Published: July 12, 2011
Eddy G. Nicholson, a corporate executive and a key player in the world of leveraged buyouts who became a force in the collecting fields of fine art and American furniture, died on June 16. Aged 73, he died of complications of Lewy body disease, a neurodegenerative condition, according to an obituary published by The New York Times.
Combining business acumen with a passion for collecting that had its genesis when Congoleum, where he served as president, relocated its corporate headquarters from Milwaukee, Wis., to Portsmouth, N.H., in 1980, Nicholson set out to decorate the firm’s new headquarters, making connections with local experts, such as Northeast Auctions President Ron Bourgeault.
“Without the lessons I learned from Eddy, I could not have made Northeast Auctions the success it is today,” said Bourgeault. “Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think of what I learned about business from Eddy. I think of it as my degree from Harvard Business School. Eddy taught me that in every situation in business and life one must always do a balance sheet of their personal strengths and weaknesses.”
Eddy Gene Nicholson was born on May 2, 1938, the oldest child among five of Doris and Voy Nicholson. His father was an assembly line worker at a Levi’s jeans factory in Texas.
In 1960, Nicholson graduated from what is now the University of Memphis with a business degree. Later, as a certified public accountant, he advanced through a number of executive positions at various firms before joining Congoleum in 1975. In 1980, he became the company’s president and chief operating officer.
Nicholson made his mark in the collecting world by famously driving the price of the Willing-Francis-Fisher-Cadwalader family Philadelphia wing chair, an Eighteenth Century piece, at Sotheby’s in 1986 from an opening bid of $400,000 to a final price of $1.1 million, then a record for American furniture.
Almost a decade later, when Nicholson and his family left New Hampshire, Christie’s conducted a series of sales of his collection, including one in June 1992 and another in January 1995 during Americana Week that brought total sales of $14 million, which at that time was the most ever paid for a privately held early American collection, according to John Hayes, deputy chairman of Christie’s America.
Hays said that one painting sold from the collection, a naval scene from the Battle of Lake Erie in the War of 1812 by Nineteenth Century artist Thomas Birch, had special resonance for Nicholson, who was a former Marine. “He was 5 feet 6 inches tall, and patriotism was part his motivation,” he said.
Characterizing Nicholson as a “game-changer” in the rarified world of fine art galleries, auction houses and high-end dealers, Hays said it was Nicolson’s independence that fueled his direct, hard-driving presence in the auction galleries, where surrogates normally bid for those who prize privacy as well as acquisitiveness. “He wasn’t being led around because he did his own research,” said Hays. Being visible had additional value, Hays added, because it meant that people could approach Nicholson directly. “He believed in marketing and self-promotion, which are not traits usually seen in a slightly stodgy arena,” said Hays.
Nicholson is survived by his wife of 53 years, Linda; their children, Kevin of Beverly, Mass., Steven of West Lake Village, Calif., and Deidre Cronenbold of Montecito, Calif.; and four grandchildren, as well as four siblings: Joel of Osprey, Fla.; Timothy of Chesterfield, Mo.; Sara Hartshorn of Contoocook, N.H.; and Jeffrey of Decatur, Texas.⁗D
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