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Auction of the Contents of the World

Jeanne Schinto | April 25th, 2013


This French Empire-style mahogany and ormolu-mounted telephone sold to a phone bidder for $10,200 (est. $300/500). Including its eagle finial, it is 18½" tall. It was marked “Ste. Indlle. des Téléphones/ 25, Rue du 4 Septembre, Paris/ Système G. Bailleux/No. 15528.”


This Dr. T.J. Eckleburg-esque optical trade sign sold for $3690 (est. $200/400) to an Internet bidder, chased by another. It is 35" long and included numerous replacement eye prints.


This example of a Page’s double-beam axial engine, 13" long, sold for $25,200 (est. $500/700). Another in poorer condition (not shown) brought $10,200 on the same estimate. Why so high? We would have to ask the winning bidders—or Elli Buk. As Tom Isenberg said, “It’s a real loss not to have him explaining the stuff. He would talk at length about one object, how he got it, what it means, and its place in history.”

Isenberg also e-mailed me more generally about Buk. “Elli was a very special person. We tend to regard everyone we like or respect as ‘very special’ (like the above-average children in Lake Wobegon)...Elli, though, was very special for real...He was on a vision quest of a sort, not just of objects, art, and history, but of reality...The true nature of his quest lay in the nature of those objects and why he chose them, what they looked like, what they were used for, what they developed from, and what they developed into—in other words, the beauty and evolution of mankind, scientific, mechanical, practical, artistic, technological, magical…Elli’s was a quite unique vision, undertaking, and mission.”


These three mid-19th-century Victorian cast-iron sewing machines sold in one lot to a phone bidder for $16,800 (est. $500/1500). One was marked “Florence Sewing Machine Company”; another, “E.M.W., New York.”


Who can measure the extra value that the “J. Downton & Co.” maker denotation inside the bowl gave to this painted porcelain toilet from Queen Victoria and Albert’s yacht? Victoria and Albert III was launched at Pembroke Dockyard, January 16, 1855, and scrapped in 1904. The toilet sold to an Internet bidder from France for $20,910 (est. $2000/3000).

The toilet and Buk are featured in the opening scene of a 2008 documentary, Souvenirs: The Many Worlds of Mickey Wolfson, in which the founder of the Wolfsonian in Miami Beach, Florida, has arrived at Buk’s place to go shopping. “Up we go to Elli,” he says, climbing the stairs. Buk shows him the toilet and a Violin Vibrophone, a quack medical device thought to cure tinnitus. After Buk shows him an early biofeedback machine in its original box and with its original label, Wolfson says, “You’re some kind of genius.” “There are only two of these guys known,” says Buk of the biofeedback machine. “I’m sure, and you’ve got both of them,” says Wolfson. “I do, actually,” Buk says softly, to which Wolfson replies: “I knew it!” They both laugh. Schinto photos.


A series of four circa 1983 similarly composed 18" x 24" oil on canvas paintings by Martin Wong (1946-1999) sold on the phone in one lot for $51,000 (est. $12,000/15,000). The one shown is titled Voices. The others are Danger, Silence, and Money. All were signed “Martin Wong/ Human Instamatic.” Wong, who was not hearing impaired, used finger spelling in a number of works besides this one. Tom Isenberg recalled, “Martin Wong, way back when, could not find a gallery. And Elli Buk had a little gallery, not on Spring Street. It was a storefront in SoHo somewhere. And Martin Wong came in and said, ‘I can’t find anyone to represent me. Would you like to?’ So, at least as Elli told it, he was Martin Wong’s official dealer, and he sold a lot of his work and bought a few pieces, and then of course Martin moved on.” Schinto photos.


This early 20th-century Mangels cast-iron shooting gallery, manufactured by the W. F. Mangels Company, Coney Island, New York, sold to a phone bidder for the top price of the sale, $60,000 (est. $5000/10,000). It was underbid by a collector in the room. It includes two bird galleries, two rabbit targets, a playing-card suit target, a name-plate target, and approximately 60 other targets, including figures, lions, elephants, bears, as well as some submarine and ship targets on chains. Single targets by Mangels are occasionally seen on the market. (See Keno Auctions, January 17, 2012, lot #227.) An entire system is rarely seen. For more information about shooting galleries, see W.F. Mangels’s own 1952 book, The Outdoor Amusement Industry: From Earliest Times to Present.


This Thompson watt-hour meter, made by the General Electric Company, together with an Edison electric-light, two-wire meter system, sold for one of the biggest prices of the sale at $30,000 (est. $200/400). The collector who bought it reportedly told Grogan he had been searching for the Edison two-wire meter for 30 years.


