Quinn’s Auction Galleries deals in fine art, antique furniture and the psychology of things.
“What’s this?” he adds in mock offense. “No one is on his knees?”
Try as he might, the silver-tongued (and -haired) founder of Quinn’s Auction Galleries is no match for what the people have really come to see at today’s catalog auction. Specifically: a blue-and-white swing coat worn by Judy Garland; a Sèvres porcelain vase that stands the height of most kindergartners; a smashing pair of Knoll Barcelona chairs that once cushioned the rear ends of former House Speaker Thomas Foley and his wife, Heather; and the rest of the lots—441 in total—that spread out over two levels and decorate pretty much every nook and cranny of the Falls Church auction house.
The bidders, buyers and looky-loos who aren’t lounging about on Foley’s midcentury offerings, or wandering the showroom floors (some, quite literally, on the floor, inspecting the weave of a Persian carpet) are sitting quietly in the courtyard, flipping through their auction catalogs. With the booklet spread open on their laps, most don’t notice the painting that appears on its cover. It’s the same painting that hangs directly to the left of the podium, a serene and impressionistic snapshot of a New England boatyard, this one in Gloucester, Mass. To the untrained eye, it’s the typical sort of nautical landscape that came out of the 19th and early 20th centuries in fleets.
But to Nancy Monroe, the current owner of the painting, it represents much more: a sailing off of a different kind. Soon she’ll be leaving her home in Northern Virginia and mooring again at a retirement community in Lancaster, Pa., where she will start the next leg of her life’s journey. At 75, Monroe is selling the painting, along with five other lesser-valued items, to help finance this second chapter. She hopes this painting will hit big.
It certainly has the potential. The lower left-hand corner of the canvas bears the signature of Guy C. Wiggins, an artist whose paintings of New York City street scenes have fetched prices in the tens of thousands of dollars—especially when the paintings depict snow falling and American flags waving. The harbor scene, of course, has neither and is more vertical than the preferred horizontal canvas, but with an estimated value of $7,000-$9,000, it seems like a relative steal for a buyer—and a golden ticket for its seller.
Whether the Wiggins will cause a sensation in this room full of bidders (not to mention the more than 700 buyers who have registered to bid live online) remains to be seen. There are 254 other lots to get through before the painting goes up on the block, and at the moment, David Quinn—Paul’s son, company president, auctioneer and resident expert in Chinese snuff bottles and Japanese Netsuke—seems more interested in lunch.
After clipping a lapel mic onto his pink-and-blue rep tie and explaining the rules of the house (an 18 percent buyer’s premium is added to all sales, along with a 6 percent tax), David takes a moment to inquire about ordering some food. After learning there are eight pizzas on the way, he checks the time. “Okay,” he says, “we’re 52 seconds late. I think that’s acceptable.”
And then he’s off, hawking lot No. 1, a 19th century walnut Davenport desk. For catalog auctions, David strives to maintain a steady clip of 84 items an hour. “We need to move as quickly as we can,” he reminds his audience. “So wave your arms around if we don’t see you.”
Interest in auctions has surged in recent years thanks to online sites like eBay and Ruby Lane, and programs such as Antiques Roadshow and Storage Wars. Add to that the growing number of people like Nancy Monroe who are retiring, downsizing or emptying nests, and families who need help liquidating the estates of loved ones. That’s where Paul Quinn, 70, and his sons David, 41, and Matt, 38, come in—to help those who are in transition unload their excess belongings. The tagline “What’s in your attic?” appears at the top of the company’s home page.
“When I married my wife, we liked old stuff,” quips Paul, who has lived in Falls Church since 1978. “Including my grandparents.”
While working as an administrator at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, he tried his hand selling antiques in his off hours. When he retired from health care in 1987, he opened the Falls Church Antique Company on Broad Street, a still-thriving, multi-dealer venture that sells everything from lace tablecloths to kitschy paint-by-numbers canvases.
“I think old stuff has anthropological and cultural value and tells us a lot about ourselves as a people,” observes Paul, who holds undergraduate degrees in philosophy and theology from Catholic University. “I hated history in school, but now I see that history is reflected in our artifacts.”
In 1995, Paul joined forces with son David, who was looking for work after graduating from James Madison University. Together, they started an auction business that eventually evolved from hosting monthly auctions to weekly ones.
That all stopped in 2001, when a six-alarm electrical fire ripped through the company’s warehouse and auction gallery on Maple Street in Falls Church, leaving a loss of approximately $3 million in its wake. For the next six months, Quinn’s staged auctions in a tent until its owners were able to move back to their original location.
Rebuilding was never a question, says Matt, who joined the family business in 2002 as VP of communications after working as a national sales director for a recycling company in California. He now appears as a regular on Antiques Roadshow, appraising porcelain and pottery. (And Matt is not only a purveyor. The only things he and his fiancée, Katy Moore, buy new are clothing, shoes, food and electronics. Everything else—including much of the raw material used in their home’s recent renovations—comes from area auctions.)
