Selling Private Collection of Artifacts Requires Special Care by PAUL SULLIVAN
| MAY 29, 2015
THE first coin that captured D. Brent Pogue’s
attention was a 1915 wheat penny. He was 10 years old, and
at the time, he thought it was worth $250 million.
“The only value of that coin is my sentimental
attachment to it,” Mr. Pogue said from his home in Dallas.
He estimated the penny is probably worth 2 cents today.
But he went on to buy far rarer coins, including
the only 1822 Half Eagle gold piece in private hands, in
a 40-year quest to build the pre-eminent collection of early
American coins. “I fell in love with the history of our
country, the history of our coins, the artistic beauty of
our coins,” he said.
Mr. Pogue, 50, has decided to sell his collection
of some 680 coins, which the specialty auction house Stack’s
Bowers Galleries estimates could fetch more than $200 million.
Not bad for pocket change with a face value of $769.14,
according to Brian Kendrella, president of Stack’s Bowers.
Mr. Pogue has a particularly rich collection
of coins with a built-in audience of coin enthusiasts. Even
so, strategy is the key to getting the most from the sale
of a collection. That is why Stack’s Bowers has spaced out
the coin sales over seven auctions in the next three years.
The first was last week.
And while it is a heady time in the art
and auction world — Christie’s recently set a record by
selling more than $1 billion of postwar and contemporary
art in one week — such headline-grabbing numbers make selling
art seem easy.
In most cases, selling a collection will
take years and result in many unsold pieces. To prevent
disappointment — or worse, many unsold lots — sellers need
to ask tough questions of the auction houses or galleries
that want to represent them, and be reasonable about the
value of what they have amassed.
first thing someone wanting to sell a collection needs is
a story to hold it together. “Many people can put together
groups of things that are called collections,” said Jonathan
Rendell, a deputy chairman of Christie’s. “But a really
great collection is completely bound together. The objects
and the collector are one thing.”
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Mr. Rendell said he worked on the sale of
the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre
Bergé, in 2009. “You’ve got the glamour of the fashion world
and also two very serious collectors who were on point,”
he said. “They didn’t buy anything that wasn’t top of the
The Saint Laurent sale, like the ones for
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the actress Elizabeth Taylor
and the designer Bill Blass, had a rare aura.
Ricki Harris, regional representative in
Chicago for Bonhams, an auction house, said she remembered
coming upon the archaeological collection of Leighton A.
Wilkie, who owned a tool and die company in Illinois. His
family, she said, cared little for his collection, which
included an Egyptian sarcophagus.
“He had begun putting together a great research
library,” Ms. Harris said of Mr. Wilkie, who died in 1993.
“He had antiquities from Egypt in his collection because
he had funded digs of the pyramids, and Egypt offered him
the opportunity to buy things. We told a story around this
and did incredibly well with the rest of the property.”
For most collections, though, not every
piece is wonderful, and a strategy is needed to sell as
many as possible.
Mr. Pogue’s coins vary in quality and auction
value. The first auction, on May 19, conducted in partnership
with Sotheby’s, brought in $25 million, which beat the auction
house’s high estimate by $1 million.
1796 quarter dollar sold for $1,527,500, which tied a record,
and an 1808 Quarter Eagle sold for $2,350,000, setting a
record for any quarter eagle sold and for any 19th-century
And many coveted coins are
to come, including Mr. Pogue’s 1822 Half Eagle, which his
father, a real estate investor, bought for him in 1982 when
he was 17. It cost $687,500 then, and Mr. Kendrella said
it could top $10 million when it is offered at the fifth
sale next year. (The Smithsonian Museum has the two other
remaining 1822 Half Eagles.)
These are the types of coins
that Mr. Kendrella is using to structure the seven auctions
so that each one generates roughly $30 million in sales.
But he said he also wanted to make sure that the rarest
coins were not in the same sale, like the two 1804 dollars
that are estimated to fetch $5 million and $10 million.
For the seller of something
that is not an internationally known work of art, like the
Picasso that sold for $179.4 million at Christie’s, finding
an expert who understands the particulars of the piece is
In an earlier instance,
Sotheby’s worked with Guyette & Schmidt, a regional
auction house in Maryland now called Guyette & Deeter,
to sell a major collection of duck decoys. “People went
crazy for it,” said Ronald Varney, principal of Ronald Varney
Fine Art Advisors, who was then at Sotheby’s. “Sotheby’s
did the promotion, and the specialty auction house knew
where all the duck decoy buyers were.”
Some $11 million in duck
decoys were sold at that auction in January 2000.
Mr. Varney says he now works
to educate the same sellers he once chased at Sotheby’s
about their options. “If you’re selling a collection, it’s
something you want to approach with great care and caution,”
he said. “The art market is not like the financial market.
We don’t have the S.E.C. It’s unregulated.”
He said he recommended that
people ask specific questions about what kind of advertising
an auction house is doing for them and push it to create
a specialized catalog and other supporting material, like
monographs that are written for big sales. He also recommends
that people with significant pieces ask the houses to make
commitment to selling some of the lesser items being offered.
some cases, galleries may be a better route, particularly
when a collector has artists who are significant but not
well known in the big auctions.
“If you’re talking about Impressionist and
modern art, the market absorbed over $2 billion in a couple
of weeks,” said Jim Carona, owner of Heather James Fine
Art, which sells collections at its galleries in Palm Desert,
Calif., and Jackson, Wyo. “But if you’re selling an esoteric
group of works of art, you have a thin market. If it’s a
regional market, then you have another set of challenges.”
Regional galleries, he said, have an advantage
in being specialized and knowing all the buyers for a less-followed
art form — like duck decoys.
Or a collection could contain the minor
works by major artists and benefit from more attention or
a slower pace of sales. Kristine Bell, senior partner at
the David Zwirner Gallery, is handling the sale of 150 drawings
by artists like Ellsworth Kelly, Agnes Martin and Brice
Marden owned by Sarah-Ann and Werner H. Kramarsky.
“The auction market is very repetitive,”
Ms. Bell said. “It’s the same brands and names that sell
well over time. But there are well-known artists who are
nurtured by the private gallery market.”
And she said that by taking more time to
sell a collection, a gallery can tell the story of the collector
to turn it into a great marketing hook.
Private sales also protect sellers from
the risk that their piece will go unsold at auction, making
it difficult to sell that piece publicly for years. It is
also better for sellers at auction to take a lower price
than the house had estimated, since they probably paid much
less for the piece five or 10 years earlier.
Mr. Pogue declined to discuss the profit
he will make on his collection, saying instead that it was
time for him to move on to other hobbies.
“I know the collection is going to bring
enough money for my family,” he said. “But I am not consumed
by the sum total of these seven sales. I know they’re going
to bring more than what we bought them for, and that’s good
enough for me.”