars for which Mr. I paid a total of $600,000. When Mr. I called me, it was to consign one of the automobiles from the Rockefeller Collection. The one he wanted to consign was quite likely the best in the Collection. But whether it was or wasn’t, it was certainly a formidable vehicle. The car we are talking about had a vehicle identification number - contemporarily known as a VIN or more correctly known to the period of the car as a chassis number - of 60565. As short as that is compared to modern cars (I recently purchased a car with seven letters and 10 numbers in its VIN), it still seems curious that the number would have been as long as it was given the fact that it was one of the three oldest Rolls Royces in existence. The automobile we are talking about was a 1907 Rolls Royce Model 40/50, better known around the world, and in particular to every lover of fine automobiles, as a Silver Ghost. When I first was told about this historic vehicle, I was told that it was the second oldest Rolls Royce in existence. Later, that was challenged when it was suggested that it was the third oldest (by a person who believed he had the second oldest), but in any case it was old. And, automotively speaking, it was important. From the company’s very first efforts in 1906, the products it produced were considered the very finest money could buy. That reputation, well deserved, remains true to this day. The offer of one of the earliest (oldest) Rolls Royces was then, and would be today, a big deal. I was therefore excited. Excited, that is, until I sat down to talk business with Mr. I. To consign the Rolls, Mr. I was insistent on having a minimum reserve, the amount under which an item can’t be sold at auction. That, in itself, was not an issue. The issue was the level of the reserve. Mr. I wanted a reserve of $1 million before he would allow the car to be sold. Now if you recall from earlier chapters, I had experience with Rolls Royces. I knew something about the automotive marque. It therefore didn’t take very long before we were able to research certain facts about Rolls Royces sold publicly with published prices realized; i.e., sold at auction. (Today, that research can be done in a heartbeat through the internet, but back then it did take a little longer.)
It turns out that by that point in time (the mid-1980s), the most money ever fetched for any Rolls Royce publicly sold was about $250,000... one quarter of the amount Mr. I wanted for a reserve. Put differently, in order to sell this Rolls Royce, we had to top the world record price achieved for any Rolls Royce ever sold by four times! Outrageous. When world records are set at auction, they typically are a percentage point or two greater than the previous record. It would have been logical to imagine that the next world record for a Rolls Royce sold at auction would have been something in the neighborhood of $260,000. And had Mr. I’s reserve been $260,000, I still would have had reservations. Reserves are intended to serve as “safety nets”. If just met, it would be an amount that the seller could live with. Naturally, we all hope prices go as high as they possibly can, but a reserve should be a sensible amount that a seller considers OK. He or she would not be thrilled were an item to sell at the reserve, but they wouldn’t be devastated either. Understandably, auction houses look for the lowest reserves possible. The lower the reserve, the greater the chance of a sale. But when someone like Mr. I comes along requesting a ridiculously high reserve, you ask yourself “What’s the point? The item is not going to get sold, so why make the often costly effort?” Many auction houses charge what is generally referred to as a “Buy In Fee” if a reserved item fails to sell at auction. This fee serves to keep consignors honest while offering the auction house a small compensation for its efforts. A word about the “buyer’s premium.” It is believed that this extra fee charged to the buyer was first instituted in the late 1960s or early ‘70s by Sotheby’s and Christie’s when they found mounting expenses required increasingly greater seller’s commissions. Sellers were balking when confronted with commissions of 30%, 40% or even more. To bring the situation under control, the buyer’s premium was created whereby the buyer of an item is required to pay an additional amount, like a tax, on their auction purchases. This practice has essentially become universal and has allowed auction houses to stay in business. Back to Mr. I. As you might imagine, I vigorously protested when I heard of the request (demand) for a $1 million dollar reserve. I made it clear that this was not only downright foolish but greedy as well, given the fact that he had “only” paid $600,000 for the entire collection of twelve cars! I told him that the Rolls would not sell and given the fact that he made it clear he would not pay a Buy In fee, I said my good-byes. But he had a retort. “Think of it.” he said “The car is only one auction lot. If it doesn’t sell, what have you really lost? On the other hand, the car is obviously exciting and it will help bring attention to the auction. And who knows? Maybe a miracle will happen. Maybe it really will get sold.” I bought his argument.
As we have become known for, we vigorously marketed the auction. Press coverage started appearing all over the place. And sure enough, Mr. I’s Rolls Royce helped the process. Indeed, a two page center spread photograph of the car appeared in the Daily News, then the largest selling newspaper in America.
About two weeks before the auction, I received a telephone call from a fellow in California. “I understand that the Silver Ghost formerly owned by Nelson Rockefeller is in your upcoming auction...” Before I could respond, he went on to say “…the one now owned by Mr. I. If he’s (Mr. I) still trying to get $1 million for the car, that’s ridiculous. But I am prepared to offer him half a million right now!” Put yourselves in my shoes. Here I was just offered twice the world record for an item we had upcoming for sale. I quickly called Mr. I with the hope of convincing him to reduce his reserve. If he were to lower it to half a million, it would be essentially a guaranteed sale, but who knows... with the Californian prepared to go to at least $500,000, perhaps there might be someone prepared to top him at $550,000 or, dare I say it, $600,000. Mr. I wouldn’t budge. “A deal is a deal. A million dollars or I don’t sell.” “How foolish,” I thought “and how frustrating.” And then came auction day.
The crowd that had assembled on the Armory’s drill floor that day was impressive. Unlike many auctions today that are sparsely attended due to the availability of bidding on the internet, in those days you went in person to bid. You wanted to be there to look into your competitor’s eyes to see how much “green” lurked there. It was like a giant poker game. The ship and airplane models we offered at the start of the auction sold well. Next came the motorcycles. And when virtually every one of the eight hundred or so seats were filled, it was time for the antique and vintage cars.
It wasn’t long before number 60565, the 1907 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, was up for sale. The crowd quieted as the bidding quickly topped two hundred thousand dollars. Keep in mind that this was the mid ‘80s and prices for collectible cars weren’t nearly at the level they are today. Two hundred thousand wasn’t something to sneeze at. But just as fast as it reached that level, it kept on going. The record for any Rolls Royce was topped when the bidding surpassed the quarter million dollar mark. Three hundred thousand was the next round number followed by four hundred thousand dollars. I wouldn’t know if our friend from California was in the action, but the bidding seemed to slow when it reached the half million dollar mark. But as if that level was halftime in a football game, the started spurting again. 550, 600, 650, $700,000…the audience - and I - were
in shock. This was far and away the most money ever bid on a single lot at any of our auctions up to that time, and we were approaching three times the amount anyone previously had bid on a Rolls Royce. Now here’s the setting. Our auctioneer was positioned right of center stage. The items being sold were paraded, one by one, to center stage. Off on the left side of the stage, I was standing. For the sale of Mr. I’s car, Mr. I was standing next to me. It was about the time we hit the $700,000 level that I started elbowing Mr. I in the ribs. Not intending to hurt him, I guess I just couldn’t control my excitement. My rib pounding continued when the bidding reached 750, then 800 and on to $850,000. It was wild, and fabulous. The numbers I quoted above are nice round numbers. In truth, the bidding was going up in ten thousand dollar increments. So the next number to follow was 860, then 870, and so it went to an astonishing $940,000. I was later to learn that this was the single greatest sum ever
bid on any car in history by that point in time. It wouldn’t have surprised me if I had (inadvertently) cracked all of Mr. I’s ribs on his right side. The bidding stalled at nine hundred and twenty thousand but to my way of thinking it didn’t matter. This was such a great number that I couldn’t even imagine anyone passing it up. And so I turned to Mr. I. Before I could speak, he said “Great price, but we’re not there yet.” “Not there yet.” Was I hearing correctly? Could it be true that a man who had, only about a year earlier, spent $600,000 to acquire twelve cars, would pass on the chance to sell one of them for fifty per cent more than he paid for the whole collection? In essence, he would have gotten eleven cars for free with three hundred thousand left over for good luck! Unfortunately, that was all she wrote. The stall at $940,000 was, in reality, the end of the line. There was no more. Sadly, our auctioneer was forced to announce that the car was being “passed”... that it did not sell. And I felt compelled to wring Mr. I’s neck. I didn’t, and that will always be one of my great regrets. The huge audience started booing and kept it up for some time. If they were holding tomatoes in their hands, I had no doubt I would looking like I was covered in ketchup. Although it was hardly my decision to pass, it seemed like the crowd’s anger was focused on me. If only they had known... Although I didn’t, the audience got over the failed lot and moved on. And before you knew it, the auction was over and everyone went home.
I failed to mention earlier that this was a two-day auction. The Henry Ford Museum’s train collection, many exciting transport posters, and assorted other lots were being sold the second day. And so it was that I showed up about 7:00am the next morning to begin preparations for this second session. The Armory was completely dark when I walked in. Other than overnight security, there was nobody in the huge building. As I was moving from the outer doors into the lobby area where our registration desks were set up, a phone was ringing. I raced to get it and then heard his voice... Mr. I. “I was a total jerk yesterday.” he said. (He probably really said something closer to “I was a f--king moron yesterday,” but I’m being gentle.) “I couldn’t sleep last night,” he went on. “I should have sold the car.” “Please go ahead and sell it. Find the top bidder and sell it.” These were his final words. Unlike the arrogance he had continually displayed throughout our prior dealings, now he was begging.
