Published: April 3, 2007
“The only thing that I can promise you is that you will never be bored,” Christie’s consultant Ralph Carpenter told Dean Failey over lunch one day in 1979 at Bailey’s Beach, an exclusive Newport, R.I., club.
The 32-year-old Winterthur-educated curator had recently taken a job with Christie’s, then vigorously expanding its North American operations. Failey feared commercial experience would jeopardize his standing in the museum field. He consulted the collectors George Kaufman and Martin Wunsch, and Stuart Feld, who left The Metropolitan Museum of Art to join Hirschl & Adler Galleries.
“I have never regretted my choice,” Feld said reassuringly.
Twenty-eight years later, Failey is still at Christie’s and, as Carpenter predicted, life has been anything but dull.
A senior director of the firm, Failey presided over the 1986 sale of the first piece of American furniture to surpass $1 million. His department holds current auction records for American furniture, folk painting and portraiture, as well as for a single-owner sale of American decorative arts. After three decades, Failey marvels at the exceptional people, places and things that, from one fall of the gavel to the next, pass through an auctioneer’s life.
“Christie’s had been in the business of selling fine European and Asian art for centuries. Americana was something new for us. We are in a relationship business and Dean is a relationship guy. Our good start in the field of American decorative arts is thanks to him,” says Stephen S. Lash, chairman of Christie’s Americas.
Failey is a published scholar with a deep affinity for objects, as well as for those who care for them. Dealers, collectors and curators respect the affable auctioneer’s judgment and value his candor. Their appreciation made him a natural choice for the 2007 Award of Merit, to be presented by the Antiques Dealers Association of America (ADA) at a dinner in his honor at the Philadelphia Antiques Show on April 14. Past winners include R. Scudder Smith, Betty Ring, Wendell Garrett, Elinor Gordon and Albert Sack.
Americana collectors from around the country crowd Christie’s Rockefeller Center showrooms in January. Many wait patiently to speak to Failey, a round-faced man in blue blazer with a ready laugh, a droll wit and a penchant for storytelling.
Like others who gravitated to the antiques trade as adults, Failey, who is 59, has loved objects for as long as he can remember. The son of teachers, he grew up on Long Island’s North Shore. As a teen, he frequented nearby Patiky’s auction house, picking up boxed lots left behind by the dealers who gathered in the back of the salesroom.
Failey and his wife, Marie, a retired schoolteacher who he met and married when he was a curator at Bayou Bend Museum in Houston, Texas, live in a house erected by Failey’s great-grandfather, a Finnish-born builder who got off the train near Northport, N.Y., and stayed. The couple’s daughter and son-in-law reside nearby in Failey’s childhood home. The Faileys’ son, a physician, lives in New Jersey. Like a son to the Faileys is the Rotary Club exchange student they sponsored and helped send to university. Today he is a doctoral candidate in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.
Hanging onto the old family houses has not been without personal sacrifice. Three days a week, Failey commutes two hours by train to his office in midtown Manhattan. His compensation has been the lush, enveloping gardens that he designed and nurtured to maturity over many years.
Failey parlayed talents in tennis and the trumpet into a scholarship to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Initially intent on becoming a doctor or dentist, he was instead drawn to architecture and design, a passion he indulged at the nearby Cleveland Museum of Art, then flourishing under Sherman E. Lee’s direction. Failey earned a bachelor of science degree in interior architectural design in 1969.
“How does one get a museum job?” Failey asked when introduced to Cleveland Museum curator Henry W. Hawley at an opening. Hawley urged the design student to investigate Winterthur’s master’s degree program in early American culture.
“It was quite glorious,” recalls the auctioneer, who arrived for interviews at Henry Francis du Pont’s former home in Wilmington, Del., with 20 other candidates, ten of whom would be accepted into the program.
