– To most Americans, New Orleans means great food, jazz and those good times that roll in the French Quarter. But to the antiques world, the Crescent City is a bustling crossroads marketplace with a never-ending source of merchandise. Few other cities in the United States can boast two real, sit-down cataloging auction houses — and the antique shops stretch on forever.
Of course, the cast of characters shifts over time. Boomers with a memory will recall the Morton Goldberg firm and the annual Louisiana Purchase sale there that offered the best of Southern-style American furniture and decorative arts. Neal Auction Company, now chaired by John R. Neal and run by Neal Alford, decided they could do it better, and as Goldberg’s was fading out, the New Orleans Auction Company started up to provide the competition for Neal’s.
When President Jean Vidos held her first New Orleans Auction sale in December of 1991, there was a Neal auction the same day. For 12 years, the competition has continued to be heated and often simultaneous. So no one was surprised that the Neal firm was holding an on-site auction out at Houmas House Plantation on May 17-18 as New Orleans Auction was having its regular cataloged sale. The two firms divided about $3 million in sales for the weekend. New Orleans Auction was taking phone bidding, Neal was not this time, so that helped determined where the bodies were actually standing. The answer to whether these conflicts happen by accident or design depends on whom you ask.
The New Orleans auction scene is also very incestuous. Vidos herself briefly worked at both the older galleries and so have most of her past and present employees. Women have always played an important role at New Orleans Auction, although this is not the gee-whiz phenomenon today that it was a decade ago. Jean Vidos was on the podium at this auction as was Tessa Steinkamp, another Neal veteran. Tessa had a son, Michael DeGeorge, who literally grew up in the business, and he now helps bang the gavel and heads day-to-day operations on Magazine Street.
Between sale sessions, De George addressed the problems of scheduling in the Big Easy: “We do our schedule about a year and a half in advance and sometimes the sales fall on the same weekend as someone else’s. We have two locations with six auctions annually here on Magazine Street and seven at the St Charles Avenue Gallery; I believe they have six or seven. It takes about two months to set one up and then you have one. I can’t speak for them, but it doesn’t affect us that much.
“Our clientele is not very local, so it’s not like a local market supporting both galleries — it’s more of an international market,” he continued. “We have seven phone lines going here at all times and can back that up with extra cell phones. Even the locals are on the phones! You might have someone from New Orleans talking on this phone and a London or San Francisco buyer on that phone.”
His mother, Tessa Stein-kamp, executive vice president in charge of the St Charles Gallery, added, “We do a lot of American and Victorian furniture at the other gallery. Sometimes we just take the entire estate and split it. Here we wouldn’t do any American oak furniture; we will over there. But we sold a featured painting in our last auction for $100,000 so it’s not just a matter of price. It’s hard to schedule auctions in New Orleans because there are so many events going on.”
This particular weekend, it was just Tulane University graduation eating up all the hotel rooms, but they also have to work around numerous jazz festivals and the immense Mardi Gras celebration.
The Saturday session for the May auction opened with a superb series of English portrait miniatures. The cover lot of a handsome young officer in a red jacket by Adam Buck (1759-1833) was the first portrait miniature purchased by well-known collector E. Grosvenor Paine and sold for $1,840. Another red jacketed subject by Lewis Vaslet of Bath brought $1,955 and an example by Thomas Le Hardy $2,185. The George Washington mentioned by the auctioneer was a framed full-length cabinet miniature of the General and his horse Minto after the Gilbert Stuart version; it realized $5,750 over the $1,2/1,800 estimate.
New Orleans Auction has always been a favorite with interior designers and collectors with flair because of its broad array of decorative arts including the French porcelain popular in Nineteenth Century American homes from the White House on down. The firm is fortunate to have the cataloging expertise of John W. Keefe, curator of decorative arts at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
The antiques market right now seems to be dominated by buyers who are highly selective and want the best. So a First Empire cabinet cup and saucer marked “Manufacture/Imperiale/Sevres” with a date mark for 1799/1800 sold for $1,955, right at its top estimate. A pair of Old Paris garniture vases with interesting scenes of female musicians and Nike handles brought $3,450 against an estimate of $1,000/1,500, while other less unusual pairs went unsold.
One of the sale’s stellar lots was a monumental French tripartite “Cathedral” birdcage in the late Gothic style, circa 1900, which was seven and a half feet high and more than nine feet long. And — judging by all the water jars and perches — this had once been the residence of many birds. Managing Director Kelly Eppler was sending off digital photos all during the preview, and the fantasy object reached $37,950 in the sale, well over its high estimate of $25,000.
While this firm offers an abundance of English and Continental furniture in every sale, this particular event had a strong group of American rococo revival furniture from the better-known Nineteenth Century East Coast cabinetmakers. A rosewood half-tester bed of the type marketed in New Orleans by Prudent Mallard brought $39,100 and sported an interesting provenance back to a member of the Kellogg cereal family in Michigan. A rococo revival rosewood bookcase/vitrine with lots of show-off space for a collection was attributed to one of the French-immigrant workshops flourishing in New York City during the mid-Nineteenth Century and brought $10,350.
While results like these are fairly predictable, more fun are the little duels that result in surprising prices for an unusual lot. A pair of garden obelisks, more than ten feet high, made from soldered horseshoes, carried an estimate of $1,2/1,800 but reached $6,613. More heavy metal, a large French wrought-iron, 18-light chandelier, never electrified, got two bidders up to $4,830, well over the $400/700 estimate.
Consignment man John Abajian gathers jewelry lots for the sales. This time, he noted, “In the holiday season, I have a wider selection because people are looking for gifts. This time the range is not huge, but they are very nice things — some older period things and some newer things. I think, I have the best job in the world.”
Bidders got very excited over a simple negligee necklace set with a total three carats in diamonds for $4,140; an Art Deco emerald and diamond dinner ring was a steal at $2,990; and a bracelet of marquise-cut diamond flowers covering a watch sold for $9,200.
People were picky about paintings — all the Clementine Hunter’s sold at good prices, the Sister Gertrude Morgan’s went unsold. No one could miss the large portraits of English King Charles I and his Queen Henrietta Maria — a truly lovely woman — from the studio of Sir Anthony Van Dyck, which sold for $13,225 and $12,650 respectively.
All prices reported include a 15 percent buyer’s premium.
To combine antiquing with a bit of sightseeing, take a look at events and accommodations at neworleansonline.com.