Auctioning a Private Collection Requires a Delicate Strategy

By Sullivan, Paul | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Auctioning a Private Collection Requires a Delicate Strategy


Sullivan, Paul, International New York Times


Sellers should ask tough questions of the auction houses or galleries that want to represent them, and be reasonable about the value of their collections.

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 on May 19.

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.

The 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."

Mr. Rendell said he worked on the sale of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and his partner, Pierre Berge, 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 line."

The Saint Laurent sale, like the ones for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 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.

The first auction had two big sales. A 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 gold coin.

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. …

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