Auction House Spotlight: Litchfield County Auctions
Nicholas thorn talks auctions and finding treasures in unlikely places.
Litchfield County Auctions & Appraisals holds five major sales a year featuring fine art, antique and modern furniture, silver, jewelry, and more. Nicholas Thorn joined the company in 1994 as an appraiser, and became president in 2014. He has managed sales of prominent estates and collections, and has continued to help increase sales revenue since joining the company.
Tell us about your background in art and what led you here.
I grew up in and around my father’s antique shop. When I was 10, my brother and I held a tag sale out front. Eventually I began going on estate visits with him, and as he was drawn to the antiques and traditional paintings, I became interested in the 20th-century furniture and the modern art.
What do you need to be a good dealer?
Respect and self-confidence. When visiting an estate, I often have to remind prospective clients that these are their items and that I am there to offer a service, not to take their family heirlooms from them. It is also important to know my audience and to be clear about what a client should expect their collection to sell for.
What has been the highlight of your career so far? What has surprised you the most?
On a blazing hot August morning, my father and I were standing, sweating in our suits on Queens Boulevard in Kew Gardens, Queens, waiting for our appointment to see the Beckwith Estate. When it turned out that our contact had gotten his appointments confused, we thought about leaving, but went to have lunch instead and await our appointment. An hour later, our contact showed up and brought us into a non-descript apartment building. We took the elevator upstairs and entered the messiest, smelliest apartment we’d ever been in. With three inches of newspaper strewn across the floors of the small one-bedroom apartment, dirty dishes piled high above the sink, and worse, we were again tempted to turn around and leave. However, as we began looking around, lifting up newspapers dated from the 1970s and peeking under furniture that was literally stacked in the living room, we started noticing that under the mess and the grime was a real collection. In the end, we spent three days clearing the tiny apartment and pulled half a million dollars’ worth of Tiffany lamps, 20th-century design furniture, Mettlach Beer Steins, and more from this Colliers-brothers-esque estate.
How would you describe the atmosphere of an auction house sale? How has this environment changed over the years?
Although our sales are all online, the exhibition is a live, bustling, energetic event. Friends meet friends at the auction house, and it is one of the fun social events of any given season. Auction day, however, is eerily quiet, with just the staff taking phone bids and answering emails and watching the sale. When an item goes for a surprising price, sometimes applause will ripple from the back office through and into the exhibition gallery.
What is the highest-selling lot you’ve ever had?
A modern painting of Paris by Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-Ki, which sold for $264,000.
What was your proudest consignment in the last year?
Our proudest consignment over the past year has been the Estate of Mary Griggs Burke, whose tremendous Japanese art collection is known to be the best such collection outside of Japan. While that collection has been willed to museums, we have had the honor of selling art, antiques, and modern design furniture from both her New York City residence and her beautiful estate on Centre Island, just off Oyster Bay, NY.
How do you select most of your consignments? Are you reaching out to clients? Or are they coming to you?
The majority of our best collections come through referrals from fine art and antiques appraisers, art advisor groups, and specialized estate and trust lawyers, all of whom have worked with us for the past 20 years and know us to be knowledgeable and honest and to attain the best prices for their clients’ property.
Do you collect art? Tell us about your collection.
My wife and I have a small collection of art—in our small Brooklyn apartment—from friends who are working, successful artists, plus two Tibetan thangkas (Buddhist paintings). As I see so much wonderful art through the eyes of an auctioneer, it is usually when I am outside of that role that I find pieces which speak to me in a more personal way.
If you could have dinner with any three artists, living or dead, who would you choose?
I think it would be fun to meet and speak with some of the mid-century modern designer-architects and artists—Eliel and Eero Saarinen, Ray and Charles Eames, and Florence Knoll, for example. Last year I took an amazing trip (with Dr. Tom Folk, through the Appraisers Association of America) to Cranbrook Academy in Detroit. To be there at the time when Eliel Saarinen was president, and a whole movement toward modernism was taking shape, would have been extremely exciting.
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