In January 2012, the auction house moved yet again, to its current, more expansive location at 360 South Washington St. In addition to its catalog auctions, which are held several times a year and feature high-end antiques, Quinn’s also holds weekly Wednesday night auctions for items ranging from glassware and china to table lamps. During these events, the bidding can both start and stop at $5.
The goal, says Matt, is to solve problems. “I joke when I say I’m a tangible personal property disposition solutions provider,” he says, referring to a tax term that’s used in estate planning.
Three years ago, the Quinns famously helped the disposition of Enid and Jerry Liess by auctioning off a Roy Lichtenstein painting for $128,700 that the Annandale couple had bought in the 1960s for $27.50. At the time, says Matt, it set a record for the highest selling price of a Lichtenstein of that size (a sales figure that has since been topped by Sotheby’s).
Other chart-busting items have included an 18th-century Chinese snuff bottle, which sold for $102,375, a letter written by Robert E. Lee about funding an orphanage (accompanied by a pocket knife and a lock of the general’s hair) that went for $64,900, and a transcript of the first Nixon-Kennedy debate, complete with moderator’s notes in the margins, which sold in the mid-five figures.
“It’s not about the money. It’s not about the object,” Matt insists, pausing a beat for emphasis. “It’s about the person. An individual’s collection is a compilation of their memories. It’s incumbent upon us to help them through the emotional as well as the physical transition [of deaccession].We help them understand how you can hold onto a memory without keeping the object.”
When it comes to bequests, for example, sometimes less is more. Matt says a lot of people think it’s necessary to hand down all 180 pieces of carnival glass to their children. “I tell them, ‘if you give your kids the entire collection, they will put it in a box in the attic and it goes away. If you give them one piece, they will put it on the mantel and think of you every day.’ ”
“Matthew,” notes his father, “is the grandson they all deserve.”
Nancy Monroe wasn’t exactly looking for a new relation when she decided to sell the Wiggins painting, along with other items that had been gathering dust in her attic. A divorced mother of a 20-year-old daughter, she says her decision to go with Quinn’s had more to do with convenience. “They were nearby,” she says matter-of-factly.
After bringing in some jewelry for an appraisal and subsequently selling a few pieces at one of the weekly auctions, she decided to set up an appointment for a home visit. In preparation, she pulled out several items, including the Wiggins painting, a silk carpet, a grandfather clock from 1811, a few sculptures and a glass-and-bronze display cabinet. (Inside the cabinet, Monroe clarifies, were a few treasures that weren’t for sale—like the tiny flea circus made of actual fleas in tiny clothing. And the pair of miniature Bibles, each two inches high, which could only be read through a magnifying glass. Nor did the appraisal include a pair of curare-tipped feathered spears that her mother had picked up as souvenirs while crossing the Andes on mule back as a young college student. Those weapons are presently residing in the Smithsonian’s back room, most likely still wrapped in the 50-year-old newspaper that she had found them in.)
Most of the things Monroe did set out that day had originally come from her parents’ home in Scarsdale, N.Y., although she knows little about how the Wiggins painting came into their possession. As far back as she remembers it was always in the attic. “It was in a very ornate frame and my family didn’t have any ornate or gilt anything,” she says.
But it was the painting that stood out to Erin Till, the sales and acquisitions associate from Quinn’s who made the house call. “When I saw it, I knew it was exceptional,” Till says.
Till recognized the artist’s name immediately: Guy C. (Carleton) Wiggins was part of a prolific dynasty of painters and, at 20, was the youngest American artist to have a work accepted into the permanent collection of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. His father, John Carleton Wiggins, had worked both in the impressionistic style and in the more realistic Hudson Valley style.
Guy later had a son, Guy Arthur, who made a career in the Foreign Service before turning to painting.
It was Guy Arthur, 93 and living in Manhattan, who authenticated the painting. “I put it in the back seat of my car and drove it to New York City,” says Till.
Following Till’s home visit, Monroe placed six items in the catalog auction: the curio cabinet (appraised at $400-$600); a silk rug ($2,000-$3,000); a Tiffany Studios bronze floor lamp ($2,000-$3,000); a bronze sculpture of a nude ($2,000-$4,000); a Murano glass sculpture called “The Twins,” that she had bought on her honeymoon in Italy ($300-$500); and the most valuable of her attic finds: the Wiggins painting ($7,000-$9,000).
Monroe initially thought the grandfather clock was her big-ticket item, but Till couldn’t find enough information on the clock’s manufacturer to offer an estimate. As auction day approached, Monroe figured that, along with some photos and Christmas ornaments, she’d be lugging that clock with her to Lancaster.
Still, she was trying not to get too far ahead of herself. “If nothing sells,” she says, “I’ll be no worse off than I am now.”
Unlike some sellers, Monroe seems to have realistic expectations. “Part of the job is breaking the news to people that their things might not be worth what they think they’re worth,” Matt Quinn says on the morning of the catalog auction. Setting prices, he explains, is one of the more psychological aspects of the business.
“We have to be more than just appraisers when setting the reserve price,” he says. “Low estimates on an object put the buyer in an emotional space where the buyer thinks, ‘Maybe I can get a good deal on this.’ ”
Conversely, setting a high reserve—for example, jumping from an estimate of $10,000-$15,000 to a $15,000-$20,000 range—can turn a buyer away. “That’s a big swing emotionally,” he says.
