You don’t have to be an obsessive collector or an Antiques Roadshow addict to buy at auction anymore. Over the past 15 years, a handful of boutique houses have emerged that specialize in design both modern (like George Nelson) and postmodern (like Ettore Sottsass). The result is a micro-universe of new places to get sought-after furnitureminus the intimidation factor of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. And you can browse without feeling like you have to buy. “Most people don’t realize that you can talk to a specialist on the floor for an hour and never bid on anything,” says Jennifer Olshin, director of the Friedman Benda gallery in New York. “Plus, reserves are often 70 to 80 percent below the low estimate, so you can still get lucky if no one else is bidding.” Here are five of the best auction houses for pressure-free design hunting.
Wright 1440 West Hubbard Street, Chicago; wright20.com Founded eight years ago by auctioneer Richard Wright and his late wife, Julie, Wright practically created the auction market for high-end postwar furniture. The independent outfit had its breakthrough moment when it put one of California’s landmark Case Study houses on the block in 2006. It was the kind of feat achieved only by behemoths, and Wright is using its newfound power-player reputation to expand its inventory in ways few houses do. This month’s biannual Important Design auction will star pieces from early-20th-century French master Charlotte Perriand and Droog Design upstart Tejo Remy. Note: Though prices will start at $2,000, they’re expected to reach nearly $500,000 for some prize items, so bring your AmEx Black. Auction schedule: Four times per year: Modern Design, in March and October, and Important Design, in May and December. Next up: Important Design (two sessions), May 18 to 20. Best in show: A Gaetano Pesce lamp in two parts, est. $30,000 to $40,000 each.
Treadway/Toomey Auctions Treadway: 2029 Madison Road, Cincinnati; Toomey: 818 North Boulevard, Oak Park, IL; treadwaygallery.com A joint venture between two 20th-century art and design galleries in Chicago and Cincinnati, Treadway/Toomey is a bona fide trailblazer: Richard Wright and Phillips de Pury’s Marcus Tremonto both got their starts here, and the house was among the first to focus on mid-century designback in 1999, when an Eames-driven collection was considered a risky proposition. Among the highlights from this month’s sale (which features acquisitions from the whole of the 20th century): three Jeff Koons monkey-face skateboard decks, a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, and a spherical lounge chair from 1959. The house’s modern-design specialist, Lisanne Dickson, who favors classics, calls the sales “more Armani than Junya Watanabe.” Happily for beginners, some items start as low as $100. Auction schedule: Four times a year, in March, May, September, and December. Next up: 20th Century Art and Design, May 4. Best in show: A psychedelic purple sofa by cult sixties Italian group Archizoom for Poltronova, est. $3,500 to $5,500.