RARE PIECES MAY HIT THE MARKET ONCE IN A LIFETIME, SO IT’S IMPORTANT TO GET THE DETAILS RIGHT
By Katie Nartonis
M ANKIND HAS SOME decidedly attractive traits and one of my favorites is the ability to tell a cracking good story. Just as our prehistoric ancestors recounted ancient myth and legend under the starry night sky, we modern humans seem hardwired to process our experience by creating a compelling narrative. One of the keenest pleasures in the art of collecting is to discover the unique story inherent in an object and then the sheer joy of relating it to others.
Whether the object is a mid-century, molded-plywood Eames chair or a rare and early baseball card, every object has its own unique and layered history. A particularly rare piece may only come for sale once in a lifetime, so it’s important to get the details just right. Scholarship and research are indeed necessary to place an object in its unique historical context, but passion is also a key element. Condition and story (or provenance) are also important, but without a deep love for the material, an object and its context just won’t come to life.
Many times, I’ve found that being an auction specialist can also be a bit like a detective, and the whole story doesn’t end with the printing of the auction catalog.
Heritage Auctions’ 20th Century Design auction this spring included a lovely example of a “Papa Bear” chair and ottoman designed circa 1950 by Hans Wegner (1914-2007). This iconic form, from a most important Scandinavian maker, is highly sought after by collectors from London to Tokyo. Perhaps one of the most comfortable chairs ever designed, no modern collection is complete without an example of the Wegner “Papa Bear.”
As expected, there was lots of interest in the Wegner chair. The 20th Century team received a request from a buyer who asked to see photos of the underside of the chair. Happy to oblige, I turned the chair over and took a closer look. It was obvious that the piece had been re-upholstered, as the bottom exhibited newer staples instead of the round-head nails of the original Wegner upholstery. Not a big deal, although the original fabric would certainly have made it more valuable. I delicately removed the dust cover on the bottom of the chair and what I saw was not totally expected. The underside had the normal two-digit number, which we see on all examples, that indicates the manufacture. But strangely, the “Denmark” import mark was nowhere to be seen. I sent detailed photos of the underside of chair to our client, but I puzzled a bit.
I knew in my gut that the chair was authentic. The piece had the right quality details, feel, proportions and the correct patina for its age. The dimensions, which I double and triple checked, were also correct. I knew it came from a very good home – from the collection of Buzz and Lois Aldrin. But why was it missing the import mark?
The answer came a few days later, when I was back in Los Angeles and had the chance to meet the consignor of the chair in our Beverly Hills gallery. When I asked, Lois Aldrin told me she had purchased the piece while traveling in Europe in the 1950s. Well there it was! How simple. Because she had acquired the chair in Denmark, this explained why the piece did not exhibit the normal import mark. It was the final piece of the puzzle – and the chair’s unique and interesting history.
As auction specialists, it’s our job to relate each object’s unique story in a compelling way. It’s rewarding to know that our research and passion contribute to the legacy of an artist, a maker or even a particular design movement. As collectors, it’s your job to keep the unique stories from your own collection alive for future generations. These stories are our common history, our fireside stories.
KATIE NARTONIS is consignment director for 20th and 21st Century Design at Heritage Auctions. She enjoys sourcing rare and beautifully designed objects for auction. She is founder of the Nartonis Project, which is dedicated to telling the stories of the West Coast Art Scene.