This electric motor, made by the Riker Electric Motor Company of Brooklyn, realized $21,600 (est. $3000/10,000). A similar one (not shown) with the same estimate made $18,000. Each is 9½" tall.


This 12" tall electromagnetic apparatus made by Daniel Davis Jr., together with Davis’s 1854 Manual of Magnetism, sold for $8400 (est. $500/700).

This 15" tall salesman’s sample of a paint-decorated cast-iron safe on a stand sold to a phone bidder for $10,800 (est. $1000/1500).

 

Grogan & Company, Dedham, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Grogan

Science-fiction writer William Gibson, coiner of the word cyberspace among other literary accomplishments, said it best. Hearing that a four-day sale would feature the lifetime collection of Elli Buk (1949-2012), he tweeted, “Auction of the contents of the world, as determined by the late, great E. Buk.”

The nearly 2400 lots were offered on April 25-28 by Grogan & Company in Dedham, Massachusetts, and 98% were sold for $1.9 million (including buyers’ premiums). A portion of the collection had filled Buk’s second-floor, approximately 2000-square-foot loft at 151 Spring Street in Manhattan’s SoHo, where he had lived and worked since the early 1970’s. Gibson had often passed by the window that Buk had rented on the first floor for display and enticement to passersby.

Buk, a collector first and a dealer second, who died unexpectedly, had also packed full the Spring Street building’s basement, at least two warehouses in Brooklyn, and multiple other storage spaces around the city and elsewhere with what it would be misleading to characterize simply as antique science and technology. The two top lots, going at $60,000 and $51,000, respectively, were, first, a great piece of mechanical folk art and, second, a work of fine art.

The folk art piece was an early 20th-century cast-iron shooting gallery with dozens of targets in the form of birds, rabbits, lions, elephants, bears, playing cards, and more, made by the W.F. Mangels Company of Coney Island, New York. The fine art was a series of four circa 1983 paintings by Martin Wong (1946-1999), who was given his first solo show by Buk in 1980—not that Buk was a gallerist, only that he liked Wong and wanted to support a (temporarily) undiscovered artist. Wong’s work is owned by a dozen major museums today and is the subject of current or forthcoming museum shows.

But these were pieces that probably would have done well at any auction. The real story lies in the scores and scores of other, far quirkier, sometimes bizarre, and often much more intriguing items, although they don’t have the kind of market that those two top items represent. A list doesn’t capture it but can give a taste.

The auction included a circa 1900 Victor Snook X-ray machine; a Victorian cast-iron and upholstered dental chair; several call systems for servants; an Edison home Kinetoscope; transatlantic cable memorabilia; early TVs, radios, typewriters, microscopes, telescopes, telephones, microphones, phonographs, and sewing machines. There were artificial limbs, anatomical models, X-ray machines, and quack medical devices; tintypes; stereoscopes; stereoviews; magic lanterns; cameras; sound projectors and lights for making movies; terrestrial globes and armillary spheres; early light bulbs; many, many seal presses; dozens of early electric fans; meters and gauges; telegraph keys and relays; check-printing machines; trade signs; compasses; surveying equipment; a cast-iron stenciled vegetable cutter; two vintage cello cases; a Victorian casket dolly; a lamppost; a phone booth; a theremin; an automaton of a cow; a skeleton of a greyhound; an assemblage of architectural drawings, renderings, and plans for the R.M.S. Queen Mary; a printing press; a coin-counting machine; a leather flight suit; a one-man band; a collection of bagpipe pieces; a beer dispenser; a pair of vintage rowing machines; a hotel switchboard; and a wooden jail cell door from a movie set.

He also had scads of items in miniature, in the form of salesman’s samples (a scaled-down office cubicle, hand truck, school desk, washtub wringer, cast-iron safe, speculum, an ironing board, corn husk cutter, miner’s coal bucket, footwear, clothing, cow-milking parlor, bathtub, doctor’s examination chair, trundle bed, and piano action) and patent models (a dialysis machine, eggbeater, lifeboat, mower, velocipede, harrower, barber’s chair, a perpetual motion machine, and a sawmill).

“If you can’t find it here, it doesn’t exist,” said Michael B. Grogan, the auction house’s president and chief auctioneer, offering a lot of five cast-iron pencil sharpeners that sold to the Internet for $676.50 (est. $500/700). “You’ll never find another,” he said to the assembled bidders, who were hesitating on a circa 1930 output meter made by the Guide Lamp Corporation of Anderson, Indiana. “Actually, we do have another,” he said after a pause, “but after that, no.” The measuring device sold to the Internet for $522.75 (est. $800/1200).

