I had occasion to preview Americana sales at Doyle and Swann this past week and in the days leading up to these sales it seemed like both would simply fit into the New York continuum of high level sophisticated activities so these New York sales would, at most, be commas, in the city’s cultural extravaganza. Okay, let’s check that thought. Auctions usually see 75% of their lots sell. Swann consistently sells more lots and other houses less. Doyle New York, the scrappy newcomer, looking to confirm their rising status in the auction field, employed even lower estimates to drive their percentage of lots sold even higher. On the 24th, for Doyle, and 25th for Swann, we got to see how these strategies are working out. In two words the answer is very well.
At Doyle there were three sales over two days, the 24th and 25th, but I’ll focus on their 324-lot dispersal of material from the New York Bar Association on the 24th. It was breathtaking as every item sold, together bringing $2,367,267 or 235% of the total of the high estimates. Buckram has never been so valuable. I say this because many of the important rarities in the sale were rebound in durable library bindings as if the contents were not highly rare and important. But, they were and certainly will be restored.
The following day at Swann the Printed & Manuscript Americana sale brought $1,109,257 against the aggregate high estimate of $837,330; 132% of the high estimate. Three hundred and eighty-four lots were offered and 335 sold for an 87% success rate. I bought 4 lots there myself.
Elsewhere on the 24th, at Bonhams in the ‘There’s no Place Like Hollywood” sale AE member Dr. Gary Milan let his Play it Again Sam upright piano from the movie Casablanca go for $3,413,000. He acquired, from more than twenty sources, it and other related items more than thirty years ago. For bidders with not quite so much money Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion costume from the Wizard of Oz  sold for $3,077,000 in the same sale. Gary, at 76, continues to collect. “I can’t control it.” It’s a feeling many of the greatest collectors share.
So what can we make of this? First, there are plenty of people with both taste and resources to buy the exceptional, rare and unique. Their motivations vary widely. Certainly some of the lawyers who dominated the buying at the Doyle sale were buying souvenirs in support of the New York Bar Association. At Swann’s the material was solid, much of it obscure. And at Bonhams? Well, when wealth and emotion find themselves in the same place watch out. The entire sale of 376 lots had a total high estimate of $2,112,600 and brought $9,177,841.
During the week of the 24th bidders were really feeling it.
Here are links to the results of all three sales:
Doyle New York: The New York Bar Association
Swann Galleries: Printed & Manuscript Americana
Bonhams: There’s no place like Hollywood