It would have been pointless to have responded. I hung up and leapt into action. As it turned out, I knew who the top bidder on the Rolls Royce had been. His name was Bob Hill, and I had casually gotten to know him over the last year or two because we both owned the same kind of rare vintage Bentley. In essence, we were both part of a small club of owners of these special cars. Unlike today where it wouldn’t be very hard to Google his name and get his contact information, in those days I had to resort to rifling through a large quantity of index cards for his phone number. Just as I had found it and started dialing his number, Bob Hill walked in the door. Sort of stunned by the coincidence and before I could say anything, Bob said that he had come in early to settle up his bills from the first day’s sale before heading out to the airport and flying off to Europe. Now for clarity sake, in addition to being the top - albeit unsuccessful bidder on the Rolls Royce, he had successfully bid on a number of less expensive items. And now he was there to pay for those lots. There we were, just the two of us in this enormous, dark space. Employees were not due to arrive for another hour, while the public was still half a day away from being let in. In the eerie quiet of a space that only the night before was roaring, I told Bob “Good news. You can buy the Rolls.”
Now if I had been more experienced in matters like these, I might have expected his response. For sure, if the same situation happened today, I certainly would know what to expect. But I didn’t then and therefore it came as something of a surprise when his response was “OK... how much?” I stammered when I reminded him that the top bid he made yesterday was $940,000. I stammered when I told him that was the price today. He didn’t stammer when he pointed out that indeed the price was $940,000 “yesterday.” Today was a new day, and according to him, “Circumstances were different.”
“Did I notice the attractive blond he was sitting next to?” he asked. The truth was they were sitting in the front row... and she would have been hard to miss even had they been in the last. “Well, that is the woman I am wooing and had I been successful with that car, she would have been impressed.” Before I could suggest that maybe he should forget a woman who needed a high-profile purchase before becoming his mate, Bob went on. “You know I own a number of exclusive shops in New York, London and Paris.” I did. “If I had made that purchase yesterday in front of all the media covering the event, the world would have quickly come to know that Bob Hill was successful and a business force to be reckoned with. It would have upped my standing in the business community.” “If I buy the car now, only you, me, and the seller will know of the purchase. What good will that do me?” With that, he offered $500,000 for the car. It wasn’t an easy call to make when I dialed Mr. I. And when I told him of Bob’s post-auction offer, his list of four-letter-words were impressive even to someone like me who had grown up in New York City and had been in the Army. He ended his eloquent delivery with the suggestion that Bob “go ‘blank’ himself.” I wouldn’t exactly call that moment a good time to start a negotiation. But in the spirit of never-say-die, I gave it a good college try. For about two hours I tried to get these guys together. When Bob had to leave to get to the airport, I tried my best with Mr. I. Despite the fact that the Museum’s train collection did remarkably well, I hardly remember a minute of the auction, wrapped up as I was in attempting to make a deal on the Rolls Royce. It didn’t work that day nor any of the days that followed. In time, I gave up, and Mr. I experienced an all-too-sad phenomenon that impacts items that fail to sell at auction by virtue of not reaching their minimum reserve... they get burned. Burned, overexposed, unwanted, unloved; they all mean the same thing. If something doesn’t sell at a high-profile auction, there is an assumption amongst collectors that something is wrong with it. And then no one wants it. For a long time. For years. It is the kiss of death. And that is exactly what Mr. I found out the hard way. For not listening to me, he had to wait a full decade before finding a willing buyer for his Rolls. And instead of getting more than $900,000 ten years earlier - ten years during which he could have used that money to his heart’s content - he got $600,000 - 50% per cent less - a decade later. So when you’re speaking to your local auctioneer about the possible sale of one of your precious items, listen to her and don’t be greedy. Protect the item with a reserve, if you will, but keep the reserve at a reasonable level. And realize that if the event you’re participating in is a pretty good auction, you’re not likely to get more money for your consignment elsewhere. Take the money and run. Run away from the likes of Mr. I.
A HIPPIE-INFESTED AMUSEMENT PARK AND A HUNT THROUGH THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS CITY… FOR GUERNSEY’S, IT WAS BUSINESS AS USUAL.
Unusual auctions of unusual things in unusual settings... to some, this was becoming our modus operandi. The following events, all held early in my career, might be viewed as supporting the argument.
When I first approached Rocky Springs Park outside of Lancaster, Pennsylvania and hard on the banks of the Conestoga River, it was evident that this once joyous amusement park was far, far past its prime. Indeed, the rides hadn’t run in years and a commune of sorts had developed where the old fun-houses and chambers of horror had become temporary housing to a group of people there that day and gone (the proverbial) next. Our assignment was to sell everything that remained. Pulling through the entry gates, the first things I spotted off to the left of the dirt drive were a pair of large (30 or 40 yd. for those counting) containers or dumpsters. They were overflowing with detritus from the Park. Although I can’t say that I ever dumpster dove (or ever would want to), something clearly caught my eye. Stopping the car, I approached the receptacles for a closer look. There, piled higher that the walls of the containers themselves (and piled in such a way that in all likelihood, they would have spilled out onto the roadway once the dumpsters were loaded onto trucks), were hundreds of rolls of old ride tickets. In bright, basic colors of red, blue, green and yellow with black lettering, Each roll contained what appeared to be at least a thousand little tickets that for the carousel at 5 cents or the scooters at 10 cents or the airplanes at fifteen cents the ride.
I took some photos of those ticket rolls just as they lay, forlornly helter skelter atop tons of debris, before (yes) pulling them out of the dumpster. I don’t recall sending out those images, but I must have because before I knew it, one of my photographs of tickets in the dumpster became the front cover of the very fine Art & Auction Magazine. And at the Auction that was to come, those ticket rolls averaged about $500 each when offered to certainly one of the largest crowds ever to attend an auction.
A few nights before the start of the three-day Rocky Springs Amusement Park Auction, we were having dinner at a lovely Pennsylvania Inn that no doubt dated back to the mid-1800s. A number of valued customers had arrived for the event and along with some of our staff, constituted a table of about sixteen diners. I recall the evening being particularly festive with high expectations for the auction upcoming. In light of the circumstances, the dinner was on me. Towards the end of the meal, I spotted a familiarlooking couple across the dining room. It was the editor and a features writer for Art & Auction, the magazine that gave our event a great preview and included my ticket photo on its cover. Grateful for the support the publication had given us, I had a thought. Careful to avoid being seen by the couple, I took a roundabout route to the maitre d’. When I reached him, I pointed to the Art & Auction couple. “I would like their bill thrown in with ours. I would like to treat that couple to dinner.” Clearly, I was in a good mood and eighteen diners wouldn’t be that much more painful than sixteen. Or so I reasoned. I did ask the maitre d’ not to mention my treat until the couple attempted to pay their bill. I wanted to be discreet. After the maitre d’, I proceeded on to the men’s room. A few minutes later, I returned to the crowd at our table which, by this point, was having a grand old time. There was, however, one thing different from the way in which I left the table only minutes earlier. The table was now filled with champagne bottles, about eight of them in all. And a very expensive brand at that. I hesitantly sat down, now concerned about the cost of the dinner. “Who,” I asked my assistant “had ordered all these bottles?” If it had been one of our staff, I would have been upset that I
was not asked. “Oh, those nice people at that small table over there,” was the response. “The champagne came with their compliments.” Now this is where it gets complicated. The “couple over there” was, of course, the editor and writer from Art & Auction. Just as we were pleased for the support the publication had given us, they were pleased with the advertising we placed. And as we all realized, both Guernsey’s and the Magazine were new and starting out; it would be nice to support each other. In recognition of this, they were treating us to the champagne. Which normally would have been great…except for the fact that unbeknownst to them, I was paying their bill. I was paying for the champagne they were “treating” us to! It was a very costly dinner.
Rocky Springs was the penultimate vision of a turn-of-the-century (the nineteenth into the twentieth century) amusement park. Although it had long since been functional and its various rides and buildings were at the mercy of the elements, the “bones” were still there. The Wildcat rollercoaster (all of wood, naturally) was said to have been one of the two most terrifying rides of its type in the U.S. when it was built with its two ninety foot drops at fifty degree angles. There was a pre-1914 Aeroplane Ride, a Penny Arcade, Games of Skill and a Grand Roller Rink. One of its many concession stands boasted the sign “High Class Soda Water Fountain, dispensing the best and most delicious drinks,” while another claimed to be the site where the ice cream cone was first created. Legendary figures like Jack Dempsey, Rudy Vallee and Carrie Nation entertained capacity audiences at the 2,000 seat theater, which was, for some years, the largest in the East. It was a lovely and charming place, and although for us it was a good business opportunity, it was sad to see it being taken apart. Skimming through the auction catalogue, a tiny sampling of the type items being sold included: pin-up girls calendars, skating records, tin “Chris Craft Speed Boat Ride” signs, coaster cashier box, “Don’t stand up, keep limbs in cars” sign, Skeeball - Model 67, “Spill the Milk” 3 balls for 10 cents game, baseball slot machine, naval battle arcade, Hire’s Root Beer dispenser, “Capt. Art Eldredge’s Colossal Collection of Live and Rare Specials” side show banner, carved carnival clown, copper gargoyle, shuffle board equipment, Pinocchio and Geppetto plaster figures, ticket booth, bingo-reno games, wheels of fortune (there were more than thirty of them), beautiful carousel figures, rollercoaster cars, Teacup cars, Whip cars, Lindy Loop cars, Laughing Sal (the six foot tall mechanical fat lady that gyrated atop the fun house), fun house cars and fun house mirrors, “general store” items from old advertisements to complete full-size buggies, Dodgem cars and Ferris Wheel seats. Add to the thousands of items like the ones above the complete contents of several antique-filled homes on the property and you begin to get a sense of the enormity of the project.
