A 98-Year-Old Widow Sold a $100 Eames Cabinet She Didn’t Even Like for $48,000, a New Auction Record
The rare cabinet may be among fewer than half a dozen surviving examples.
At 98 years old, Nancy Allen made the difficult decision to leave her longtime home in Franklin, Michigan, to move closer to her children in Pennsylvania. Saying goodbye to decades’ worth of furniture and personal belongings, however, came with a silver lining when she auctioned off an Eames Storage Unit originally purchased for just $100 for a remarkable $48,000.
The sale was conducted by Le Shoppe Auction House, a new auction house in Keego Harbor, Michigan, operated by midcentury modern store Le Shoppe Too and Detroit Fine Art Appraisals, which the Allen family had enlisted to help sell the contents of their home.
Allen and her late husband, Maurice, got $500 from their families to help furnish their home as newlyweds in 1951. Maurice, who died in 2008, was an architect with an eye for design, and it was he who picked out the innovative and modular Eames Storage Unit over his wife’s objections.
“Nancy said, ‘Why are you buying this strange-looking cabinet?’ But he said, ‘I love the design of it,'” Deborah Slobin, cofounder of Le Shoppe Too, told Artnet News.
“Maurice was actually the right-hand man for Eero Saarinen, who designed the TWA air terminal in New York City and the Arch in St. Louis,” she added. “The Allens had remarkable pieces, quite a collection of original iconic furniture—American-made, Danish-made, with all the buzznames that are popular right now.”
Le Shoppe agreed to sell numerous pieces from the home, including an earthenware piece by Fausto Melotti that is expected to fetch $11,000 in an upcoming auction. But far and away the most exciting piece the family owned was the colorful, geometric design of the Eames Storage Unit, with its lightweight cabinets made from plastic-coated plywood, enameled Masonite, and steel framing.
“This thing is so pristine you would have thought it was a brand-new product,” Slobin said.
But a close inspection soon revealed this was something much more special.
The Herman Miller Furniture Company began producing the cabinet in 1950, and the Allens happened to buy one of the very first pieces off the line, priced at just $100. What sets their unit apart is its feet, which are made from gray rubber, rather than the black caps used in all but the earliest models.
“This is not only old, it’s super rare—it’s the first edition,” Terri Stearn, owner of Detroit Fine Art Appraisals, told Artnet News. “If there are five left in the world, I’d be surprised.”
Typical copies of the storage unit can sell for $6,000 to $8,000, but this one carried a presale estimate of $20,000. The auctioneers saw an immediate flurry of interest in the piece when they released the catalogue for the sale, with collectors offering up to $19,000 before bidding even opened.
The winning bid came from a curator at the Eames Institute, a new organization dedicated to the cabinet’s designers, husband-and-wife duo Charles and Ray Eames.
The previous record for this particular storage unit had been $36,250, set at Rago Auctions in 2017, according to the Artnet Price Database
After the auction’s conclusion, Allen’s children paid her a visit to tell her how it went. When they revealed the final price tag, she was astonished.
As Slobin tells it, “She fell back in her chair with a huge smile on her face and said, ‘Your father would have been so proud.'”
Follow Artnet News on Facebook:
Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.