HERITAGE AUCTIONS PRESIDENT DISCUSSES DEALERS, UNDERVALUED ARTISTS AND HIS COLLECTING OBSESSION
GREG ROHAN STARTED collecting coins at the age of 8, and by 10 had a dealer’s table at trade shows in Seattle. His business grew rapidly and in 1987 he joined Heritage Auctions, where today he is company president.
Rohan has appeared as an expert on CNN, CNBC, ABC and CBS, and has worked with the families of John Wayne and Malcolm Forbes as well as Random House Publishing, Time-Warner, Frito-Lay, Stanford University and the Smithsonian Institution.
He co-authored the award-winning Collector’s Handbook: Tax Planning, Strategy and Estate Advice for Collectors and their Heirs, and served two terms on the Advisory Board at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
What was your most successful auction in the past year?
With 40 categories, that’s like asking which of your children is your favorite. If you measure success in terms of world record prices, I would have to say that it would be our May American Art sale, featuring the Judson C. and Nancy Sue Ball Collection. The auction featured 15 record-setting canvases for American artists, including the record sale of Rockwell Kent’s Polar Expedition, 1944, for $605,000 (double the previous auction record) and Joseph Christian Leyendecker’s Thanksgiving, 1628-1928: 300 Years Pilgrim and Football Player. That set a record for the artist when it sold for $365,000.
Which lot was the most exciting or surprising?
Last year we auctioned Muhammad Ali’s, still Cassius Clay at the time, first championship gloves used in his bout with Sonny Liston. Bidding started at $125,000 and after several minutes of intense action, sold for $836,500. Ali’s path to becoming an American icon started with those gloves. A second lot was Francis H.C. Crick’s Nobel Prize medal and diploma for perhaps the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century, DNA. The lot opened at $250,000 and when the gavel fell, the lot had realized $2.27 million.
Is there an artist, market or medium you think is overlooked right now? Something you’d invest in?
I don’t invest in art. I tend to buy what I love and I enjoy seeing every day. I do, however, feel there are a few undervalued artists in the marketplace. Time and time again, we see that as the market for the leaders of a movement grow beyond the means of the art-collecting public, that their equally important contemporaries quickly get snapped up and follow suite. That might be Hans Hofmann for Abstract Expressionism, or Milton Avery, Arthur Dove and John Marin for American Modernism, or James Rosenquist for Pop.
How have online auctions changed the way you do business?
Heritage sold $356.6 million online in 2014, but online had enormous influence on all our competitors, great and small. Skate’s reported that for 2014, Christie’s online sales were up 60 percent to $35.1 million. We have been conducting online auctions for almost 20 years and our online auctions and Web model are second to none. I don’t see that changing, but I do see our competitors trying to change to keep up with us.
What other trends do you see influencing the market?
The biggest trend I see right now is collectors in their 60s and 70s, who have invested time and resources in putting together exemplary collections, who are selling since their children have no interest in the art. This is leading to some major masterworks from private sources hitting the auction block, which are producing big prices.
What part of your business saw the most growth in 2014?
Fine Art sales in 2014 were up 60 percent over 2013, and World and Ancient Numismatics sales were up 70 percent.
Where would you like to take the company in the next several years?
We have 40 categories now, so I don’t see adding many more. We are really focused on improving the existing categories plus the overall client experience in every way possible. As for physical growth, we just announced the opening of our 11th and 12th offices in Hong Kong and Chicago, respectively, and there are a few more locations that we would like to open when the right opportunity presents itself.
What one thing do you wish more collectors knew?
That when they are selling outright to a dealer, they are on opposite sides of the table. No matter how fair the dealer is trying to be, he does this every day and he has a significant advantage over the collector, who is likely selling only occasionally. With auction, it’s different. The collector and the auction house are on the same side of the table, and their interests are aligned. The collector seller will also sleep better knowing what the end buyer paid at a public auction.
Do you have a collecting obsession?
I collect in multiple, disparate, unrelated areas, but I’d say my obsession is with an area of rare U.S. Banknotes from the 19th and early 20th century, plus related banking ephemera.