When I think back over the years and the many projects I’ve been involved with, high on the list of images I will never forget are two from Rocky Springs. One of them was from the height of the auction. We had set up a stage with the carousel to our rear. In front of us was a huge, natural, grasscovered amphitheater. Those participating in or watching the auction needed only to spread a blanket and enjoy the show. By the time the auction was at its peak - firing on all cylinders - the crowd was nothing short of stupendous. It seemed like the entire City of Lancaster and its surrounding communities were in attendance. There was literally a sea of people. If I had to take a guess, there were fifteen to twenty thousand covering those hills! Taking bids from a huge crowd like this was nearly impossible. But we managed. A local dignitary (it may have been the Mayor of Lancaster), seeing the enormity of the situation, asked to say a few words. Among his comments was the following: “If this many people had come to the Park when it was in operation, it never would have closed!”
After three solid days of auction sales, the Rocky Springs Amusement Park Auction was at an end. We had sold every conceivable thing that wasn’t permanently affixed to the earth. Or so it seemed. Just as I was thanking the remaining die-hards for sticking with this seemingly endless auction, a voice rung out. “What about the cars under the social hall?” Cars. Under the social hall. I didn’t know what he was talking about. But when questioned, this fellow led us to the building where square dances and other special events had been held over the years - the social hall - and then pointed to the crawl space under the building. Unlike most residences built in the eastern United States, this building did not have a basement. Nor was it built on a concrete slab. Instead, it was supported by posts and elevated about two feet off the ground. Beneath the building, as one might expect, was a rough earthen floor. “Under there, deep under there, are really old roller coaster cars.” How this fellow knew this, we’ll never know. Indeed, upon first glances, there were no such cars. But looking under the building only got one about five or ten feet in. After that was total darkness. “Get a flashlight.” He said. And we did. And sure enough, when you peered all the way in, there they were... old roller coaster cars; about ten of them. At this point in time, we were feeling fairly giddy with the success of the event. Maybe the last thing I cared about was squeezing out a few more dollars from these impossible to reach, huge coaster cars that probably were under that building for more than half a century. So I acknowledged to the fellow who had alerted us to the cars that they were in fact there but there was nothing we could do about them. Subconsciously, I suppose I was hoping he would be content with my acknowledgement of the cars’ existence and call it a day. Of course, that
was not to be. “Sell them.” was his response, which quickly became the mantra of another six or eight hardy souls who were hanging around to the end. Somehow, we quickly found a few more flashlights and within minutes I was leading this intrepid bunch as we crawled through the dirt on our bellies in the pitch black two-foot-tall space. As I got to within a few feet of each of the rollercoaster cars, while lying prone I would point the light in the car’s direction and start the bidding. Sure enough, we went through each one of them that way and succeeded in selling them in what had to be one of the most unique auction settings ever. We didn’t hang around the Park long enough to find out how the successful bidders were able to remove the cars from the crawl space. But I’m sure they did, and I’m sure the experience was as memorable for them as it was for me.
Following the Rocky Springs Auction, an interesting situation developed. The owners of the Park got in touch with me to let me know that they had discovered an item that had been overlooked. Half a mile from the center of the Park and down a deep gulch, amongst dense overgrowth, they had discovered a twenty five foot wide, eight foot tall Coney Island shooting gallery. The complete gallery contained clowns, ducks, battleships, and other assorted targets that seemed to float, glide or fly across the backdrop of the contraption as eager target shooters popped off twentytwo shorts in efforts to knock them silly. With its various motors, chain drives and gears, the whole thing would (and did) fill an oversized, heavy-duty flatbed truck and weighed in at many tons. Aware that 1. individual targets were increasingly sought after by folk art and fairground collectors; and 2. our auction was long since over, I did the only logical thing I could think of... I bought the whole gallery. A crane was needed to hoist the massive device out of the gulch and onto the waiting truck. From there, the shooting gallery was hauled to Barbara’s and my home in Tuxedo Park where it was placed under the extended eaves of the historic stable buildings we were in the process of restoring.
A closer inspection of the shooting gallery revealed that it indeed was made in Coney Island by the Mangels Company, the most highly regarded builder of such devices. And not only was it built by Mangels, but as far as we could tell, was the largest gallery that firm ever made. With some effort, we got the gallery working and spent many evenings with visiting friends who would while away the hours by taking pot shots at the moving targets. One of our guests was the somewhat legendary Barbara Johnson, one of America’s foremost collectors of folk art and a keen markswoman. In time though, the shooting gallery was just too bizarre an element for our landmark property and we sought a new home for it. I brought it to the attention of a good friend, Dr. Robert Bishop, who was the head and driving force behind New York City’s American Folk Art Museum. Bob quickly latched on to the idea that the gallery could become an interactive centerpiece of that Museum and before long, Barbara and I donated it to the institution. I don’t know if it was the most valuable donation that Museum ever received, but I do sense it was the physically largest. Sadly, shortly after the donation, Dr. Bishop died, and those that followed seemed to lack his vision for the gallery. It sat in storage for years before making its way to the New York State Museum in Albany where it resides today.
The Rocky Springs Auction was certainly unusual. The story that follows is equally so. One day, a fellow who said he was from “upstate New York” walked into my office. He was very outfront in asking for a finder’s fee if he were to provide us with information that would lead to a successful consignment. Quickly, I took from our files a form for just that purpose. Indeed, I’ve always thought of us as being about as generous as it gets when rewarding someone who helps bring business our way. The fellow took our form “for his attorney to review” and said that he would return. A few weeks later, he showed up again. This time, he indicated what he was going to let us in. He claimed to have discovered an antique carousel; a carousel hidden away somewhere in “upstate New York”. After making a few minor revisions to our finder’s fee agreement, he revealed the truth. He had been lying. He had found a carousel, but it was not in New York State. It was in, of all places, Bogota, Colombia! Now you’ve already read of our success with the first carousel auction ever. Following that event, we were offered any number of additional carousel figures and fine complete carousels and had, by this point, conducted at least three or four more carousel auctions. It had certainly become one of our mainstays. So when someone told us of a potentially exciting complete vintage carousel, we were all ears.
As our devious finder put it, he was in Bogota on business (!) and spotted a group of laborers carrying individual carousel horses. He did not know where in Bogota they were headed, nor how many figures there were in all. But, he said, it seemed like “a lot of them. And they looked old!” Was I about to drop everything and head south, far south, on sketchy information like this, provided by a man that I quickly came to think of as being of questionable character? Read on, dear reader, and you’ll find out.
Bogota, Colombia - at least by late 1980s standards - was routinely described as “the world’s most dangerous city.” Drug actively was rampant. The place was simply not very high on most travel agents’ listings as a destination for Norte Americanos. But, as you might by now have imagined, I packed up and headed south. Armed with fading high school Spanish, I was intent on finding the horses.
It took about a week in Bogota (surrounded by mountains, it was a beautiful place), but eventually I tracked down the horses, and the hombre who owned them. Senior Garcia was a man in his mid-fifties. Indeed, he was in possession of sixty (60!) antique carousel horses crafted in the early days of the twentieth century by Charles Carmel. That Russian immigrant had set up shop in Brooklyn, New York and commenced in carving joyful horses in the Coney Island style not very far from the amusement area for which the style was named. According to Garcia, his father purchased the complete Carmel carousel in the States sometime in the 1930s and moved it lock, stock and barrel down to Colombia. He set it up and then ran the machine until his son took over. Together, the Garcia family operated the carousel for more than half a century.
But not long before my trip, the local police had commandeered the land on which the carousel sat. They were looking to build a military-styled outpost to counter the drug runners and the Garcia property was just the spot. So with little notice, Senior Garcia was given no choice but to remove his carousel. With nowhere to go, he had the horses carried to a cement block structure behind his modest home. The carousel mechanism itself - the platform, mirrors, rounding boards, etc. - were destroyed. But the sixty horses - they were piled high, a la brisket on a Carnegie Deli sandwich, in this tiny windowless box behind the Garcia casita. How they all fit in there was something of a marvel, but they did. When I met Senior Garcia and realized that his horses would be prized objects in one of our auctions, I proposed the concept to him. We would transport the figures (I wasn’t quite sure how) up to New York where they would be sold. We would take a fair commission and he would receive the lion’s share of the returns. Well, Garcia didn’t have much money and the sale would have been good for him; but he also didn’t have much trust... and that got in the way. Simply put, in his eyes I was a “Yankee gringo bastard” out to cheat him. Eventually, though, after several days of effort, I was able to convince him that I, Guernsey’s and the auction process I was proposing, were on the up and up. A deal was struck. Arrangements were made to transport the horses to the coast. It was only later that I learned that the mountains they had to travel through were held by terrorist rebels and the likelihood that they would make it through unscathed slim, but make it through they did... all the way to the coast where they were placed on board a banana boat headed north. Eventually, we were informed by U.S. Customs that they had arrived in the Port of New York.
The Colombian horses were scheduled to be included in a truly novel affair, an auction taking place as it were in the massive tent of the Big Apple Circus. For those unfamiliar with this operation, the Big Apple Circus has always seemed a bit kinder and gentler than the larger and louder Ringling Brothers affair. In Manhattan, the Big Apple has traditionally set up tent adjacent to some of the buildings in Lincoln Center, the City’s complex for the performing arts. The horses were scheduled to arrive on the morning we were moving into the Big Apple Circus tent.