Failey and his classmates †among them Winterthur furniture curator Wendy Cooper, the Faileys’ good friend and their son’s godmother; Deborah Waters of the Museum of the City of New York; Carolyn Weekley of Colonial Williamsburg; and Donald Fennimore, for many years the metals curator at Winterthur †were enthralled by the program’s charismatic director, Charles Montgomery (1911‱978). The Harvard-educated former antiques dealer combined scholarship with hands-on study. He was also a shrewd judge of people with a knack for arranging enviable positions for favorite graduates.
“Make Long Island your own,” said Montgomery, urging Failey to write his master’s thesis on Elias Pelletreau, a Southampton, N.Y., silversmith. Through his research, Failey met Robert David Lion Gardiner, the eccentric heir to Gardiner’s Island, a family-owned atoll off Long Island’s east end.
Gardiner and Failey remained close. Grumbling about not having a place for his underwear or socks, Gardiner reluctantly lent his labeled Thomas Townsend chest-on-chest to “Long Island Is My Nation,” the Bicentennial display that Failey, then curator at the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, organized in 1976. Failey’s accompanying catalog, updated and republished as a book in 1998, remains the definitive study of Long Island decorative arts. Gardiner died in 2004. In January 2005, Christie’s auctioned the collector’s estate, including the Townsend chest-on-chest, won by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for $856,000, and a silver tankard by Elias Pelletreau for $156,000.
“Dean, you are going to like Houston,” Montgomery told a surprised Failey one day in 1971. Diploma in hand, Failey arrived in the Texas oil town to join curator David B. Warren at Bayou Bend, the house museum founded by Ima Hogg, a prominent collector and daughter of former Texas governor James Hogg. Warren’s and Failey’s boss was Philippe de Monetebello, the ambitious young director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, tapped to head The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978.
Failey had been in Houston a few weeks when Miss Ima called him at home one evening.
“Dean, if you don’t have plans for July 4th, I’d like you to accompany me to Winedale,” said the heiress, inviting Failey to join her at her retreat in the Texas hill country. Through Hogg, Failey met a host of prominent Houstonians, from Texas’s future Lieutenant Governor William Hobby to department store magnate Robert Sakowitz. At a small dinner party hosted by a Bayou Bend docent, Failey met his future wife, the former Marie Whitty. Smitten, he proposed within a week. Miss Hogg attended their nuptials six months later, in June 1973.
A year after their honeymoon tour of New England, the couple returned to Long Island. Failey served as curator of the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA) before directing the East Hampton Historical Society. The two institutions maintain 11 historic properties.
Contemplating a switch to an auction house career, Failey called Edward Lee Cave of Sotheby’s in 1974.
“I’m sorry, we’ve given the job to William Stahl,” Cave told him.
By 1979, Failey heard from Jay Cantor, a Winterthur graduate and Christie’s employee. Cantor told Failey to expect a call from Christie’s chairman, David Bathurst.
“Dean, it’s just like museum work only the pace is much faster,” said Bathurst, inviting Failey to succeed Ronald DeSilva as Christie’s Americana specialist.
Christie’s got its start in the United States after Stephen Lash, an American investment banker, approached Christie’s management in London. Lash joined Christie’s in 1976 as one of a handful of people charged with getting a New York salesroom up and running. As a head of trusts and estates for many years, Lash was Christie’s liaison with bankers and attorneys.
“I inherited DeSilva’s secretary and Lash’s old desk,” recalls Failey, who liked his new job in Christie’s makeshift offices in the Delmonico’s building on Park Avenue at 50th Street. His $25,000 salary handsomely exceeded his expectations.
“Through the 1980s, we were the little guys,” says John Hays, a graduate of Kenyon College in Ohio and Christie’s Fine Arts Course in London who Failey hired in 1983. Though Hays was named department chairman in 1989 and a deputy chairman of Christie’s America in 2003, Failey and Hays remain one of the auction world’s most successful partnerships.
“It goes long and deep with us,” says Hays.