Pryor Dodge, who has lived near Buk’s shop for three decades and whose collection of bicycles and related art has been widely exhibited, said the importance of the Buk collection was “lost on other auction houses.” He doesn’t blame them. “Everything was in Elli’s head. It’s not like he had a big catalog of it all. The most valuable stuff was squirreled away somewhere [in the Spring Street place], where a robber wouldn’t find it, or else it was uptown in the secure storage. So there was no way of knowing what’s there.”

It was further obscured, because, as Dodge said, “As Elli described it to me, he had collecting pyramids, meaning there was OK stuff at the base, and then at the top there were the very neat, one-of-a-kind things.” Not knowing which was which must have scared away many other auction houses. How many people knew before the auction took place that the American candlestick phone would bring $330 and the French Empire-style mahogany-and-ormolu example would bring $10,200? Or that the lot of two Philco Predicta televisions would fetch $660, while the 1939 combination television-radio, made by General Electric, would soar to $16,800?

And what about the reportedly valuable items they hadn’t any notion about, such as the two examples of a Page’s double-beam axial engine that sold for $25,200 and $10,200, or the electric motors made by the Riker Electric Motor Company of Brooklyn that realized $21,600 and $18,000, or the Eureka Nebulizer that fetched $5100? If that wasn’t enough to scare them off, there was all the stuff below the “stuff at the base”—things like boxes of rusty keys, old tennis racquets, alarm clocks, vinyl records, and comic books.

Usually Grogan’s sales feature what we’re all more used to seeing on the auction circuit, i.e., traditional antique furniture, paintings, and decorative arts. Asked in February why he took on this gargantuan and unlikely project, the auctioneer replied, “Well, I like a challenge. That’s really it, at the end of the day. My first reaction was no way. But then your brain starts to work. It’s as if someone has said to you, ‘Why don’t you go live in Italy for a year?’ And you say ‘No, I couldn’t possibly do that.’ And then the idea starts to percolate.

“Well, I could do [this project], if I had this person helping, if I charged this amount of commission, if I rented extra space, if I really crunched the numbers. It needs to be sold. Someone has to do it. And the antiques business isn’t what it used to be. Most of the house calls I go on now are not that exciting. And my staff needs something to do. Let’s get them some extra work.”

Extra work, they got. Consultants John Edelman and Anna Halley supervised the colossal move from New York. Up and down the flight of stairs the movers went, or into the old wooden elevator. Nineteen days, 3000 packing boxes, two tons of packing paper, and multiple round trips later, it had all been trucked to Dedham, where it took Edelman, Halley, Grogan and his wife, Nancy, and several other people nearly every day of four months to unpack it, research it, catalog it, photograph it, and arrange it for the sale.

“It is so out of my realm in so many ways,” said Grogan at one point during those months. “I mean the process of being an auctioneer is going to work out fine. I’m an auctioneer. I know how to lot things, I know how to organize, how to research them, but the medium is so different.”

Some weeks before the auction, Tom Isenberg, an art collector who had bought 20 or 30 items from Buk (e.g., a Chock full o’Nuts coffee grinder) because he considered them aesthetic objects, made a prediction. “There’ve not been many sales like this,” he said. “He’s not Jackie O. or Elizabeth Taylor or Yves Saint Laurent, but in Elli’s realm, it’s going to be like that. It’s going to be immense.” He was right.

Over the next decade, this sale will be the one people talk about when they talk about the market for many items like these. This sale’s results will essentially be their price guide. And if new collectors of such items develop, people will speak of Grogan & Company as the auction house that seeded them.

Anyone who saw the enormousness of this collection had to wonder about the man who collected it. According to friends and a press report, Elli Buk was born on a kibbutz in Israel, then as a child moved to Brooklyn with his parents and twin brother, Dov. In 2005, Dov, a violin dealer and restorer, died of injuries sustained after being struck by a car while crossing a street in Midtown. Elli neither married nor had children. His partner of 12 years, Nili Weissman, filled in some other biographical details.

Before Buk opened his shop, E. Buk Art & Antiques, in 1978, she said, he had worked in a knitting factory, repairing machines. This was in SoHo before it was called SoHo, when the neighborhood was still home to dying East Coast industries. The machines were old, antiquated, constantly breaking down, and their owners were reluctant to spend, knowing they soon would be done with New York. As for Buk, the machines were a beginning, not the end. As he tinkered and jury-rigged solutions to keep them running, he nurtured in himself a natural aptitude and love for mechanisms.