Accordingly, I arrived bright and early on that sunny morning to accept them and the hundreds of other items included in the auction. What I was faced with instead, was a confrontation with ten black-uniformed men armed with assault weapons. US Customs has sent their version of a Swat team. As it turned out, when the sixty carousel horses first arrived, unbeknownst to us, they were immediately deemed “suspicious” by Customs. After all, Customs reasoned, these wooden horses had large hollow cavities that were ideally suited to concealing sizable amounts of illicit drugs. And to make matters worse, the shipment arrived on a banana boat from one of the most notorious drug-producing nations on earth. The horses were contained in two forty-foot containers. The containers had remained sealed until their arrival at Lincoln Center. The agents’ plans were to open the containers with us present and (presumably) arrest us on the spot if their suspicions were confirmed. The containers were placed right in the outdoor plaza at Lincoln Center, about a hundred yards from the iconic fountain that sits at the heart of the substantial complex…In dramatic fashion, the Customs agents broke the seals on the heavy metal doors swung open. We were then instructed (ordered) to pull out the carousel horses and lay them out on the ground with a little space between each figure. By the time we were done spreading out all sixty horses, we had taken up space roughly equivalent to the size of a football field. Once the figures were all on the ground, the agents took up positions around the perimeter. Their guns were at the ready. Two or three officers then spent about a half hour walking amongst the prone horses. Eventually, the officer in charge came up to me. In his hand was an elongated plastic “baggie” containing white powder. It was the same width and about a third the length of a baseball bat. “This” he said “is cocaine. I will be placing it inside one of the horses.” With that, he made his way through the equine maze and selected a horse. He then gently shoved the bag through the hole just in front of the horses’ saddle where the carousel pole normally juts out from the figure. Although carousel animals have poles entering through their chest or belly area and emerging upwards at the nape of their neck, they are also quite hollow. The cocaine-filled bag was now somewhere within the innards of this century-old, lovingly carved wooden horse. The agent then went to a waiting car. He opened the rear door and out bounded two German Shepherds. By hand signals, the dogs were instructed to roam through the field of horses. With tails wagging, these four-legged Customs recruits darted from horse to horse. Eventually, they both centered their energies on the cocaine-carrying horse. All hell seemed to break loose as the dogs did their best to dig their claws into the inert wooden figure. Their barks were at fever pitch. Looks of contentment seemed to come over the Customs agents. The dogs had found the horse with the planted cocaine proving that if any of the other horses had held cocaine, they would have found them as well. We passed their test and were OK’d to bring the horses inside the circus tent and go on with the show.
About twenty minutes later, the lead agent approached me again. “We have a problem.” He said. I quickly thought to myself that we were past any concerns. What was wrong now? “The cocaine-filled baggie... we can’t fish it out of the horse!” He explained that the baggie was floating around somewhere with the belly of this docile beast, and that even if they could spot the cocaine, they feared they would rip the baggie if somehow they latched onto it. The lead agent then explained that although he was sorry, he was forced to have to chain saw the horse in half to dig out his plant. As I was panicking, I felt a tap on my shoulder. A fellow who had been in our employ as a general handyman for several months stepped forward. “I overheard the problem and I think I can retrieve the bag.” He said. “What I never revealed to you when I first applied for the job was that I had once been in jail for pickpocketing. I developed certain skills learning that ‘craft’ and I think I can use them now!” With seemingly nothing to lose, the Customs agents let our employee at it and sure enough, he extricated that bag right out of the horse and was, in fact, the hero for the day.
Several days later, following the truly fascinating public preview exhibition (in addition to the Colombian horses, there were many hundreds of other objects relating to amusement parks, carnivals and circuses in the auction), the day of the sale was upon us. Thinking it was a thoughtful thing to do, we incurred the expense of flying Senior Garcia to New York for the event. When the time came for the sale of the carousel horses, I took the podium to describe the story of their discovery in Bogota, their shipment to New York and the somewhat dramatic Customs inspection that had taken place on the plaza right outside the massive tent containing the event. Of course, I left out the very last detail of the retrieval of the cocaine, suggesting to the audience that one of the horses - we weren’t going to reveal which one - contained a surprise inside! It took the very large audience a few stunned seconds before they realized that I was just joking. Why not have a few laughs over what had been a most stressful situation? The sale of the carousel horses was going extremely well (in his declining years, Senior Garcia was going to end up with more money than he most likely ever would have imagined). About halfway through that portion of the auction, after we had sold about thirty of the sixty horses, I interrupted the auctioneer to make another announcement. I had forgotten to mention that Senior Garcia was with us there in the tent, and when I spotted in standing at the opposite end of the stage from where I was positioned, I wanted to introduce him to the crowd. As soon as I welcomed him to the United States and to the auction, two things happened. The audience quickly rose to its feet and gave him a hearty round of applause. As they saw it, for much of his life this gentleman had helped preserve what were, for these people, cherished carousel horses... and he deserved their thanks.
Almost simultaneously, a far more alarming situation developed. With my arm still in the air pointing in the direction of Senior Garcia, he took a nose dive right off the stage. Landing flush on the floor, from all outward appearances, he looked dead! The audience’s cheers instantly turned to screams of anguish as several closest to him rushed to his aid. I rapidly made my way to the prone figure. Fortunately, in a moment or two, he started to move. Though quite shaky, in a few more moments, he was standing. It rapidly became clear that the cause of his collapse was not his heart or other serious bodily breakdown; he collapsed because he was essentially dead drunk! As it turned out, we had given Senior Garcia a small advance so that he might have some spending money while in New York. It seems that he had taken that money right to the first liquor store he could find and spend his first days in the States in the drunken stupor he was in at the auction. Following the event, we patiently escorted Senor Garcia to JFK and put him on his plane back to Colombia. We set up a back account for him where the proceeds from his sale - all $1.5 million of it - were placed in a safe account that he could access when he got back home. Had we not done that, we feared that he might ring up a world class bar bill and go home as penniless as he arrived.
Although there were a number of other interesting stories stemming from that fairground auction, the last one I’ll mention has to do with a little woman - Lilly Santangelo - a ninetysomething year old dynamo.
Months before the fairground Big Apple auction, we were contacted by someone from the American Folk Art Museum. The Museum had been alerted to the fact that one of the world’s most unusual “museums” – the Coney Island Wax Museum - was shutting down. They wanted to know if we could help. The Coney Island Wax Museum was just as it sounded. Centered in the heart of Coney Island, the small structure had become something of a landmark over the better part of the twentieth century. Started by Ms. Santangelo and her late husband, the last many years had Lilly running the place herself. And by “running it herself”, I mean running it herself. This diminutive lady would stand behind an outdoor podium and hawk passersby into the Museum. She then
stepped from the podium and into the building where she gave a one-woman tour of the place. Other than an elderly man who attempted to keep the place reasonably clean, that was all there was. Unlike far more substantial wax figure displays (like Madame Tussaud’s) where celebrated stars of stage and screen are executed in life-like wax, the Coney Island Wax Museum featured figures made famous for slightly different reasons. Most of the figures in Coney Island were famed criminals - murderers, gangsters, robbers and the like. And unlike the solo celebrities in other wax museums where it might be expected to see a life-like Elvis, Frank Sinatra or Marilyn Monroe standing by themselves, Lilly’s Museum consisted largely of complete tableaus. So, for example, you wouldn’t see Jack the Ripper by himself. Rather, Jack would be depicted (full-sized in three dimensional wax) plunging a knife into one of this poor female victims. As might be imagined, she would be shown screaming in horror with blood splattered across her blouse. With a prop or two included to heighten the image, the entire setting was unsettling, to say the least. Multiply the above by thirty or forty and you have a museum full of mayhem and gore. In essence, you have the Coney Island Wax Museum. When a friend escorted Lilly Santangelo to the American Folk Art Museum, it was because at an age approaching one hundred, the physical demands running the Wax Museum were just too much for her. And the customers just weren’t there. It was time to close shop. And so we were introduced to Lilly. Even at her advanced age, she was full of energy. Her museum stories were just endless and she was a joy to work with. As gently as we could, we photographed the wax figures and dismantled the Museum. In doing our work, we discovered many wax heads and wax hands in attic storage areas. Some of the heads were identifiable, some not. In any case, it wouldn’t be long before these fascinating, somewhat bizarre creations would be finding new homes.
I’d say that the Coney Island Wax Museum’s portion of our Big Apple fairground auction was the most popular part of the event, except that it seemed like each category of the auction had its own following. In any case, a sizable audience reminisced over the loss of this Coney Island landmark and then bid on its memorable contents. But then a very curious thing happened. At the conclusion of the multi-day event, buyers paid their bills and, with the exception of purchases that required shipping, left with what they bought. If a buyer bought a carousel horse, he took the horse; if another buyer successfully bid on a vintage circus poster, she took the poster. But, if a buyer purchased one of Lilly’s tableaus, he or she didn’t always take the complete tableau. In fact, most of the time, much of the tableau was left behind.
