Published: April 25, 2017
Review and Onsite Photos by W.A. Demers, Catalog and Historical Photos Courtesy of Swann Galleries
NEW YORK CITY – Swann Galleries hosted a well-attended gathering of clients, friends, current and former employees and colleagues in the trade on March 27 with a diamond anniversary party, marking 75 years as America’s premier source for rare and antiquarian books, autographs, maps and atlases, photographs, prints and drawings, vintage posters and more. More recently it has been making headlines for African American printed and manuscript Americana and African American fine art.
The crowd was standing room only, for example, at the firm’s April 6 auction of African American fine art, which exceeded $2.5 million and broke five previous auction records among its top lots, all of which were set by Swann since the department’s inception ten years ago.
And just the week before this, Swann made headlines on March 30 when at its annual auction of printed and manuscript African Americana – a sale that exceeded $1 million for the first time in the department’s more than 20-year history – a carte-de-visite album from the 1860s that contained a previously unknown photograph of Harriet Tubman topped the sale, selling for $161,000 to a joint acquisition by the US Library of Congress and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Those kinds of numbers seem staggering when compared with the $52 earned for an 1816 narrative of the Indian War, offered from the enormous inventory of Harry Stone, which was the top lot at the firm’s first sale conducted by Ben Swann on March 27, 1942.
The third-generation family business was founded that year by Ben Swann, when faced with the need to dispose of the Stone collection, had the entrepreneurial idea of conducting a series of weekly auctions – Thursday became “Swann Auction Day.”
Ben Swann passed away on December 11, 1985, at the age of 80 in Margate, Fla. His wife, Doris, whom he married in 1932, died in 1982. He was survived by his daughter Rhoda Stern and two grandchildren. When it came time for planning the company’s diamond anniversary, organizers were faced with a quandary – there seemed to be few photos of Ben. Fortunately, a granddaughter, Susan Stern, was able to supply a number of them, which were displayed at the March party.
Nicho’s grandfather’s nephew George S. Lowry – now chairman of the company – became president and principal auctioneer in 1970 upon Ben’s retirement. Nicholas D. Lowry, the current president, joined Swann in 1995 as head of the vintage posters department. He was named principal auctioneer in 1998, and president in January 2001.
For nearly 40 years, Swann has been located on East 25th Street, just one block east of Madison Square Park, at the borders of the historic Murray Hill and Flatiron districts. The premises doubled in size in 1999 with the addition of a second gallery and salesroom.
Over the seven and a half decades the company has stuck to its knitting. As Nicho Lowry wrote recently in The Trumpet, Swann Galleries’ quarterly newsletter, “Part of the reason for Swann’s success is that we are a company of collectors, for collectors. … We provide the guiding hand, the missing pieces and the scholarship along the way.”
Some of the company’s “greatest hits” include a collection of more than 1,000 plates from Eadweard Muybridge’s “Animal Locomotion,” 1887, which sold for $250 on February 12, 1952. Today single plates from this series sell for thousands. It was the first US auction dedicated to photography.
In the firm’s 1,000th sale October 16, 1975, an institution bought the first complete set of ephemera from the signers of the Declaration of Independence to come to auction in more than 50 years. It brought $120,000, a record for Swann at the time.
Two letters from Anne Frank to an Iowan pen pal fetched $165,000 on October 25, 1988. The presale article was on the front page of the New York Times on July 22, 1988.
A 1990s notable lot was Bloem-Hofje, 1674, (Little Flower Garden,) which for more than 200 years was considered to be the smallest printed book. One of three known copies was sold at Swann in the Walcott Soliday collection of miniature books on November 15, 1990.
A toothbrush used by US astronaut Buzz Aldrin on his way to the moon in the 1969 Apollo 11 mission brought $18,400 at Swann on May 27, 2004.
Two pages from Serenade in D Major by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1773, earned $161,000 on November 26, 2013.
The biggest price achieved by the auction house to date was in the photographs and photobooks department, as a set of Edward S. Curtis’s magnum opus, The North American Indian, complete with 20 text volumes and 20 folios, brought $1.44 million on October 4, 2012.
The brand has evolved over the decades, starting with the catchphrase “Where Good Books Find Good Homes,” to Ben Swann’s beloved “Thursday is Swann Day” to the current “We Have A Different Way Of Looking At Auctions.”
“Turning 75 is a fantastic thing,” wrote Nicho Lowry, reflecting on the company’s past. “Much has changed since our first auction. Ben Swann founded the company before estimates were printed in catalogs, before people thought of bidding by telephone, before the industry started charging a buyer’s premium.” He adds that the company will continue to do what it does best – connecting collectors with what makes them “happy.” “Working with happy people has been a pleasure for the last 75 years, and I am sure it will be a continued delight for the next 75.”
For additional information, www.swanngalleries.com or 212-254-4710.
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