Bidding at Christie's was fast and furious, but the anxiety didn't last long. Five unnamed collectors were vying by phone for the prize: a rare leaded-glass lamp designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The lamp sold in 40 seconds. The victor paid $1,989,500.
The price was more than double the record for any Wright design, so the auction house was jubilant. And no doubt the anonymous buyer had reason to celebrate. But the losers include, potentially, all the rest of us.
The lamp, which was auctioned Tuesday in New York, was designed in 1903 for the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, Ill. One of the bidders was a civic-minded "friend" of the house whose goal was to send the fixture home. The publicly owned property wanted badly to put it on view. It was not to be.
The lamp is a masterwork by America's most famous 20th-century architect. Wright (1867-1959) is known to have designed only three such lamps. One turned up at auction in 1988 and has not been seen since. Another was acquired by the Dana-Thomas House the same year and sits in the living room without its mate. The companion lamp just sold had been missing for years, the casualty of divorce.
It has a glowing shade of iridescent green and amber glass, which is supported by a double pedestal of bronze. Delicate geometries in the glass suggest sumac leaves. The same motif is incorporated throughout the 35-room Dana-Thomas House in more than 400 art-glass windows, skylights and sconces.
"Frank Lloyd Wright really can't be appreciated without context," former Illinois governor James R. Thompson lamented Wednesday. As the house's most prominent patron, he followed the auction closely but did not bid. That the house survives is due largely to his powers of political persuasion.
Wright designed the rambling 12,000-square-foot Prairie-style residence in 1902 for a widowed silver-mining heiress named Susan Lawrence Dana. In 1928, when the steam company that supplied her heat went out of business, she shut the house and moved to a modest dwelling next door. By 1942, she was in a nursing home and executors liquidated her estate.
Personal belongings were sold off in a five-day yard sale, with grab bags offered for a nickel each. But the Wright furnishings found no takers. They were sold with the house to a publisher named Charles Thomas, who established his company headquarters in the grand interiors. They were still intact in 1981, when the house went on the market again.
Thompson, a Wright admirer and antique collector, rushed to the rescue. The governor engineered a purchase using $1 million in capital funds (as opposed to monies for people programs), even though the state was "in the midst of the worst recession in 50 years." In 1990, taxpayers funded a three-year, $5.5 million restoration.
"People in public office have an obligation to save the best of their city and state," Thompson said this week. "The Dana-Thomas House is the most complete Frank Lloyd Wright house in the world. It has 95 percent of its original contents."
The house, which was opened to the public almost immediately following its purchase, is maintained by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Thompson figures that the rising value attached to Wright's designs has pushed the taxpayers' investment to about $60 million. The downside is that the Dana-Thomas House Foundation, which supplements the state funds, is all but priced out of the market for acquisitions.
Over the years, Thompson coaxed millions of dollars from the private sector, which is how the Dana-Thomas House got one double-pedestal lamp back in 1988.
Wright's works were not highly collectible before the Metropolitan Museum of Art staged an exhibition in 1982. Afterward, the market gathered steam. A major collector, Thomas Monaghan of Domino's Pizza, paid $1.6 million for a dining set. Suddenly, Wright objects that had not been seen in years began turning up at auction. Two hammered-copper urns from the Dana-Thomas House came out of a Springfield basement and were sold, one to Monaghan. The other went to a collector in Britain.
The night before the next auction, in 1987, Thompson got on the phone to raise cash. He relived the moment as if it were yesterday. "I sat down with a list of the largest corporations in Illinois," he said. "I just called them up and said, 'If we don't do this, this will go to Japan.' I'm happy to say they all responded."
One banker responded like a seasoned campaign contributor: "How much do you need to get what you need? If you'll get off the phone, I'll give you the money."
The governor was the winning bidder on five items, including a single-pedestal lamp with a 16-sided shade and the only music stand Wright is known to have designed. Donald Hallmark, manager of the Dana-Thomas House, remembers a standing-room-only crowd.
"Each time the governor was successful in getting back an item, there would be a huge roar of approval," he said. "Everyone knew we were there to get the items back for the house."
The following year, Christie's prepared to sell two double-pedestal lamps, one from the Dana-Thomas House. This time, supporters mobilized behind the scenes, persuading Christie's to sell that lamp directly. New York City dealer Anthony DeLorenzo paid $704,000 for the other model, made for the Frederick C. Robie House in Chicago. The price established it as the most expensive piece of 20th-century decorative arts ever sold at auction. The Dana-Thomas House paid that amount plus one dollar for the other lamp.
After Tuesday's record-breaking result, Thompson said, "While I hate to see the lamp not return home, there's just no way we can raise that kind of money."
The auction setting provided the first public viewing of the lamp in decades. Whether it will be the last is the right question to ask.
Hallmark chronicles the comings and goings of every related item that has come to market since 1981. A lamp has changed hands again and again and now resides in a private New York collection. The copper urn has gone to London's Victoria and Albert Museum. Monaghan made headlines for unloading his collection, including the dining set, on which he suffered a $1.2 million loss. Hallmark has been working the phones but has yet to find out where the lamp is going.
"To this day," he said, "nobody really knows where the Robie House lamp went. It has never surfaced in any exhibition and has never been seen in public circles."
He added, "It's really nice when a collector who has a public awareness gets hold of an object. It's really tragic when somebody just sits on them for an extended period of time."
On Tuesday, Hallmark and Rick LaFollette, assistant manager, listened in by phone as the bidding war began. The auctioneer started at $800,000, and the figure rose every two or three seconds.
Nine hundred thousand. One-point-one million.
"They stalled briefly at 1.4 million," LaFollette said. "They stopped for about 10 seconds, then went up again."
They learned only later that's when their "friend" dropped out, and when the Dana-Thomas House's chances ended.
"When the bidding reached 1.8 [million], I heard the auctioneer in the background say, 'Last chance.' "
For the public, it was.