As it turned out, a close examination of Jack the Ripper, or his victim, revealed that although Jack’s head and hands were artfully crafted in wax, his body (hidden beneath vintageappropriate clothing) was not. The bodies used in the Coney Island Wax Museum were simply mannequins. They may have been old mannequins to be sure, but they were most definitely mannequins like one might find in a fashion store front. And although not a single buyer complained, when they left the circus tent with their purchases, they only took the wax elements... they only took the heads and hands! Consequently, at the end of a tiring but successful week during which we had conducted one of the most unusual auctions ever, we were left with roughly seventy five life-size bodies, minus, of course, their heads and hands. The effect was made even more bizarre by the blood-splattered clothing adorning many of these torsos. Had we a day or more to vacate the Big Apple tent there at Lincoln Center, we would likely have arranged for a large dumpster to accommodate these unwanted bodies. But our obligation was to be out of the tent by sun-up of the next morning. As memory serves, the circus was truly coming to town. Now understand that it was about midnight following a complicated yet successful auction and I was feeling pretty good. The pressure was off. Then, all of a sudden, I was confronted with the problem of how to deal with scores of human size figures, all be they covered in blood and headless. We ended up doing the only thing that occurred to me at the time. Upon my instructions, these many figures were loaded into two trucks. One truck was then directed to proceed up Manhattan’s west side while the other went to the upper east side. At the drivers’ discretion, the trucks then stopped at various intersections. Figures that comprised complete tableaus were then off-loaded and set up on street corners just as they appeared at the Wax Museum. When the sun came up, people on their way to work were surprised to encounter these strange and eerie settings. At least one newspaper questioned the origin of the headless figures. And we had something of a laugh over it. Looking back roughly two decades later, perhaps it was a bit juvenile. But at that time, following an event fraught with all kinds of concerns, it seemed like a New York-kind of thing to do. I know it brought a smile to Miss Lilly.
CHAPTER 7 PART 1 HAVING TEA WITH THE ENEMY... THE FIRST AUCTION OF ARTWORK FROM THE SOVIET UNION Who amongst us hasnâ€™t seen documentary footage of American kids in the late 1940s and early 50s taking shelter (ducking) under their schoolroom desks. Well, I was one of those kids. And, at the time, we all were living in fear of a Russian A bomb attack. I grew up with the Cold War. Along with the fear, however, came a certain curiosity about Russia and the Soviet Union... what was it really like behind enemy lines? Were people there all like that shoe-slamming Nikita Krushchev, prepared to crush us like his name suggested? By the mid-1980s, my curiosity about the Reds starting ramping up, particularly as it related to the artwork being produced by the Soviets. I found work from the period of their Bolshevik Revolution - 1917 and on through the next decade -somewhat compelling. Known as the Russian Avant Garde, artists including Kasimir Malevich, Natalia Gontcharova, El Lissitsky and Alexandr Rodchenko produced simple, but sophisticated abstract drawings and paintings that often became the face of the Communist movement. I was also intrigued by the Socialist Realist work from the 1930s through the 1950s. This was the clearly propagandistic art - agitprop - that depicted young and strong Soviet workers united in whatever cause was being illustrated... building a power plant, plowing a field or defeating an enemy. Only on rare occasion did an example of the Russian Avant Garde or a Socialist Realist work migrate to our shores and be featured in a public auction. But when it did, it met with some enthusiasm. And so it was that the birth of the auction that came to be called Artwork of the Soviet Union was born within me.
With the notion of bringing hundreds of these Soviet works of art to our shores for the purpose of an auction, we reached out simultaneously to both ours and the Soviet governments. After some months of waiting, our concept was rejected by both ours and the Soviet governments! “Not a chance” was approximately the phrase we were told in two very different languages. But with the will to persevere (as hopefully is evident throughout this book), we didn’t give up. It was our persistence that ultimately wore down the bureaucrats and clerks in Washington, while the notion of some Uncle Sam’s greenbacks finding their way behind the Iron Curtain started sounding good to those that were at the top of the State-run organization that oversaw all business being done in the Soviet Union. By late 1986, we started having meetings at the Russian Consulate on New York’s East 91st Street.
Speaker through a translator was difficult enough but it became clear that the Soviets at that time really didn’t have a clue how business worked. But as patiently as possible, I attempted to walk them through the process that would begin with the selection of artwork currently residing within the Soviet Union and end with its sale at an auction in New York. Repeatedly, the genres of art we were focusing on - the Avant Garde and Socialist Realist work - were emphasized. We indicated that we would also be receptive to vintage posters and other printed material that were gaining popularity in the U.S. and Europe due in large part to the exciting graphics applied in the early days of the Soviet Union. There then came a moment in one of our many meetings that I brought up the subject of expanding the possible auction categories to include Tsarist era art, antiques and artifacts ranging from elaborate silver samovars to exquisite icons, the term used to describe Eastern Orthodox religious paintings typically created on wooden panels and most often depicting Jesus Christ or the Virgin Mary. Another area that would have been of obvious great interest (if we could pull it off) was the work of Faberge that was created for Russian royalty. Peter Carl Faberge, goldsmith and jeweler to Russian Tsars, was asked by Tsar Alexander III to create an Easter surprise for his wife, Maria Fyodorovna. The year was 1887. From the exterior, what he created appeared to be a simple white enameled golden egg. But when it was opened, it revealed a stunning golden yok. Inside the yok was a miniature hen complete with a tiny ruby crown. The effect was so breathtaking and the work by Faberge and his assistants so beautifully detailed, that a tradition was established and Alexander and the succession of Tsars that followed all commissioned the master jeweler to continue to create an Easter egg annually. Sixty nine completely different ones were crafted in all (a handful were made for private citizens) and today, they are viewed as amongst the world’s great masterpieces. One sold recently at auction for more the $16 million dollars! But back in 1987, awareness of the Faberge eggs was far less than it is today and quite frankly, the Soviet representatives I was meeting with had never heard of them. But I tried my best to describe the work along with other Russian jewelry that would have been highly prized in the west.
Towards the end of the 1987 winter, Barbara and I took our first trip to Russia. (I was to take two more by myself in fairly rapid succession.) Today, traveling to Russia, China or any of a number of formerly exotic destinations has become almost commonplace, but back then, going to the Soviet Union was a big deal. As a true enemy of the U.S., not many Americans were allowed to travel there. Many permits and many pre-arrangements needed to be made. There was no chance one could just go “for a visit.” But following what seemed like endless visits to the Consulate to get our visas, we were off. Although I have always managed to travel a fair amount, arriving in Moscow followed the long Aeroflot flight (New York to London, London to Moscow), was a stunner... and somewhat intimidating. Although I had been a reservist in the Army and was accustomed to encountering groups of soldiers, they had always been our soldiers, and friendly. The soldiers positioned everywhere you turned in Sheremetevo International Airport were neither. Although we wore no sign indicating we were Amerikanski, it must have been quite obvious. The looks we received were chilling. After roaming the airport for a bit, we did meet up with one of the government group that was to escort us across the Soviet Union. But despite the fact that we had now been officially welcomed, I had no success in locating my luggage. It was lost. A few days later, just when it seemed I dared not wear my traveling outfit one day longer, I received a message to return to the airport. The luggage was found and at the time, the incident forgotten. Later, I wondered if it had been lost perhaps intentionally. My bags did contain many books and other “tools of the auction trade” that I brought with me; material that might have looked suspicious to a nation of people who were wary of everything. What impressed me immediately as we were driven from the airport to our Moscow hotel (one of the very few at the time), was the enormous expanse of many of the avenues within Moscow - and the lack of vehicles thereon. A street (prospekt) might have been six lanes wide in each direction but, more often than not, were almost always nearly empty. The cars that one did encounter were black and either a Russian-made Lada or Russian-made Chaika. The overall sense one got from Moscow at that time was of a gray, almost colorless, humorless place. In time, that was to substantially change. But back then, that was how it appeared to me. By comparison to New York, where it is said that there are approximately ten thousand restaurants, Moscow, in the mid-1980’s, had three! (Not three thousand, mind you, but three.) Perhaps there were more, although I didn’t see any, but the list presented to us as places we could eat outside of our hotel contained only three choices. Hotel dining, by the way, was something of a challenge. Meals were provided for those travelers who were part of one or another tour. Inasmuch as we were not part of a tour, there were no meals available to us. We had to make due. A certain degree of success was achieved when I was able to purchase a layer cake from a street vendor and that cake sustained us for days.
Early the next morning, the first full day after our arrival, we were picked up by our small group. This consisted of a young fellow who was our translator, a woman who represented the Ministry of Culture and a government official, a gentleman who took a while to get to know, but in the end proved to be a friend. We drove to the outskirts of the City, passing large groves of white birch trees. Indeed, throughout our travels in Russia, that tree dominated many forests. Unlike the occasional glimmer of white overshadowed by large stands of dark-barked pine groves and the massive oaks and maples we are accustomed to seeing, in that part of the world the white-barked trees dominated. Before long, we arrived at an enclosed sports arena not unlike our Madison Square Garden. As we exited our car, we were met with a cadre of the press... newspaper journalists, television cameramen and miked reporters, about twenty in all. I frankly had no idea why they were there as they followed us into the arena. The floor of the arena, that large concrete-covered space on which ice hockey rinks and wooden basketball courts are placed, was cleared. Temporary seating was pushed back to allow for the maximum square footage attainable in that huge coliseum. In something of a rush, we were ushered into the nearly empty center of that space. â€œNearlyâ€? empty, I note, as there was a single podium with several microphones attached to it standing there. Still clueless, I was directed to the podium and before I knew it, bombarded with questions â€“ in Russian! It rapidly became evident that Barbara and I represented a unique opportunity for the people of that nation; we became the voice through which their culture would speak outside of Soviet borders. It took a moment to comprehend this unexpected, and important, role we were being placed in. Unknown to us, great plans were made for our stay in the Soviet Union. Whether these plans coincided with our own objectives seemed to matter less. That Soviets saw us as representatives of the rest of the world, a world intrigued by their art, was uplifting and significant to the people we met that morning and the people we continued to meet on our continuing journey through that vast land.