While working on the knitting machines, Weissman said, Buk also repaired clocks and watches and started to collect objects. He was drawn to scientific and technological items, because he “loved precision and instruments of measurement,” she explained. “He was a very precise man himself. He could draw that perfect [straight] line; he had perfect pitch. He was also a dancer and musician of traditional Balkan folk dances and played the tupan, which is the Balkan drum. It was a different part of his life, but I’m bringing it up because of the precise dance steps. At his funeral, there were people who had danced with him for forty years. Once you dance a line dance with someone, you’re in rhythm and synch with them forever.”

Buk died at age 63. If he ever wondered what would happen to his collection, he didn’t discuss it with Weissman. “I’m sure it was in the back of his mind, because there was so much of it,” she said. “Spring Street was packed floor to ceiling. He had a beautiful sense of space. Nobody could pack the way he did. I think as real estate became more and more expensive in the city, he was trying to figure how to get as much into his space as he could. It didn’t stop his collecting.”

When I asked people about Buk, they often described 151 Spring Street, as if he, the space, and the objects were one. Tom Isenberg said, “It was a magical kingdom with this great magician in the center. You know The Wizard of Oz, right? When does the movie turn color? When you see his stuff, it’s going to be as if you’re walking into the Emerald City.”

Aarne Anton of American Primitive Gallery on the Upper East Side told me, “He was hardly visible, being on the second floor. So he put wonderful, strange combinations of things in the first-floor window, which led people to ring his bell and come upstairs. And when you got there, you were confronted with a space unlike any in New York or any other place else I can think of.”

Said Pryor Dodge, “The window became famous.” (For a long time, it was merely locally famous, then William Gibson wrote an essay about it, shortly after 9/11, for the National Post. It can be read on Gibson’s Web site [www.williamgibsonbooks.com/archive/2003_02_24_archive.asp].) “In the early days, you could walk up without even ringing the bell.” Back in the 1980’s Dodge would take a seat in one of Buk’s antique cane-seated wheelchairs and roll himself around the store. “There was no room to do that after a while, though,” said Dodge. “You had to walk like an Indian with one foot in front of the other.”

It wasn’t a place for everyone. “A narrow path wound through it,” said Isenberg, who met him in the late 1990’s. “Sometimes you had to turn sideways. Things ­jutted out. You had to step over this or that. He wasn’t a hoarder. Newspapers weren’t piled up. This was a world-class ­collection. But it was overwhelming for some people. Some people hated it. It was too much. They couldn’t handle it.”

Some say life was never the same for Buk after 9/11, but that could be said about any New Yorker. Well before that, SoHo had changed, having become more commercial and gentrified, and gradually, Dodge said, “Elli was less interested in off-the-street business. He could tell from their voices [on the intercom] whether they were really interested or just moseying around, looking for something to do.” Gradually, the whole sci-tech collecting field grew, and as it did, said Dodge, Buk got more “protective” of what he had. “He didn’t want just anybody coming up there.”

Robert Sawyer, who lived around the corner from Buk for 17 years, said, “Elli was one of the SoHo pioneers, who originally had space no one wanted. Then suddenly it was extremely valuable. To go through his large old shop, atelier, office, store, studio, loft was to walk through a maze, but he knew where everything was.” With the gentrification came landlord problems at his various spaces, said Sawyer. “Elli was in constant battles with them.”

One solution for a more typical collector-dealer would be to increase selling and cut down on buying. But Buk was not typical, I realized, when people in the business whom I consider to be “characters” described him as a “character.”

“Elli and I would meet because he wanted advice on marketing his wares,” said Sawyer, who is “a brand strategist.” As he described the profession, he “helps a client empty his shelves and showroom, whether it be filled with clothing, cars, or computers.” With Buk, Sawyer said, “I would discuss his famous window, say, and try to help him organize it and create a kind of narrative to attract people and actually get them to ring the buzzer.”

Dodge, whose art-of-the-bicycle exhibitions are carefully designed, also had discussions with Buk about presentation. “At uptown galleries the presentation gives great value to whatever those pieces are,” he said. “Elli’s pieces, many of them, had greater value, but the way it was presented, people expected to find a bargain. That’s one of the things he was up against. He had a ‘bargain presentation,’ but not bargain prices.”

