by eve zibart | June 23, 2014 | Lifestyle
With 200 years in the business—nearly half spent at 1808 Chestnut Street—Freeman’s is the country’s oldest auction house. But with a growing portfolio of attractive goods and an increased national presence, the family-run business enters a new era of putting a price tag on the priceless.
Alasdair Nichol, vice chairman and head of fine art at Freeman’s, has been an auctioneer for 24 years.
Fifteen years ago, if you had wandered into one of Freeman’s weekly walk-up auctions, you would have seen a hodgepodge of antiques, paintings hanging over massive footed wardrobes and sideboards, perhaps a few tall-case clocks, and maybe some pieces of jewelry that came, the staff might discreetly murmur, “from the estate of a Philadelphia lady.”
Well, sleep no more, my lady. After more than 200 years as Philadelphia’s dependable but slightly dowdy clearinghouse, Freeman’s has emerged in the 21st century as a specialty consignment house to rival such single-name New York brands as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. In the past 18 months alone, Freeman’s has recorded four “white glove” sales of collections and catalogs, meaning that every offered item went out the door.
“We’re selling a quarter of the number of lots we used to,” according to vice chairman and Antiques Roadshow fixture Alasdair Nichol, “and making five times the money. In 2004, we had a sale of fewer than 200 lots that brought in $4.8 million; that was more than the total sales the year before.” He grins. “I pat myself on the back a little for that.”
Freeman’s is not only Philadelphia’s oldest auction house, it’s also considered the oldest firm in America. Founded in 1805 by Tristram B. Freeman, and still in family hands six generations later, it has in its time disposed not only of heirlooms, hand-me-downs, old masters, and American antiques, but also refrigerators, factories, liquidated businesses, vintage cars, and even decommissioned battleships—“from diamonds to destroyers,” as the staff likes to say. One previous chairman is alleged to have asserted, “We’ll sell anything but our friends.”
Roy Lichtenstein’s Lobster sold for $25,000 on May 4.
Commissioned by the firm in 1924, the Beaux-Arts building at 1808 Chestnut Street was designed to suggest an upscale retail space, and it has been home to Freeman’s ever since; the double-bow display windows and the gate-front elevator, complete with attendant, are bits of its history. The boardroom is lined with family portraits of Freemans, many of whom strongly resemble the first Tristram. But there are more generations to be added, including the current chairman, Samuel M. Freeman II, universally known as “Beau,” his children (generation seven), a great-nephew, and grandchildren. Beau keeps it simple: “Freeman’s will remain a family business,” he intones.
Beau Freeman, whose signature neckwear allowed the firm to call its bicentennial party in 2005 the “Beau Tie Bash,” is an amateur in the true sense: a lover of his field. He never studied the business formally; he didn’t even spend much time as a boy rummaging about the building. Instead, he learned his craft by ear, so to speak, mimicking the experienced auctioneers, and literally rose through the sales ranks: starting in the basement, “graduating to the first floor and the mezzanine—appliances, carpets, silver, and books—and eventually to the gallery,” the showcase on the third floor.
Many of Freeman’s sales back then weren’t even cataloged. They were the contents of whole houses (and attics and barns). It was a comfortable, congenial, and valued part of Philadelphia society, but attendance at the house’s sales was also a habit that many Philadelphians were abandoning. So 15 years ago, rather than become just another regional affiliate of some big-name brand, Freeman approached Paul Roberts, head of Britain’s prestigious Lyon & Turnbull, about forming an alliance. “Paul gave me one of the most important pieces of advice I ever heard,” Freeman recalls. “He said, ‘People give you to sell what they see you selling. We need to go for better things.’’
The first step was to start recruiting specialists like Nichol (though the firm also still encourages employees to learn on the job) and take aim at high-end competition. Freeman’s now holds more than 25 auctions a year in a dozen categories, including reemphasizing several specialty sales in areas such as Asian art, fine jewelry, and contemporary design, to anticipate emerging markets. It has gone, in effect, from barn to boutique.
It has also embraced international advertising, full color publications and catalogues, and, perhaps most importantly, the Internet and eBay, meaning that buyers can bid in person, on the telephone, or online. Nichol refers to the system as “clicks and mortar.”
Artwork at the recent Modern & Contemporary sale, which occurs each May and November.
As anyone who’s ever taken part in an auction knows, the adrenaline spike during competitive bidding can be extremely seductive. Longtime TV personality and producer Nancy Glass, who has bought both in person and online, says the live sales are “more fun, but more dangerous.” Nichol calls the psychology of bidding fascinating. “If the price is low, people get really excited; and if they lose out on one thing, they’ll often go wild on the next lot. It’s like, well, I’m going to get something.”