Coming to grips with the seriousness of the situation, I then looked beyond the podium, beyond the reporters. There, circled around us, was a vast circle of tables creating a ring stretching to the limits of that huge indoor athletic field. In all, there were about two hundred tables, each about eight feet in length. Behind each table was a person, standing, and looking in our direction.
In due course, following the impromptu, and unexpected press conference I gave, I was directed towards one of the tables. As we closed in on this first table, we started feeling a sense of familiarity. This table looked like tables one would encounter at a flea market or craft show, a table on which a crafts person or seller would offer their wares. Sure enough, the table top of that first table contained a display of jewelry... jewelry that appeared to be quite similar to the kind of jewelry I had often seen displayed throughout impromptu stalls erected on the streets of NYC’s Greenwich Village. Silver - Sterling and plate - had been twisted and soldered into earrings and bracelets, chains and key fobs. Occasionally, there would be a turquoise-like stone embedded, harkening visions of our great Southwest. Now keep in mind that I did not realize, at that moment, why I was being shown this jewelry that appeared like the handmade work commonly available for most affordable amounts - $10 to $50 dollars apiece - from sellers back home. I shifted my vision to the table to the left and realized that it also contained craft jewelry. The table beyond that did too. Indeed, as I began scanning the hall, every one of the roughly two hundred tables appeared to contain this kind of stuff. Now, nearly a quarter century later, I’m trying to remember the exact moment when it hit me. But as I was standing sort of speechless in front of the very first craft person/vendor, the chilling truth blanketed me like a wave. My words, spoken months earlier to the Soviet government representative in New York were either misinterpreted or not understood. When I indicated serious interest in Russian jewelry - jewelry like the fabulous eggs of Peter Carl Faberge - in didn’t register. Jewelry... yes. But Faberge... Tsarist period... significant diamonds and other precious stones... no. He had translated my request for jewelry to mean the work of craftspeople, which, as well intended as it may have been, would not be the material from which to build a major auction back in the States. Now, I was being asked to speak to each of these two hundred jewelry makers standing in front of me - one at a time as I moved from table to table. It was suggested that I address the appropriateness of the work of each of these people vis a vis its inclusion in our American auction, people who had gone to the trouble of bringing their work for me to see, people who had hopes that their work would be admired in the west. Patiently, I spoke with that first vendor, a gentleman about fifteen years my senior. I explained to him that although I admired his work, it didn’t fit the parameters for our upcoming auction sale. I probably focused on the fact that it was crafted within the last year or two, as opposed to the last century, and contained, at best, stones routinely found in costume jewelry. The jewelry of the Royals it wasn’t. I felt badly for his rejection but moved on. Addressing the person at the second table (whether it was a he or she who happened to have used silver, brass or copper - it was at this point that that already seemed to matter little), I was a bit briefer. Feeling badly for the effort this person had gone to, I was nevertheless starting to get uncomfortable for having been put in this position. Well, if I felt this way after two people, you can imagine how I felt after having to reject the work of the twentieth person or the one hundredth. It was pretty depressing. Depressing
for actually having to speak to each of these people at that moment, and depressing due to the concern that I suddenly had that all of our goals for the Soviet trip may have been misunderstood. But the “show has to go on” and somehow I managed to get through that first day in Russia. Barely.
Unfortunately, the Moscow meetings that soon followed the jewelry disaster proved to be not much better. Within a day or two, we were taken to an office space where works of art were temporarily displayed to meet with our approval. All contemporary (which in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing as contemporary works of art by certain important artists can command substantial prices), the work was of the caliber we might see here in the States decorating the walls two or three star hotels. Overall, this work was poor and the artists unknown. Like the jewelry, hardly appropriate material for our auction. “What happened” we asked “to the Avant Garde and Social Realist work we had discussed back in New York?” At that point, we were essentially told that we might as well forget about exporting anything of pre-World War II vintage... which of course ruled out everything we were after. Facing the possibility of simply packing up and going home, I pushed as hard as I could. Fearing that too strenuous an objection could find me breaking stones in the Gulag, I nevertheless argued that were our requests not considered, there would be no auction event, and no benefit to the Soviets. Over the course of the next several days, the Soviet’s position softened and a plan was laid out where we could meet with that nation’s truly great living artists, while also meeting with the directors of several prominent museums.
CHAPTER 7 PART 2 HAVING TEA WITH THE ENEMY... THE FIRST AUCTION OF ARTWORK FROM THE SOVIET UNION Before long, a schedule was developed that had us leaving Moscow for Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and then on to more remote and rural areas within Russia before crossing the Lithuanian border, where a number of important Soviet artists lived and worked. Air travel between most points was difficult (if not impossible) while a highway system was virtually non-existent. We took the sleeper train. Visually, the 1930’s-vintage Russian trains with their rich, wood-paneled interiors could not have been more romantic as their made their way through the deep snows of the northern reaches of that bitterly cold region. On board, however, it was a different story. For one thing, the heat was constant and oppressive. Although I doubt there was a thermometer on board, my guess is that it would never have dipped below the century mark. The temperature may have been far below zero outside, inside those trains we never stopped sweating. We had been warned not to expect normal toilet paper and the warnings proved true. Speaking for myself, a 200 course sandpaper might have been gentler that what we were forced to use while traveling. On board, we got to know our entourage. Other than being intelligent, attractive and helpful, I don’t recall any particularly interesting situations involving the woman who was our liaison with the artists and museums. I would note, however, that growing up in the States, I - and I suspect all my friends - were led to believe that all Russian women were fat and grossly unattractive. This was hardly the case. In fact, as I’ve continued to visit Moscow over the years, I can’t think of a city with more attractive women. And this includes Paris. In any case, our young interpreter surprised us by deciding that, at any given moment, he would break into dance. With an explanation that dance was coming to the Olympics, he had learned the moves that might, one day, make him an Olympian. To me, though, he was robotic and awkward. But then again, there are the many Eastern European boxers who, as awkward and mechanical as they appear, often beat their far more fluid and graceful American opponents. The older gentleman representing the Soviet government was built sort of like a fire hydrant. There were many times, on those hot steamy trains, that he would
strip to his undershirt and he and I would end up in an arm wrestle. I don’t remember who won more often, but they were close matches. Would the Cold War only have been so simple. Although I doubt it was scheduled this way, it seemed like we never arrived at a destination at any time other than 2:00, 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. With steam belching from the engine, we would pull into a snow-covered station in the dark early morning hours. The scene was right out of Dr. Zhivago. It might have been nice had Julie Christie (Barbara would have liked Omar Sharif) been waiting for us at these stations, but the good news was that there was always a group of artists gathered to assist us with our luggage and get us to wherever we would be spending the remainder of the evening. They were terrific. They were grateful that we came to see their work and could not have been more hospitable.