The other difficulty, “of course,” said Sawyer, “was that Elli didn’t really want to sell. He resented having to do so, and especially having to sell for less than what something was worth. He had tremendous ambivalence about letting things go.”

Isenberg, for example, had found it initially difficult to get Buk to accept him as a new client in search of a camera lucida. “Elli was very careful. He wanted to know who I was and why I wanted it.” After all, his objects were, as someone else put it, “his extended family.”

At the auction there were people who had never passed muster. Now they could finally buy. Same for people who had been quoted outsized prices for years. There were also representatives of his extensive network of pickers. But the biggest percentage of lots went to people no one got to see. “The Internet is a finely meshed sieve,” I wrote in my catalog on the sale’s first day. “Very little gets through.” (Grogan & Company later reported that 43% of the lots sold went to Internet bidders, with 37% of the hammer sold that way, up from the usual 14% for its sales. So, although most top lots went to the phones, this was an auction especially conducive to Internet buyers.)

Buk’s own solution to his ambivalence about selling was to become a rental house. That way, he could let things go, then get them back again. “It was comforting for him,” said Weissman.

Isenberg recalled that Buk rented items to the TV show Edison, set in 1880’s Manhattan. “Elli had the early phonographs and radios and tintypes and telegraph stuff, so he could equip an Edison lab.” Photographers and window-display artists in need of props also came to him. So did at least one graphic designer, who credited Buk for props used on the book jacket of Oliver Sacks’s 2001 memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.

Then in 2004 Buk was given the unprecedented opportunity to show items from his collection at an art gallery. Selections from the E. Buk Collection of Technology and Invention, on view at the Christine Burgin Gallery in Chelsea, featured approximately 20 of his objects as works of art.

“In theory they were for sale, but I don’t know if Elli could actually have sold any of them,” said Burgin. “He wasn’t a dealer who could objectively say ‘I have to sell these in order to pay for that.’ He didn’t have that relationship to his objects. It was much more emotional.”

She and Buk chose the items together. “We spent a long time. A couple of times, he threw up his hands. Trying to choose one thing over the other was really hard. So we’d go back and pick representative pieces from the various collections—the history of television, the electrical things. The history of electricity connects many of the pieces. Many quack medicine pieces have to do with electrotherapy, and Elli told me, when he was small, he’d had an electrical shock and was sent flying, and ever since then he’d been interested in electricity.” She laughed.

“He saw the beauty in everything. He’d show me a motor and say, ‘Look how beautiful she is.’ And he’d know all about its Brooklyn manufacturer and how that firm was connected to the movie industry.” Another “amazing thing about Elli” was that he saw how everything was connected,” but that knowledge was also a burden, she said. The interconnectedness was yet another reason why “it was almost impossible for Elli to let anything leave his domain. If one thing left, it would break the chain. And he really couldn’t begin to explain the interrelatedness of everything, so he just had to keep it all.”

In this conversation with Burgin a couple of months before the sale, she stressed that the collection was more than sci-tech. “It also included anything someone had lovingly made or bothered to care about, like a pair of club-foot shoes. He loved things where that [caring] became visible. It often gets lost, but it was very present for Elli. He’d say, ‘Look at this sextant. Someone had to carry this thing around and they made this beautiful box for it.’ No mere sci-tech person would collect all of those japanned sewing machines.” She sighed. “That’s as close as we’re going to get to Elli now, to look at all of his stuff. We all miss him.”

I’d heard from others that Buk, while charming, could be a bit of a curmudgeon, and it wasn’t just because he rebuffed would-be buyers. But that’s not the image of him that Burgin left me with. “Walking down the street with him, you’d have to allow an hour just to get five minutes away,” she said. “Elli would have to stop and talk to every baby and look at every dog. Or he’d see a little weed that had cropped up in the sidewalk. ‘Now would you look at that? Isn’t that amazing?’ he’d say. ‘There’s all this stuff going on, but look at that. You gotta hand it to that weed.’”

Although this was largely an American collection, bidders came from 15 countries, Grogan reported after the sale. A ­collector in Vienna, Austria, for example, bought many of the important motor lots via telephone, the company said. American ingenuity rules.

Would the auction house ever do another sale like this again? It wasn’t a question I wanted to ask this remarkably can-do team (chipper through the end) just yet. Besides, they were readying their next sale, scheduled for June 16 in honor of the company’s 25th anniversary.

For more information, phone the auction house at (781) 461-9500 or see the Web site (www.groganco.com).


Originally published in the August 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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