Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2005 Issue

Freeman's Begins Third Century with Celebration

Famf

A firm as old as the history they sell.


By Bruce McKinney

The Samuel T. Freeman Company of Philadelphia celebrates its two hundredth anniversary this month with four days of important sales. It is the first American auction house to reach this milestone and this sale promises to be a remarkable event. The firm arrives at this juncture sporting the scars and experience to prove it has both made the journey and will continue to be a player in the unsettled and unsettling auction world that is unfolding in the 21st century. For auction houses generally this means continuing rebirth to be relevant. For Freeman's, a canny player in the auction game, they play it as opportunity and daily work to make it one. Their history says they have the skills and ambition to prosper in a world where the high wire is ever higher and safety net long gone. They begin their third century with firm determination to carry their endeavor into the fourth.

In conjunction with this anniversary they are releasing a history of the firm: Vendue Masters: Tales from within the walls of America's Oldest Auction House. It is a collaboration of two writers: Roland Arkell & Catherine Saunders-Watson and a book that "auction-o-philes" will want to give themselves this holiday season. It is one of the better ones and is to be released in conjunction with the four day 200th anniversary sales to be held November 19th through the 22nd. In some sense this celebration was 73,000 days in the making so four days to celebrate seems about right. The firm is also issuing two auction catalogues: A Bicentennial Pennsylvania Sale [11/19-20] and the Esther Ludwig Collection: A Celebration of Pennsylvania [11/21-22]. Important books and manuscripts will be sold during the first two days.

Two intertwined threads connect the firm's first day in 1805 to the 200th anniversary this month: the continuing participation of the Freeman family and the sale of material at auction. Every other aspect of the story flickers and darts, appearing, disappearing and reappearing as circumstances dictate and personalities permit. It is a cautionary tale that reminds us that two hundred year old businesses are rare for a reason: it is almost impossible to survive that long. To do so as a family business is as likely as winning the lottery, only harder. It suggests a rare combination of grit, determination and luck.

To those who know the firm as specialists in fine antiques, exceptional books and manuscripts this is the Freeman Auction Company of today but not the firm that carried the torch down through the first ten decades. At heart the firm was from the beginning simply a seller of what was to be sold. Auctions were first "cried" next to a banner displayed to signal dispersal. Such sales were often the final stage of business dreams gone to Potter's Field. "They say auction is the second oldest profession" and in the nineteenth century it was associated with shame and failure, no doubt a tough business.

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