After more than three decades in the auction business in England and the U.S., you could say Colin Clarke, vice president of Philadelphia-based Freeman’s Auction, is a world-class generalist — he can walk into any room of any house and determine which pieces out of potential hundreds might be worth something.
Freeman's Auction's vice president Colin Clarke. (Photo by Beth Furgurson)
Clarke and his wife, Debra, opened Freeman’s Charlottesville office more than 10 years ago. The couple came to Richmond last year to open a second Virginia location for the 207-year-old auction house (the oldest in the country). They opened their 700-square-foot office at 5401 Patterson Ave. on Aug. 1, and preparations are underway for a busy fall auction season, though no live auctions are scheduled locally. The Richmond office provides services such as verbal auction valuations and written appraisals for estate planning, estate tax, charitable donations, gift tax and insurance.
We recently shared a cup of coffee with the Clarkes in the dining room of their vintage chic home in Church Hill North, where we talked about their latest business endeavor.
R•Home: What type of clientele does Freeman’s Auction cater to?
Colin Clarke: We sell at auction high-end art, so we act as agents for people who want to sell their art. We work a lot with executives of estates who have collections, and we also work with private individuals. The item is sent up to Philadelphia for our team of specialists to research and appraise, and then it goes into our catalogues, which are sent all over the world. We do about 35 to 40 auction sales a year, ranging from art to jewelry to furniture.
R•Home: Why did you choose Richmond for your next southeastern location?
Clarke: It’s a very underserved market for what we do. There’s a lot of history in this area, and there are a lot of great collections. It also helped that we’ve been established in Charlottesville, and I’ve got a number of clients I’ve visited in Richmond that go back 10 years, so this is really taking our business to the next level.
R•Home: How has the auction market changed over the years?
Clarke: It’s grown hugely. It’s become very much an international market. Because of the blossoming Chinese economy, one of the biggest things at the moment is a huge collection of Chinese works of art that were collected in huge numbers by American and European travelers and collectors in the 19th century and shipped back [home]. Now there’s a huge market for these pieces that have been sitting around for 150 years because the Chinese are coming here to buy things to take back. There are also paintings selling at some auctions for more than $100 million for a single painting. Ten years ago, the record was $50 million. It just shows that there’s a lot of money in the art business.
R•Home: What’s the hottest growing trend you’ve seen recently?
Clarke: I think people are buying more fine art. They’re buying more paintings. You don’t have to spend $20,000 or $30,000 to buy a good painting. Trends come and go in phases — things come in and out of style. People start selling things because they’re selling well and then it falls off, so there are ups and downs. We were a little ahead of the trend with Midcentury modern, but now it’s coming back again and we’re making a department for it once more. In these high-end disciplines, there’s always something that will sell strong.
R•Home: What are the benefits of buying or selling items at auction?
Clarke: It’s a very transparent process. We’re very service-oriented — we’re here to answer questions and give advice. I think the auction process intimidates some people — they see it in the movies and read about it in books, and it seems complicated. But we’re here to help you through that process. There is a lot of serious research that goes on, and pieces will find their place in the world market. It’s not some dealer offering you $10,000 for your painting, and then two weeks later you walk into his gallery and he has it on the wall for $40,000. That can’t happen at auction. It will find its value in the marketplace and it will be correct.
R•Home: What is the most unique item you’ve ever sold?
Clarke: Three or four years ago, I went to a home to look at a baseball signed by Babe Ruth. On my way out, I noticed a Chinese cloisonné vase out of the corner of my eye. It was being used to hold umbrellas at the front door. The owner said his grandfather was a ship captain during the Chinese tea trade. After doing some research, we found out the vase’s pair was being displayed in the British Museum, so we got it out in the international market. It went from the client thinking it was worth $1,000 to us selling it for $1.5 million.
R•Home: What’s coming up next for the Richmond office?
Clarke: We’ll be doing a lot of events in the future, including exhibitions and jewelry lunches, where you can attend a luncheon and have your jewelry looked at afterwards by our jewelry specialist. … On the third Wednesday of every month, we will have an open appraisal day for the public to bring up to three items and find out how much they’re worth. If you’ve always wondered how much that silver coffee pot is worth, bring it to us and we’ll have a look at it. We want to let the public know we’re here.