This past December, when a snowstorm battered an American art sale, Nichol was taking bids on a landscape by Pennsylvania Impressionist Edward Willis Redfield, “and there was nothing,” Nichol recalls. “I was at ‘going, going...’ and suddenly the computer went ding! And it sold for $150,000. I ran into the buyer later, and he said, ‘Oh, well, I was just hanging around the house watching it snow.’”
Freeman’s is a Philadelphia institution, and it has sold quite a few, too: Gilbert Stuart’s 1796 full-length portrait of George Washington, a desk reputed to have belonged to Benjamin Franklin, and one of Edward Hicks’s “Peaceable Kingdom” paintings from the estate of Philadelphia society lady T. Charlton Henry. (Auctioneers say the three most common reasons for sales are “death, debt, and divorce,” factors that contribute to the traditional anonymity of many consigners.) Freeman’s was even responsible for the sale of the old Chestnut Street Philadelphia Post Office building back in the early 1880s.
More famous, perhaps, was the sale of a first printing of the Declaration of Independence, published by Philadelphian John Dunlap; it fell out of one of the cases of books Freeman’s staff hauled out of the legendary Leary’s Bookstore when it closed in 1969. The auction house sold the copy, one of only 16 known to exist, for more than $400,000 and in 2005, followed up by selling a copy of the United States Constitution, also printed by Dunlap, for $207,000. These sales were particularly appropriate, as patriarch Tristram Freeman himself trained as a printer in England and had tried to make a go of it in Philadelphia—before he went bankrupt and had to watch his own stock auctioned off. It might have sparked an idea or two.
Freeman’s Philadelphia building on Chestnut Street.
To this day, Freeman’s doesn’t buy anything—every lot is on consignment. The business charges the seller a fee—on a sliding scale that gives not-for-profit groups a little break—which goes toward photographing and authenticating the items, creating the catalogs, and advertising the sales. The process of setting up a sale takes five to six months. The buyer also pays a premium, a percentage of the sales price, to Freeman’s. That $400,000 Declaration, for example, actually cost $440,000 (not counting the glass frame that broke when a gust of wind billowed a drape into the display easel, nearly giving Beau a heart attack).
The house still has a loyal regional following, especially among collectors in New York and the Washington, DC, area. The firm has also been gradually adding regional offices in Boston, Charlottesville, and Cincinnati and is widening the portfolio; most recently the company announced that Michael Larsen, head of the fine jewelry and watches department, is opening a Los Angeles location. At the same time, Freeman’s has gone international, selling to collectors—and dealers—all over Europe and the Middle East. It most recently saw a spike in Asian and Russian buyers, including some Chinese collectors who fly in twice a year to Freeman’s Asian art sales. In 2011, Freeman’s made industry headlines when an 18th-century imperial white jade seal sold for $3.5 million, more than 100 times its estimate. Six months later, a Ming Dynasty jar aroused the same feverish bidding, going for $1.5 million on a $15,000 estimate. (As the Asian fine arts market is heating up here, so is a craze among Chinese collectors for European and Continental furniture and decorative arts, and for contemporary American art.)
Much of the international traffic comes via the Internet, since online catalogs are available two to three weeks before bidding begins, but staff specialists also spend a lot of time at major sales around the world building brand awareness and establishing closer working relationships with clients. The partnership with Lyon & Turnbull has also allowed Freeman’s to preview some sales by mounting exhibits in London, increasing interest in American art among British collectors. “We are ambitious, and we’d certainly like to grow more,” Nichol says. “I’d love to expand to Hong Kong, for example. But the world is shrinking. The Internet has made it a much more level playing field.”
Modern and contemporary art is one of the newer specialties, and department head Anne Henry is seeing a lot of repeat customers as well as younger collectors just getting started. “I spoke to one [woman] who said ‘I just made my last college payment, so I want to stop buying prints and start buying paintings.’” But Henry says there are also empty nesters downsizing and others furnishing second homes or redecorating: “Tastes change; houses change.” Trading up—or down—is totally acceptable.
The day before a recent auction, Henry was closely examining a Warhol print for a prospective bidder, taking photographs on her smart phone. “She can’t be here, but she doesn’t need to be,” Henry said. “I can be her eyes.”
“I get that feeling that they curate their sales, and I really like that,” says Glass, who has bought and sold both art and jewelry at Freeman’s. “It’s not just the contents of Aunt Melba’s attic.” Not anymore.
photography by jeffrey stockbridge