My First One

Glossy, slick and dramatically lit, kind of small and kind of skinny, oddly but magnetically shaped, my first one arrived inside a Big Envelope.

An envelope only somewhat larger than the kind ordinarily containing a wedding invitation. (At a certain age, I’ve learned, such items apparently stop arriving.)

Tearing off the outer-garment seemed a nearly criminal act for an enclosure costing more than $15. Not cheap. In fact, a lot: one could easily find lengthy history books for less.

The December 12, 1986 “Architectural Designs and Commissions including Arts & Crafts” was my first auction catalogue purchase.

Christie’s presented “a fine, rare and important oak high-back spindle side chair” on its color cover.

This, of course, was no ordinary chair. It was a chair designed for the 1901 Ward W. Willits house (Highland Park, IL) by its architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

The chair sold for $198,000. The buyer’s premium (an outrageous idea then and one that’s not gotten any better since) was a whopping 10 percent. That means the chair sold at the auctioneer’s hammer for $180K with the balance accounted for by “the juice,” as we called it. We still call it that.

Today, by the way, some auction houses charge up to 25 percent BP.

But, knowing the chair’s provenance, maybe the price shouldn’t surprise today’s readers. Even though it did at that time.

It was another item’s sale price, though, that really got my attention: an oak Gustav Stickley piano bench that brought $11,000. To some moron, I remember muttering. Eleven grand. In 1986. For a piano bench!

And the bench had ink stains on its seat. Jeekers, creekers!

Desk-tops should have ink stains – in fact, I’ve advised customers that if the antique desk top does NOT have ink stains, then I’m suspicious. (“In a hundred years, no one ever tipped over a bottle of ink?!”) But a piano bench?


Graphic pictures aside, the best memory is the catalogue’s descriptive text.

The language describing each lot was composed in voyeuristic antiques-art-porn style.

For instance: “the waisted baluster body . . .” and “of ovoid form . . .”

Or how about this: “with stacked stretchers joined by a faceted button, the exposed tenons with keys . . .” describing a Gustav Stickley hexagonal table. Or this text, festishsizing Karl Kipp-designed candlesticks for Roycroft: “the slender candlenozzle and concave bobeches supported by twin columns riveted to a hammered pyramidal base . . .”

Hey: get a room!

Does anyone buy auction catalogues any longer?

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