In 1979, Failey set out with Ralph Carpenter on his first East Coast campaign to woo consignors. Carpenter joined Christie’s in 1978 after retiring as a partner in Reynolds & Co., an investment house. An expert on the decorative arts of Newport, Carpenter, who has collected since 1932, knew everyone in the field. “Beautiful shoes, beautiful manners, an ardent lover of beautiful furniture,” is how The New Yorker once described him.
One of their first visits was to Mrs George Maurice Morris. In the 1930s, Morris and her husband, a prominent attorney, acquired The Lindens, built in 1754 for Robert “King” Hooper in Danvers, Mass. The Morrises painstakingly reassembled the dwelling in Washington, D.C., furnishing it with Eighteenth Century American furniture. Their collection included 12 important New York Chippendale dining chairs, a Philadelphia camelback sofa and a Chippendale bed subsequently acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Lash, Carpenter and Failey pulled out all the stops to win the Morris collection. Christie’s auctioned the contents of The Lindens in January 1982 for $2.3 million, at the time a record for a single-day sale of American furnishings.
“It was our first major piece of business and it established us as players,” Failey notes.
“Pretty soon someone will pay $1 million for a piece of American furniture,” Harold Sack said afterward. The New York dealer’s prediction came true four years later, in January 1986, when Christie’s auctioned a Philadelphia piecrust tea table for $1,045,000, including premium. The buyer was Eddy Nicholson, a Texas-born New Hampshire businessman who was one of the 1980s’ most aggressive collectors.
“Eddy loved the chase. He came into my life after Ron Bourgeault introduced him to Jay Cantor,” Failey remembers. Nicholson had furnished the headquarters of his company, Congoleum, with Americana, although he later turned his interests toward collecting Nineteenth Century American painting for his Hampton, N.H., farmhouse.
“You should have wonderful American furniture to go with your paintings,” Failey told Nicholson.
“When Eddy came to Manhattan he stayed in a suite at the Regency Hotel near Christie’s. We had regular confabs over lunch. One day, I told him about a fabulous Philadelphia tea table that a collector wanted to sell. Harold Sack had offered $300,000 for it privately, but I had convinced the owner to put it up for auction in January 1986,” says Failey. The table’s estimate was $300/500,000.
“Should I make a preemptive strike?” Nicholson asked Failey while standing in the back of Christie’s salesroom next to Andy Warhol. Nicholson fired off a bid of $500,000; moments later Harold Sack’s gold pen shot up. The gavel fell and the table went to Nicholson for $1,045,000. Nine months later, Nicholson raised the bar again when he purchased the Willing-Francis-Fisher Cadwalader Philadelphia wing chair at Sotheby’s for $1.1 million.
In the 1990s, the Nicholsons began spending more time in California and asked Christie’s to auction their collection. The two-day sale in January 1995 surpassed high estimate, selling for $13.6 million. Less than a decade later, the Philadelphia tea table set another record, going to New York dealer Leigh Keno for $2,422,500.
“Two people changed the way the American furniture market worked. They were both from Texas. Before Eddy Nicholson there was James Britton,” says Failey, recalling Britton, a Houston collector and member of the State Department’s Fine Arts Committee. Failey cemented his relationship with Britton when he bid on the collector’s behalf at The Lindens sale. A year before Nicholson, Britton paid a record $286,000 for the Eyre family Philadelphia piecrust tilt-top tea table.
Christie’s sold the Britton estate in January 1999, realizing $6,880,815. Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee bought the Eyre family tea table for $1,542,500, including buyer’s premium. The price was second only to that achieved by the Nicholson table in 1995.
“One day I got a call from Eddy Nicholson. ‘Dean,’ he asked, ‘Are you aware that the Nicholas Brown desk and bookcase is in play?'”