I traveled across Russia for the purpose of both meeting with museum directors and with leading, highly regarded artists. It was in my meetings with the artists that I started noting similarities from one meeting to the next. For starters, no matter what part of the country I was in, they each seemed to work in a setting that one might have imagined was in Paris in the 1920s. Their studios were all one-room affairs - a garret - typically on the top floor (with skylights) of a five or six story walk-up. There was always the strong smell of oil. Covering their walls were bookshelves filled to overflowing with art books from their fellow Russian or Soviet artists along with impressive libraries devoted to western art. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists were well represented. I don’t know why this surprised me but it did. Clearly, these accomplished artists, who for the most part could not speak a word of English, French or any of the other western languages, were most knowledgeable when it came to our art. And make no mistake about it. The people I was honored to meet with were all extremely accomplished and well-recognized within Soviet society. Indeed, most had substantial coffee table-style art books published, documenting their respective careers. In the U.S., books like these are most typically done after the death of an artist, but in Russia these people received great accolades during their lifetime. Despite the recognition heaped on the artists, they received little else. They were committed to selling their works to the Soviet State for which they received very little compensation. It was therefore not unusual to meet a famed artist living in our equivalent of a welfarelevel existence. Among the many sculptors I met were A. M. Ignatjev, L. Gadaev and L. M. Kholina. Painters included Yuri Kugach, A. S. Papikyan, Olga Svetlichnaya, Alexander Vasiliev. Occasionally, we were introduced to the spouse of a deceased artist such as the widow Rostislav Nikolaevich Galitski. Many of the artists we met with had enormous credentials. I’ll cite just one. Yuri Kugach: People’s Artist of the USSR; Member of the USSR
Academy of Arts. Museum Exhibitions: State Tretyakov Gallery, Gorki Art Museum, State Russian Museum, Kiev State Russian Art Museum, Irkutsk Regional Art Museum, RostovUpon-Don Art Museum, State Art Museum of Uzbek, Historical Museum in Taganrog, Altai Historical Museum, etc., etc. You get the picture. To a person, my meetings were thrilling. And almost without exception, I was gifted with an inscribed copy of the aforementioned art books filled with the work of the artist I had just met. A military duffel bag I was able to find in my travels ended filled with well more than a hundred pounds of books which I proudly lugged home. (For some reason, these books became an issue with Russian authorities and almost didn’t make it on the plane home.) There were cultural differences easy to discern between Barbara and myself and the artists. For some silly reason, I recall how the fact that our winter coats (Barbara’s and mine) did not have loops on which to hang them proved a perplexing problem to the Russians. Accustomed to looping a coat over a peg protruding from an entrance area wall, our coats became an issue. The Russians didn’t have coat hangers, or for that matter, even closets. Whereas I wouldn’t have cared less had they simply tossed my coat over a chair, they feared that would have been in some way insulting. So on each visit, we went through endless apologies from both sides (the Russians: “How stupid we are for only having hanging pegs for your coats.”; Barbara and I “How stupid we are for not having loops sewn onto our coats.”) It was like a dance we went through upon entering each artist’s studio. It should be noted that before returning to the USSR for follow-up visits, I had loops sewn into my clothing. Like the coat loops, another minor matter became something of an issue as well. I do not like tea. Perhaps it was memories of my mother making me drink it as a boy whenever I developed a sore throat, but as an adult, I simply do not care for it. Now I must confess that this of such little importance that I can’t recall ever mentioning it anyone; anyone, that is, outside the Soviet Union. Within the Soviet Union, the Amerikanski quickly became known as that unusual fellow who didn’t drink their national drink. Now you’re probably still saying to yourself “Who cares?” and I wouldn’t be disagreeing with you. But the fact that I didn’t drink tea (discovered, no doubt, during our first few days in Moscow), preceded me as I visited with the artists. You’ve already read about the kindly nature and gratitude for our visit expressed by the artists. This extended to include their belief that it was necessary for them to demonstrate their hospitality through an offering. Accordingly, once the ritual of the coat loops was concluded, we would approach the center of their one-room studios where, without fail, a small table (a card table, if you will) was set up. On the table was something to eat... either a few slices of a salami-type meat or a couple of pieces of plain cake (i.e., pound cake). Now understand that this offering for the visiting Americans would be set up no matter what the hour of day
or evening. Most days, our meetings began at 8:00 in the morning. Because there was often travel time necessary between stops, these visits started at all hours. It wasn’t unusual to start a meeting at 10:00 in the evening. But again, no matter what the time of the visit, the table with the food was always there. Sitting or standing next to the table was something equivalent to starting a baseball or basketball game with our National Anthem. Before any pleasantries were exchanged, it was mandatory to take a bite or two of the food offering. But with the food came a beverage. And now the dilemma. With the word preceding me that I didn’t care for tea, and with tea being their “national drink” and readily available to everyone within the USSR, what does one do if the person you are about to serve tea to doesn’t drink it? Now in the States, I’m very comfortable with Diet Coke, orange juice or juice from essentially any other fruit on the planet, hot chocolate (believe it or not, I don’t care for coffee either), perhaps even a beer... or water. Regarding this latter beverage, I find myself increasingly trying to remember the days of my youth when my friends and I could travel from one playground to another, even from one neighborhood to another, without the need to replenish our fluids every fifty yards. I realize that those days are long gone as I watch my children barely able to make it from 88th Street to 89th Street without stopping for several chugs from their Poland Springs bottles, but call me old fashioned. Somehow I reason that if Lawrence of Arabia can traverse the Arabian Desert without a drop to drink from one day to the next, I can survive a business meeting high and dry. But the Russians didn’t feel this way. Perhaps they were concerned that I would wire Washington that I wasn’t being given anything to drink and hence, fire up the nukes, or perhaps they just wanted to be friendly... but one way or the other, they felt compelled to have a beverage on the table. At this point, I’m guessing you know where this is going because indeed, they did have a beverage. It was clear and looked very much like water as it filled large, roughly 12 ounce glasses to overflowing. Of course, it was not water. It was that second “national drink” of Russia, good old fashioned vodka. Now I can handle several Harvey’s Bristol Creams over the course of an evening, or perhaps a few weakened Tanqueray and tonics, but a drinker I am not. So the prospect of downing straight full strength vodka (no water, no ice, no lemon), and downing a lot of it at eight in the morning was somewhat intimidating. Quickly, I learned that to drink anything less than the full glass was not good. It would either cause an international incident causing the aforementioned nukes to come hurtling from both sides, or at the least, it would hurt the feelings of our hosts. In their eyes, it would also make me appear to be “less than a man.” “Ha. Look at those weak Americanskis!” So to ward off international havoc and protect the reputation of all American males, I drank with the Russians. Although I was halfway around the globe from my home, deeply ensconced within the borders of our enemy, I could just as well have been a lot further away than that. By my third consecutive meeting on any given morning, I might as well have been on the moon. How I got through those meetings and recollect anything that occurred baffles me to this day. But I do have vivid memories of those Russian artists... memories that will retain all of my days. When, for example, my meeting with Albert Stepanovich Papikyan, Honored Artist of the Russian Federation with a list of accomplishments a kilometer long ended at close to midnight (it started at about 10pm) and the others in our group left, I stayed. Even though Albert and I spoke different languages, we somehow communicated. And drank and laughed until the wee hours.
During the course of our travels, we stopped in Estonia and met with the sculptor Matti Varek. Varek, whose work is in the State Tretyakov Gallery and other prominent museums, produced powerful, often massive works in bronze. (Bronze, by the way, was hard to come by in the USSR. Some artists had more success in acquiring it than others. Varek was one of the latter.) Much of Varek’s work was contained in his large, barn-like studio. Unlike most of the artists who had the small garret-like spaces previously described, Varek’s workshop was in a rural setting, miles from any neighbor. While visiting with him, we spied (did I choose this word with an alternate meaning in mind?) a compelling work roughly a hundred yards out in a field leading to the distant mountains. Snow covered, we still wanted to see this work close-up. The work was Varek’s modernist vision of a pair of deer. Life size, the two deer were beautifully created and compelling. They had a deep, dark weathered patina and were instantly placed on our list for inclusion of items for the auction. Up until now, I haven’t described the selection process, but that is what we were there to do... choose works that we thought would be appealing to the audience participating in the auction back in New York. That we now, of necessity, were choosing contemporary works which obviously differed from our original game plan of focusing on the Avant Garde and Socialist Realist genres of art, suggested that we were “going with the flow”, making the best of the circumstances presented to us. As it turned out, we were later informed that the Varek sculpture of the two deer could not be included in the shipment of items to the U.S. earmarked for the auction. It was simply too big, too heavy and located in a far too remote part of the country. We were disappointed. In the vastness of the USSR, it was surprising that essentially no infrastructure of highways, bridges and tunnels existed. So accustomed to our own interstate network of highways (created, interestingly, following the lead of President Eisenhower at the same time our nation was lagging behind the Russians in the space race), we soon came to realize that it was going to be some chore getting
the chosen items from their respective artist’s locations to a central shipping point in the USSR and on to the U.S. Nearly a year later, when the containers finally arrived in New York and their contents checked off the master list and against the sizable auction catalogue we had produced from photographs we had been supplied from Russia, low and behold, there were the Varik deer. Without any explanation and any advance warning, the Russians had gotten it done. Now normally, were an item to be entered into an auction after the production of the auction catalogue (today’s internet auctions alter this equation somewhat), it gets placed onto an addendum of late entrants. But in the case of the deer, this was different. Barbara and I, in our private lives, worked hard for the protection of animals. At that time, we had a home in the village of Tuxedo Park, New York where an issue over the protection - or hunting - of deer was raging. We were among the leaders in the protection of these beautiful animals that were struggling to exist on ever decreasing lands due to suburban development. Deer were a part of lives. Our experiences in Russia were unforgettable. We had gotten to know the artist. And the sculpture was wonderful. Put it all together and we had to own this work. It almost seemed like fate that it came unannounced and unexpected. We contacted our Soviet representatives and made a deal. Barbara and I purchased the sculpture without it coming to auction and proudly display it to this day as a beloved treasure from our experiences in the USSR.
In the container with the deer sculpture came the many hundreds of other works of art we had chosen from our travels. There were paintings that ranged in size from a couple of square inches to massive works such as Lev Bogomolets’ turbulent seascape Ocean measuring 180 x 360 cm (71 x 142”) and Stanislav Molodykh’s massive historic depiction of Alexander Nevsky and his followers as the great Russian hero defeated German invaders in the 13th century, a story that was memorialized by Sergei Eisenstein in his 1938 Russian film. That painting measured a whopping 338 x 500 cm (133” x 197” or nearly 16 and a half feet wide!). Along with the paintings came many sculptures, quite of few of which weighed in at impressive amounts. Several were in the thousand pound range while one or two were estimated to tip the scales at a ton or more. No one ever accused the Soviets of thinking small. But to their credit, they figured out how to get these things to New York where we installed them on the drill floor of New York City’s Park Avenue (7th Regiment) Armory. In the end, we were able to convince the Russians to release some earlier work such as the 1930’s vintage paintings of R. N. Galitski. Due in part to the fact that these works remained in the hands of his widow long after the artist’s death, we were able to get them for the auction. Galitski’s paintings were realist visions of life on Soviet communes with close-ups of citizens at work and play, and workers assembled for what one would imagine were impromptu gatherings
in the fields. They conjured up images of the farm workers depicted in the Grapes of Wrath. But unlike the characters in the Steinbeck novel, these Soviet workers appeared content. To us, they spoke of an ideal that may never have been achieved from the Communist way of life. Once word of the coming auction spread, the kind of material we had set out to find started filtering its way to us. By the time we went to press with the 300 page catalogue, the auction contained works by some of the most important artists who ever worked within the Soviet Union. Reading like a who’s who that virtually any art museum around the world would covet, the auction include works by Malevich, Rodchenko, Gontcharova, Kliun, Larionov, El Lissitsky, Lebedev, Burliuk and others. Had these works of art been from the Impressionist period, it would have been like having Renoir, Monet, Manet and Van Gogh.