Ultimately, the auctioneer’s challenge is to balance the client’s expectations while teasing the market into a frenzy. “You have to create a craziness beyond what you expect the item to bring in,” Matt says, adding that he thinks the Wiggins estimate is “crazy low.”
As the sale gets under way on Sept. 15, his system seems to be working. A set of three Chinese rosewood chairs, with a catalog estimate of $3,000-$6,000, goes for a remarkable $21,000. A white console belonging to Speaker Foley, estimated between $300-$500, sells for $3,250. (“We didn’t know the maker,” admits Matt, “but someone else did.”)
There are some duds, of course. An Empire-period sofa fails to garner a single bid. “What?” David asks incredulously, “no one likes big, uncomfortable sofas?”
As the auction proceeds, Matt, dressed in a windowpane plaid suit and cherry-red tie, bounces his right leg as if he has a baby on his lap. He stares intently at a computer screen, manning the online bidding. His index finger hits the refresh key in tandem with his tapping foot.
Monroe has opted to stay home, concerned that she didn’t have anything appropriate to wear, although she needn’t have worried. Other than the suit-clad Quinns, today’s dress code seems to be bifocals and puffy Nike sneakers. One man is dressed head-to-toe in Lifesaver green, including his shoes.
“She’s having a good day so far,” Matt says, after Monroe’s first item, the display cabinet, sells for $1,000. Her luck continues, as the next four lots also exceed their valuations, some going for as much as $1,000 over the high estimate.
People come and go throughout the afternoon. So does the merchandise. The Foley collection, Roxanne Roberts will later report in a Washington Post Reliable Source item, brings in $67,455. (And, in a poignant epilogue, the former House speaker will die one month later.) Papa John’s Pizza is delivered and eaten. David switches off auctioneering duties with his father, Paul, and then switches back again.
Matt gives his right leg a break and bounces his left. The Wiggins painting is up next and he admits to being a bit nervous. Potential buyers who have been in to see it have complained about the dimensions. “The size is a problem,” he says. “It’s tall and narrow. Where do you hang something like that?”
The painting looks massive projected on the screen behind David’s head. “I have a starting bid of $4,750,” he says, referring to a bid left online.
What happens next can only be described as a tennis match, with the moneyball being lobbed back and forth between Matt, who is banging his finger like crazy to refresh the internet bids, and Skip Usry, an employee of Quinn’s, who is whispering intently into his cellphone, acting as proxy to a bidder on the other end of the call.
“Fifty-five hundred?” David asks.
“Okay,” says Usry.
“Six!” counters Matt, clicking his mouse and refreshing the browser.
“Sixty-five hundred?” asks David, catching Usry’s eye.
Usry nods his head. The room sits in silence.
“Seven?” asks David, looking across the room to his brother.
Despite some energetic clicking, Matt shakes his head. The painting, failing to realize its low estimate, goes to the phone bidder for $6,500.
“Congratulations,” whispers Usry to his caller. “Thank you very much.”
It’s all a bit anticlimactic, really. Attention immediately turns to the next item, a late-19th-century watercolor of Fort Monroe in Hampton, Va., by De Lancey W. Gill.
“We go through life acquiring stuff and then you die and your kids sell it all off,” comments one peanut gallery buyer to his friend, summing things up perfectly.
Alvin Sarachek, the man on the other end of the phone and the buyer of the Wiggins painting, also realizes the temporal quality of our things. “Everything we own is on loan,” he says later in a phone call. “You don’t take it with you.”
Even though the painting arrived about a week after the auction, it is already out of his hands. Sarachek, a retired cellular geneticist who lives with his wife, RosaLee, in Wichita, Kan., has donated it, along with six other works by Guy C. Wiggins, to the Wichita Art Museum. (They have also donated scholarships and endowments to several universities, including Wichita State, where Sarachek co-founded and then chaired the biology department for 14 years.)
Since 2008, he says, it’s been his mission to make the museum the repository of Wiggins’ work. All three generations of Wigginses, in fact.
Sarachek learned about this particular Wiggins painting being up for auction through an email alert from Artfact.com (which has since been renamed Invaluable.com). Now 86, he says his first encounter with the artist’s work was through a painting in his father’s home. His uncle, a Kansas City art dealer, had given his father one of the artist’s iconic New York City snow scenes as a house-warming gift.
“My father had struggled during the Depression and had finally saved up enough money to buy his first home,” Sarachek remembers. The painting, he says, represented success. It’s the only one he has not donated to the museum.
His bid to amass the most comprehensive collection of Wiggins’ work is, he adds, “an unspoken memorial to Uncle Gus and Dad.”
Nancy Monroe, meanwhile, is delighted with the outcome of the auction, despite having netted less than she had hoped.
“The painting is now where it belongs,” she says, “instead of in someone’s attic.”
Cathy Alter has written for The Washington Post, Washingtonian and The New York Times. She lives in Georgetown.