Nicholson was referring to the majestic 9-foot-4-inch-tall, six-shell secretary attributed to John Goddard of Newport, R.I. The 1760s case piece descended in the family of Nicholas Brown, a Providence, R.I., merchant, until 1989, when the heirs decided to sell it to underwrite the restoration of the 1792 Nightingale-Brown House, home to the John Nicholas Brown Center for American Civilization at Brown University.
Christie’s devoted itself to winning the consignment.
“Stephen Lash and Christopher Burge came in on a flight from London. I picked them up at Logan in Boston on a blustery fall night and we headed down to Providence to make our final presentation,” Failey recalls. “It was early evening when we arrived. There was the secretary, with its top off. Sotheby’s had been there before us.”
Christie’s won the consignment and launched an aggressive, six-month marketing campaign. Ralph Carpenter worked assiduously to interest Doris Duke. An agent for the Newport heiress ultimately underbid the lot.
“Dean, I want you to put the secretary up for sale in the morning. That way, it will make The New York Times ,” instructed Harold Sack, signaling his intention to buy the piece. At Sack’s request, the Nicholas Brown desk and bookcase crossed the block at 11:05 am on June 3, 1989, going to Israel Sack, Inc, for $12.1 million, an auction record for American furniture that remains unbroken 18 years later. Robert Bass of Texas and Washington, D.C., was rumored to be Sack’s customer, a rumor that neither Christie’s nor Bass has denied.
Christie’s has changed dramatically since Dean Failey joined the company in 1979. The company now has 85 offices in 43 countries. Observes Lash, “The market has become global. It is not unusual for the consignor to be in one country, the sale in a second country and the buyer in a third country. The other major shift has been from wholesale to retail sales.” In Failey’s time, Christie’s annual worldwide sales have grown from roughly $100 million to $4.7 billion; Americana sales, from $700,000 in 1980 to $42 million in 2006. Thoroughly researched catalogs are the norm for important lots and collections, thanks in part to Failey and other professionally trained experts such as Jeanne Vibert Sloane, the Christie’s American silver expert who is another Failey hire.
Securing great objects and collections is still the biggest part of the job.
“In the early days, I was on the road 200 days a year. Then, if you heard about anything, you jumped,” Failey remembers.
Back surgery forced Failey to curtail his traveling in 2004, but has allowed him to dedicate more time to other professional interests. He is an advisor or trustee to nine nonprofit arts organizations, including Old Westbury Gardens, the Decorative Arts Trust, the Nassau County Museums, the Heckscher Museum, Rock Hall, and Bowne House. His horticultural expertise makes him the auctioneer of choice for the Delaware Center for Horticulture’s annual Rare Plant Auction at Longwood Gardens. At work on a book on the collections of the Society for The Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, Failey has also returned to his early study of Southampton silversmith Elias Pelletreau.
“We need you to build bridges with clients. They have to trust you and want to talk to you. You also need to be a scholar and someone who can look at objects,” David Bathurst told Failey 30 years ago. Failey has done what Christie’s late chairman asked and more.
“Dean perfectly represents the blending of two fields. In the early 1970s, there was a huge divide between museums and the marketplace. Dean bridged those worlds,” says Winterthur professor Brock Jobe, recalling his friend and colleague in 1971, when Failey took Jobe, a prospective student, through Winterthur for the first time. “Dean was exactly as he is today, a great advocate for our field.”
“I am sincerely honored to be the recipient of the 2007 ADA Award of Merit because it comes from an organization of individuals who I know well and admire,” says Failey.
Well-advised by his friends, Failey has been loyal in kind.
“I am very thankful to have been on the business end all these years. It has been an exciting time and a fruitful one, made more so by collaboration among dealers, collectors, curators and auctioneers,” says Failey.
The ADA’s Award of Merit dinner honoring Dean Failey will take place in conjunction with The Philadelphia Antiques Show on April 14. For information regarding reservations and tickets to the awards dinner, 203-259-8571 or www.adadealers.com .
5 Church Hill Road / Newtown, CT 06470
Mon - Fri / 8:00 am - 5:01 pm