Almost from our very start, we attempted to make our auctions events. Unlike any other auction house we are aware of, we almost always have held invitational preview parties for our best customers and the press prior to the public preview and then auction. The “Artwork of the Soviet Union” Auction was no exception. In the weeks and months leading up to the sale, we were successful in bringing on board a number of companies that would make our event that much more exciting. These included Stolichnaya Vodka and the now, sadly, long gone Russian Tea Room that in its day had been one of the great restaurants and meeting places on New York’s West 57th Street, just down from Carnegie Hall. Stolichnaya was so enthused with our concept that they chose to introduce three new flavored vodkas to the world at our opening preview. The Russian Tea Room provided a seemingly endless array of Russian delicacies which, coupled with the vodka and Russian dancers helped make that evening extraordinary. The Armory’s drill floor one of the largest enclosed areas in NYC, or for that matter, almost anywhere else. Extending from Lexington Avenue to Park Avenue, and from 66th Street to 67th Street, it is huge. With a seventy foot high arched sky-lit roof overhead and no supporting columns, one can essentially create anything that might be dreamt up within that space. We created a little bit of Russia. Surrounded by the nearly one thousand works of art, the caviar and vodka flowed while the music played. I think it fair to say that for at least that evening, political differences were forgotten.
The auction itself was reasonably successful. Put it this way: although it was good, we have had greater financial successes. But it didn’t do poorly. And, perhaps more importantly, it became one of the cornerstones of Guernsey’s, helping to put our auction house “on the map”. It was a serious auction of serious art. It provided fabulous memories for Barbara and I that will always stay with us, and accordingly, we will be forever pleased we produced the event. In the months that followed, we noted repeated references to the auction in the press, citing the event as a landmark in the world of Cold War cultural exchanges. Apparently, this was the first time a truly major collection of Soviet art had visited our shores since the start of the Cold War following World War II. Indeed, it was suggested that it was the largest presentation of Soviet art to be displayed in the U.S. ever (i.e., since the time of the establishment of the Soviet Union following the Russian Revolution of 1917. That the auction was being hailed as a “cultural groundbreaker”... an event that seemed to open people’s eyes to the fact that like us, the enemy was capable of producing sensitive, beautiful and occasionally meaningful works of art added an understanding for some that may not have existed before. And although it would be preposterous to suggest that in some tiny way the auction helped pave the way for the tearing down of the Berlin Wall that was to occur only one year later, we were shown more than a handful of printed articles that included the auction in discussions about the monumental events that lead to the end of the Cold War in the fall of 1989.
In 2007, nearly two decades after our Soviet Art Auction, I received a call. It was from Russia. The caller referred to our 1980s event and noted how well it had been received in what had formerly been the Soviet Union and now was simply Russia. The caller asked if I might be interested in discussing the possible sale of “significant objects” that once had been important to the Soviet machine. A number of more calls and it wasn’t long before my bags were packed for my first return trip to Russia in nearly twenty years. Upon my arrival in Moscow, I was driven to Gorky Park, the City’s central park made famous to westerners because of the popular fictional thriller by the same title. Along the way, I witnessed a Moscow vastly different from what I had remembered. That once somber and dull place had blossomed. Gray building fronts were now settings for endless stores. Restaurants (remember, when we had been there previously there were only three) were now everywhere. Indeed, entire ten and twenty story office buildings were covered - completely - with fabric advertising banners. I mean literally, a slickly produced, parachute-materiallike advertising banner for some product similar or identical to products I was well familiar with. Those ultra-wide once empty avenues where now filled with Mercedes, Lexus’s, Volvos and virtually every other make known. Even Bentleys. In fact, I can’t recall ever seeing
more Bentleys in one place than in Moscow at that time, and that includes New York’s Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. Clearly, capitalism brought big change... it showed everywhere. We pulled up to one of the outer entrances to Gorky Park and from there walked into its interior. After ten minutes, we came to a young children’s amusement area, an area that did not look unlike many here in the States with one notable exception. In the rear of the area was a truly huge, hulking - if you can believe it - space craft. Now, please understand me... we’re not talking mock-up here, we’re talking real Soviet space craft. At this otherwise sweet and gentle cluster of small rides - boats floating in a pool, a kiddie carousel, etc. - stood what I soon came to understand was the largest space shuttle ever built. In a design similar in outward appearance to our own U.S. space shuttle, the Buran sat. Except it was larger... much larger. Capable of a payload many times our own, this product of what I was told was a fifteen billion dollar budget now sat as an attraction that one could pay a ruble or two to step inside. Once there, a short documentary was shown in the actual cargo bay of this behemoth. As we departed the Buran (“blizzard” in Russian), I was asked if we would like to sell - to sell! – the Buran back in the U.S. I believe it was at that juncture that recollections of my career as an auctioneer started spinning inside my head. I started remembering many of the crazy things I had sold over the years. Perhaps this was how a fighter who was on the canvas, struggling to get up before the count of ten, felt. Not that I’ve personally been in that position, but one always hears about how a boxer’s whole career flashes by in those few chaotic seconds. Before I could fully collect my thoughts about presenting the Buran to the world, I found myself being whisked outside of Moscow. Along the way, we stopped at an austere-looking building where I was introduced to a group of men, several wearing military uniforms. Without any warning, I was asked to address a room full of people on the subject of the possible sale of military items from the former Soviet Union! Now mind you, I had no idea what military items they were talking about and the last thing we would ever do is help arm some third world nation with Russian machine guns. But I listened, and spoke, as best I could. The meeting broke and we continued our trip with Moscow fading in the distance behind us. Within an hour, we arrived at a guarded complex of two and three story buildings, all in serious disrepair. It didn’t take much to realize that this was some form of military complex and in due course I came to know it as the Zhukovsky air field. Zhukovsky was the largest complex of its type in the world. Following several additional introductions and a brief tour of the interior of one or two buildings, including a center that looked very much like the Air Force command center in Dr. Stangelove, I was escorted out to the air fields themselves. As we started walking onto these truly vast concrete fields with no aircraft activity in sight, I started feeling pretty strange myself. I was just an auctioneer... and an American one at that. I was surrounded by eight or ten military men, all formerly from the military that was out to destroy us. What was I doing here? Now imagine that you are standing on a runway at JFK or Hartsfield, except there no sounds
other than the wind whipping across this empty space. Now imagine that the space was several times the size of those American runways and you were in the former Soviet Union. It felt weird. Well, we kept walking and in time, two planes came into focus. Somehow they seemed out of place. They were two of the beautiful European Concordes, now no longer in service. Or at least, so I thought. The planes I was looking at were not Concordes at all, but rather the little known Soviet version of same called the Tupolev 144. Designed for internal travel in a nation that is so huge it spans eleven time zones, the Tupolev 144 was never exposed to the west. But it was a dead ringer for the Concorde. But like the Concorde, it didn’t work out. And these two aging, but still majestic air ships, were the sole remaining examples from an original fleet of twenty. From the Tupolevs we then crossed to an adjacent air strip with a different flavor. Whereas the Tupolev 144s were designed for civilian passenger travel, now I was confronted with military aircraft. First we came upon a row of perhaps forty fighter jets - Migs - impressively aligned down one long row. Bombers were next. Almost speechless, a plane then came into sight unlike I had ever seen – in person, in news coverage, in documentaries - ever. There in stunning silence was the most beautiful – and most lethal - instrument of death I could ever imagine. Before I knew it, I was standing directly under the needle thin nose of a what I would imagine was a more than one hundred foot long but pencil-thin fighter bomber gleaming in its unpainted polished metal finish. The tail sported a single large red star, the symbol of the Soviet Union. As I couldn’t seem to look away from the stunning pointed nose of this Buck Rogers-like rocket ship cum fighter bomber air craft, I started hearing the words of one of the entourage explaining in a calm, matter-of-fact way that this particular craft (I believe he said that it was the only one of its type ever built), was designed for a single purpose. That purpose... to reach, and destroy, New York City. Now maybe I’m being naive, but I truly don’t believe that these men were in any way trying to intimidate me or be threatening in any way. Indeed, the feeling was quite the opposite. What was created with the worst intentions was now a product of an era past. And now, under their capitalistic system, the Russian infrastructure was crumbling. The well-oiled military machine that at one time was so frightening was now in shambles. And the Russians needed our help. Selling these extraordinary machines could produce income that could be used for worthy projects. That was their stated hope. I was told that I, who simply am an auctioneer, was the first westerner actually given a tour of these once lethal weapons. It was a heavy trip. I left Russia not knowing if we could - or would - want to be a part of this most unusual project. I didn’t know if we wanted to sell aging Soviet military machines. As this is being written, the jury is still out. But without question, this most recent visit to Russia was certainly a trip I will never forget.
To be continued...
Many of the most explosive, unimaginable behind the scenes auction stories occurred while Guernsey’s prepared for its unprecedented events....
Published on Jan 19, 2018
Many of the most explosive, unimaginable behind the scenes auction stories occurred while Guernsey’s prepared for its unprecedented events....