The State of the Decorative Arts Market With David Rago

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
David Rago, President of Rago Arts and Auction. Photo courtesy of the auction house.
David Rago, President of Rago Arts and Auction. Photo courtesy of the auction house.

The world of fine decorative arts – items appreciated for their beauty, collectability, and function – includes century-spanning furniture, ceramics, crystal, glassware, lamps and lighting, and tableware, among others. Auction Daily spoke with David Rago, President of Rago Arts and Auction of Lambertville, NJ, to get his take on the state of the marketplace in 2021 for this key auction category. His company has been in business since 1984 and enjoys an international reputation for leadership and excellence in the decorative arts auction space. 

Auction Daily:  Tell us about the decorative arts category at auction today and how that has changed in the past decade or two.

David Rago: This is a difficult question to answer because the antiques and decorative arts businesses have changed so much in the past 15 years, but that change has had an uneven impact. I really started to see the shift in the early 2000s. The death spiral first came with the falling away of the 19th-century market for things like cut glass, Sandwich glass, and Victorian materials. By about 2005, I saw that things like early-20th-century furniture ceased to rise in value. As a friend once said to me, “You can buy one Gustav Stickley bookcase or 40 pots to put in it.”  Collectors had the furniture they needed; who wanted two dining tables?  But smalls, like wrought metal and art pottery, still had their place. But again, there are inconsistencies.  Rookwood pottery, the best of its kind in the world, started to drop in price by about 2007. As good as the work is, people were less interested in buying the representational designs painted on those vases. Their tastes gravitated to the stylized designs of Grueby, or the relatively abstract work of George Ohr, the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi” of Mississippi.

Collection of rare pottery by George E. Ohr. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction.
Collection of rare pottery by George E. Ohr. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction.

The market also aged. Children didn’t want what their parents bought, and their parents were downsizing. As such, supply outstripped demand, and prices for early 20th century and Aesthetic movement furniture dropped in most cases by about 75% for all but the very best, rarest work, in great condition. On the other hand, why have certain early-20th-century items gone up in value?  Usually, this has been fostered by European interest in specific artists like Ohr and people who understand this is qualitative material offered at a far more favorable entry-level pricing. For example, when a Stickley bookcase is $7,000, it represents a far more difficult choice than, fifteen years later, it’s about half the cost.

Buyers have found new favorites, mostly post-WW2 designs by masters like George Nakashima, Paul Evans, Sam Maloof, and Wendell Castle. Once again, these markets benefit from an international clientele.

Auction Daily:  What types of decorative arts are particularly in demand with collectors today, and why?  


David Rago: People are buying modern art, whether prints by Warhol or oils by contemporary masters, and they mostly want modern furniture to go with it. New Hope modernism, International School, Post Modern, and Memphis School, all cool and colorful and/or natural material that blends well with Modern art. They are also buying old, qualitative standards like Tiffany lighting and glass, as well as George Ohr. 

I’ve always contended that “better is better,” and by now, people have access to enough information to really know the difference. The level of understanding these past 25 years (certainly since Antiques Roadshow began) is impressively high. I think the internet, museum shows, and scholarly works, as well as all the material that has come to market, have worked in tandem to improve people’s understanding.

Auction Daily: What is the most exciting decorative art example you’ve ever handled? If you ended up selling it at auction, what did it trade hands at?

Frederick Rhead tiles which realized over $650,000 at a Rago
auction in 2012. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction.
Frederick Rhead tiles which realized over $650,000 at a Rago
auction in 2012. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction.

David Rago: We sold a set of tiles by Frederick Rhead, which came out of a wall in Zanesville, Ohio, for over USD650,000. That was pretty exciting.  But an Evans cabinet for $400,000 was also a memorable moment, both because of the record (at that time) and the validation of Evans as the top-priced designer for American post-war furniture, made right here in Lambertville, New Jersey.

Auction Daily: How has the global COVID 19 pandemic impacted the marketplace for these goods?

David Rago: People aren’t eating in restaurants, taking cruises, getting on airplanes, or staying in hotel rooms. They are staying at home. The money they are saving is being used to upgrade their living space, and all auctions and (as I hear) high-end galleries are seeing this increase in business. Tired of your old coffee table?  Many people are, and they are buying new ones (and many other things) with the money they are not spending elsewhere.

Rare Tiffany Dandelion Lamp on offer at the company's Early 20th Century Design event on May 13th. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction.
Rare Tiffany Dandelion Lamp on offer at the company’s Early 20th Century Design event on May 13th. Photo courtesy of Rago Arts and Auction.

Auction Daily: And finally, your Early 20th Century Design event will take place on May 13th and will feature items from the decorative arts categories. Tell us about this sale and give us a hint of a top lot or two.

David Rago: Higher auction prices are coaxing better material out of homes and collections. We are still only about half full for the May sale, but piece for piece, it will be among the best we’ve ever held. There are several exceptional pieces already under contract. These include a 5.5′ tall Voulkos floor vase, a 94″ Evans Sculpture Front credenza, a collection of 40 pieces of Ohr, some exceptional contemporary glass, and a wonderful and rare Tiffany dandelion lamp from an estate in the south.

Rago Arts and Auction is located at 243 North Main St. Lambertville, NJ 08530. For more information, please see their website.

Want to learn more about big names in decorative arts? Auction Daily explored the work of George Nakashima before a Rago Arts and Auction event last year.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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