Swann Galleries

Oct 10, 2009

In 1941, while America was still at peace, a book dealer named Benjamin Swann founded an auction house specializing in rare and antiquarian books. Swann Galleries not only survived World War II, it has thrived ever since, expanding its staff from four to more than 30 and its auction categories far beyond books. Last year alone, the family-run operation conducted 35 auctions that brought in approximately $33 million in bids.

Swann has called the Flatiron district home for more than half a century, moving into 117 East 24th Street in 1957. In May 1974, it relocated to its present space at 104 East 25th Street, where it now occupies the fifth and sixth floors. Its fifth-floor auction gallery can accommodate more than 200 bidders, while the sixth floor has a maximum occupancy of 140. Bids may also be made online, by phone, by e-mail or by postal mail.

Although it began with books – a category it still calls “the backbone” of its business – Swann began spreading its wings almost 40 years ago into discrete departments for photographs and autographs, maps and atlases. That was around the time Benjamin Swann retired and sold the business to George S. Lowry. Lowry was president until 2001, when he was succeeded by his son, Nicholas, and became chairman, a new title.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Swann added prints, drawings and vintage posters and is now, according to its website, “a world leader in the auction market for works of art on paper.”

“We are a specialist house, in that we don’t handle three-dimensional objects such as jewelry, furniture or sculpture, although there is some sculpture in the African-Americana category,” said Caroline Birenbaum, Swann’s director of communications.

“We don’t own anything,” she added. “Everything we sell is consigned. We have a very wide price range of material. Our minimum is $1,000 per consignment. This might be a single item, or it could be a few related or unrelated items. Some items are grouped together and offered at auction as a single lot. Most often, a lot consists of only one item.”

Birenbaum was asked whether she would describe the company as a boutique gallery.

“A boutique connotes something precious,” she replied with a smile. “We’re not precious. We’re very down to earth.”

Swann is the only major auction house to conduct regular sales of African-American Fine Art, a category it launched in February 2007. The next such sale is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 7, at 2:30 p.m., and will include paintings, drawings and prints.

Additional events in October include Swann’s auction of artifacts from the world of magic, which became an annual event in 1997. Usually held near the end of the month to coincide with Halloween and the death of Harry Houdini, this year’s magic show is scheduled for Oct. 28 at 1:30 p.m. It’s called Magic Collection of a Gentleman and everything in it is being offered by a single collector who prefers to remain anonymous. It includes books, periodicals, catalogs, signed photographs and 77 lots of Houdini material, including letters, handcuffs and what was described as “water-torture hardware.” Also on the block will be an ensemble once worn on stage by “the Original Chinese Conjurer, Chung Ling Soo” (real name: William Ellsworth Robinson, a New York magician who masqueraded as an Asian). Chung died in 1918 when a trick in which he appeared to catch bullets fired from a gun with his teeth went wrong.

“My God, I’ve been shot,” he gasped. “Lower the curtain.”

It was the first – and last – time Chung spoke on stage in English. He died the following day.

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