Published: September 11, 2007
“If we come in at $2 million, we will celebrate with champagne. If we come in at $1.5 million, it will be ginger ale,” Northeast Auctions president and chief auctioneer Ron Bourgeault told Dinah and Stephen Lefkowitz, whose collection of American folk art and painted furniture was the marquee attraction at Northeast’s annual Summer Americana Auction.
“Either way, we will celebrate with champagne,” insisted Dinah Lefkowitz.
The Lefkowitzes had reason to toast Northeast. Containing 255 lots, the cataloged, single-owner sale grossed $2,117,232 with premium. The total will probably approach $2.3 million after private treaty sales of passed lots and miscellaneous pieces from the various owners’ session are counted in.
“Two million is the number I always had in my head, so I am pleased. Now, it is on to the next,” said Dinah Lefkowitz, who describes herself as an incurable collector.
New Yorkers Dinah and Stephen Lefkowitz began buying American folk art and painted furniture after acquiring an Eighteenth Century house in Old Saybrook, Conn., in 1991 as a weekend retreat. Advised by South Egremont, Mass., dealers Elliott and Grace Snyder, they bought from leading dealers at major shows, as well as at auction. The resulting trove was subtle and refined, emphasizing line, color, surface, balance and originality of design. The collection filled the Old Saybrook house as well as a loft apartment in Manhattan, where Stephen Lefkowitz is a real estate attorney.
The Lefkowitzes decided to sell the Old Saybrook house and their antiques after buying a contemporary house by Jonathan Isleib in Old Lyme, Conn. An expanse of glass stretches from end to end of their new house, framing an ever-changing and unobstructed view of the Black Hall River estuary, populated by wading birds and kayakers. The dwelling is simply furnished with Modernist furniture, Dinah’s first love.
Bourgeault competed for the collection against several other auctioneers as well as against dealers hoping to buy the pieces privately.
“We did a deal. I gave them an advance,” acknowledged Bourgeault. The advance was rumored to have been a million dollars. Given that the pieces were recently acquired, the Lefkowitzes wisely set as few reserves as possible and avoided estimates.
Even so, the sale tested the psychology of the market, which favors old collections and estates. Perhaps irrationally, buyers want “fresh” goods without well-known sales histories. The Lefkowitzes lost money on some items but made it up on others. For instance, a painted blanket chest that Skinner sold for $34,075 in 2005 resold for $40,600. A corner chair auctioned by Sotheby’s in 2002 for $49,625 resold for $34,800. A pair of paint decorated Gaines side chairs that went for $27,000 in 2006 fetched $40,600. A candlestand with a checkerboard top garnered $12,180, having sold at Sotheby’s in 2002 for $15,600. In all, these four pieces cost the Lefkowitzes $126,300 plus, we assume, dealers’ commission. The pieces resold for $128,180 minus auctioneer’s commission, amounting to a roughly even trade.
“Holding is one of the key principles of investing,” Grace Snyder said afterward. “The timing of this auction was generated by the purchase of the new house. A fair number of the big ticket items were purchased in the last two or three years at major shows. The Lefkowitzes paid a premium. They understood the equation going in and were happy with the results of the auction.”
Continued Snyder, “Each auction has its own psychological context and creates its own buying opportunities. We were thrilled to get back eight or so pieces. On the other hand, we would have been thrilled if prices went higher, too.”
Focused and disciplined collectors, the Lefkowitzes bought categories of items in depth. For instance, we counted 33 Windsors, too many to be easily absorbed by the market in one sitting. A pair of yellow and black Connecticut armchairs fetched $104,400, a Rhode Island armchair in turquoise paint went for $63,800, and a red and blue combback armchair achieved $52,200. The average price of the remaining Windsor chairs, however, was $5,708 including premium.
The Snyders are well-known for textiles. Two of the three top textile lots went back to the Massachusetts dealers, for $63,800 and $30,160. A Pennsylvania pictorial hooked rug by Magdalina Bruner brought $37,120 from Olde Hope Antiques, which three years ago at Northeast acquired the “Domestic Zoo” rug by the same hand for $74,000. Of 19 textile lots, 12 sold for $5,000 or less.
Baskets were a bright spot. Leading a group of 14 examples was a blue basket with red handles. It went to the phone for $12,760.
Painted boxes also continued to sell well, with a dome top Vermont example going to John Keith Russell for $25,520 and a 24-inch-long dome top trunk painted black with pale tulip decorations achieving $20,880.
One surprise was a whimsical sheet iron row of crows weathervane that fluttered out of the Lefkowitzes’ New York kitchen to find a new home with a New Hampshire collector for $26,680.
Prices include buyer’s premium. For information, 603-433-8400 or www.northeastauctions.com.
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