When Oprah Winfrey decided to clean house at her residences in Indiana, Maui, Chicago, and Santa Barbara, she contacted Beverly’s Kaminski Auctions to help her find new homes for the things she didn’t want anymore. Frank Kaminski gaveled off objects as varied as 18th-century French furniture, movie posters, 19th-century American art, and Winfrey-signed memorabilia to raise over $600,000 for Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. The event also provided an article about de-cluttering for Winfrey’s O, The Oprah Magazine, and for over 4,000 visitors, a splendid day of entertainment, celebrity ogling, and bargain hunting at the Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club. The two days previous saw over 200,000 hits from 170 countries and all 50 states on the Kaminski Auction web page for the collection.
Likewise, when Beverly’s beloved and venerable Le Grand David Spectacular Magic Show shut its doors for good, Kaminski Auctions sold the company’s props, memorabilia, original artwork, and posters at a memorable event at the magic company’s home, the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre.
Here is what we all want today: We want to be green, to lessen our carbon footprint, and to create less waste. We want to have stylish, individual, comfortable, and beautiful homes. Ditto for us: We want to be chic and gorgeously unique. We want superb quality. We want to be entertained. And we want bargains.
We can have all of these, and more, in one fell swoop, says Diane Riva, director of marketing and publicity at Kaminski Auctions.
“The best value for anything you want to buy is at auctions,” she says. “At auction, you can buy something of real value for very little. You are reusing, recycling. And people who go to auctions have fun, and they derive so much pleasure from the things they buy.”
The answer to the discouraging dilemmas of wasteful consumerism, of mass-produced sameness, and of overpriced mediocrity, she says, is to shop at auctions. “If you buy a piece of furniture, for example, in a big-box store,” Riva explains, “its value decreases to almost nothing the moment you take it out of the store; it’s just like buying a new car. But an antique bought at auction can be a real bargain with inherent value.”
Auction houses were established in Sweden and England in the 17th and 18th centuries as a favored way to sell works of art; Christie’s, now the world’s largest auction house, published its first auction catalog in 1766. During the American Civil War, seized goods were sold at auction by the colonel of the division. Thus, some of today’s American auctioneers carry the unofficial title of “colonel.”
Frank Kaminski began emptying garages and houses several decades ago, soon auctioning off the antiques and art he found. In the late 1980s, his first highly publicized auction sold the contents of the home of former Boston mayor James Michael Curley. In 1996, Kaminski opened his eponymous auction house in Beverly with a staff of four. Four years ago, the company moved to a sophisticated new auction gallery on Beverly’s Elliott Street; they also maintain office facilities in a historic 1850s barn on Cabot Street. The company has locations in Beverly Hills, San Diego, Santa Barbara, and West Palm Beach, but—with the exception of rare events like the Oprah Winfrey or the Le Grand David sales—auctions take place at the Elliott Street gallery. Kaminski hosts 25 auctions a year, selling furniture, coins, vintage couture, jewelry, silver, Oriental rugs, art glass, oil paintings, and a range of other objects.
Auction items from around the world
The development of the Internet was a huge boost to auctioneers, who can now solicit bids from a wide range of buyers on a much wider range of commodities than was previously practical.
“Things have really changed for us,” Riva says. “We used to get 400 people at an auction; now we see 30 to 70 people, on average. But we now have 15 employees, many of whom watch phone and online bidding. We will soon have a mobile online bidding app.
“We recently had an auction of Persian, Islamic, and Indian objects,” she continues. “And over 25 bidders were from Iran, bidding online. Auctions have become very global.”
Because of shipping costs, furniture generally does not sell except to local customers, unless a piece is of particular importance.
“Right now, there are some real bargains to be had in mahogany furniture,” Riva explains. “Also, in sterling silver and formal china. In fact,” she says, with emphasis, “going to auctions is a great way to furnish your home. A dining table that once sold for $12,000 is now going for $1,200, and you can now buy a whole set of dining chairs for the price of what an individual chair used to cost.”
Riva maintains a design blog on the Kaminski website in which she recently compared furnishings offered for sale by a national chain to objects that Kaminski had recently sold at auction. A tufted leather Chesterfield sofa comparable to a $4,000 national chain’s model sold for $1,500; a curvaceous iron and crystal French chandelier was auctioned off for $300, while the chain sells a decidedly less beautiful version for $1,700.
The departments that are growing these days, Riva says, are selling mid-century modern and Asian objects. “There is a huge market in China for antiques,” she says. “They have a big, growing economy with an emerging middle class that wants things that were banished during the Cultural Revolution. A lot of Chinese art and ceramics started coming to this part of Massachusetts 300 years ago; in China today, they are trying to buy it back.”
She adds that Kaminski also specializes in the work of North Shore artists. “We have always dealt in area art. A lot of people have found pieces at our auctions and become collectors.”
Riva dispels some of the myths that have sprung up around auctions. Auctioneers speak slowly and clearly, she says, explaining that incomprehensible rapid-fire chanting happens at cattle auctions, not at antiques auctions. Mistakenly bidding with random hand movements only happens in Marx Brothers movies, since all bidders must register before the event. “The auctioneer makes eye contact with bidders; communication is very clear. And for anyone who comes for the first time, we will walk them through the process.”
She points out that auction sales are final, making it especially important to study desired objects with care during the pre-auction preview period. Customers bidding via phone or Internet should request a condition report. “Once the hammer comes down, it’s yours,” she says.
Kaminski will soon begin offering informational seminars to would-be auction attendees, and the company gives free appraisals at its Elliott Street facility between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. every Tuesday. Experts also appraise items via emailed images. Everything the company sells is on consignment; the percentage it takes varies with the piece. Objects taken for auction by Kaminski must be valued at $300 or more.
“We want to urge people to come to auctions,” Riva says. “You learn so much about the decorative arts, and the experience itself is so much fun, even if you never bid on a thing.” www.kaminskiauctions.com.