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Hammering Out a Deal

To the beat of a gavel, lovers of 20th century collectible furniture put their 2 cents in, and more


Helen and Jack Ofield were a bit flummoxed last Sunday morning when a photographer asked them to pose with their chair. They'd owned and used it regularly for the past three decades, but they no longer knew whether they should even rest a hand on it.

"It feels like we can't touch it anymore," Jack Ofield, a filmmaker and professor at San Diego State University, whispered to his wife as they stood just inside the entry to the main showroom of Butterfields auction house in Hollywood.

About an hour later this same secretary's chair--designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1930s for his S.C. Johnson Administration Building in Wisconsin--would fetch nearly $105,000 in less than a minute, leaving the Ofields breathless and a crowd of serious buyers, sellers and the simply curious cheering.

Never mind that the chair was a bit worn and had an ink stain on the seat. Never mind that because of its three-legged design it is famous for tipping over. Never mind that it came to the Ofields as a gift from the Johnson family after Ofield shot a TV documentary on Wright's masterwork. As the auctioneer's gavel fell, the chair dropped out of sight and into the hands of a private collector who would not reveal his name. It turned from one family's prized possession into another man's latest holding--perhaps equally prized, but for different reasons. Because it's rare. Because it's considered to be in great condition despite the nicks of time. And because he--whoever he is--just had to have it.

And so it goes in the ever-evolving world of collectibles, a world with its own rhythms of letting go and coveting anew, of market rises and falls, of competition for singular items and neglect for yesterday's treasures.

The Wright offering was the clear highlight of Sunday's auction of nearly 450 lots of 20th century furniture, decorative arts and a smattering of fine art that brought in nearly $1 million in about 5 1/2 hours in a blur of edge-of-the-seat highs and blink-of-an-eye lows. It was a classic L.A. scene, with attendees demanding to remain anonymous while dressed extravagantly in everything from cowboy hats to chains, as likely to be sporting elaborate tattoos as diamonds. About 250 people crowded into the darkened auction room adjacent to the display galleries for the top-selling items--including the Wright chair, a trio of 1911-13 mica-shaded copper lamps by the San Francisco Arts and Crafts master Dirk van Erp, and a 1964 burl oak "Conoid" table by George Nakashima. Dozens more bid absentee or by Internet and phone. But even in the auction's quietest moments dozens stayed in the room, ever ready to bid, or just to take notes in their catalogs, for the record.

Butterfields has been headquartered since 1865 in San Francisco, where it conducts most of its sales. But because Peter Loughrey, the company's 20th century decorative arts specialist, has a long-established base here, and because so much material comes out of L.A.'s trove of Modernist homes, Butterfields runs its modern furnishings auctions at the Hollywood headquarters, an undistinguished whitewashed warehouse at the somewhat dingy corner of Sunset Boulevard and Curson Avenue, about a mile west of the new home of the Academy Awards. It is a corner where auction goers might be accosted in full daylight by neighborhood regulars--women with fluorescent-red hair, 10-inch stilettos and shorts that barely qualify as clothing. It is also a neighborhood where nearby homes sell for millions and people often come in on a Sunday afternoon willing to spend hundreds--or hundreds of thousands--in search of a bargain.

Butterfields may be best known for selling California plein-air paintings, but it is increasingly becoming a place to buy more recent works of all genres. In the past year the L.A. house has offered four auctions in recent vintage design, recognizing a growing taste among both young and older collectors and high- and low-end buyers. Works by Tiffany and the Eameses regularly come up alongside the flickering flames of various eras, such as the once-hot Italians known as the Memphis Group. "There's our kitchen table growing up," said one 30-ish woman as she walked through the showroom on Sunday. "There's Dad's office."

As with any auction, the real business comes down to who's ready to buy, and for how much. The mesmerizing voices of the auctioneers invite bidders to go just one increment higher--raising the bids by $10, "if you wish," for a commonplace item like an Eames walnut chair that could easily be bought new for about the same $380 that it sold for, used, on Sunday. Or, often enough, they ask buyers to go up $5,000 more for, say, a rare Van Erp lamp.

On Sunday, because of differences in style and condition, three Van Erp lamps sold one after another for $104,750, $23,500 and $14,100, as openers to the sale. The first was particularly noteworthy for its size and style, known as "warty" because it has a lumpy base.

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