On December 11, Wright auction house in Chicago sold a considerable collection of drawings, models, and ephemera of the 1931 Empire State Building for $352,820. The results of the sale were mixed, with several lots commanding higher than estimated prices, while others went unsold. And while the unusual auction was an overall success for the entrepreneurial Wright house, it caused concern among institutional collectors of architectural materials who fear it will encourage designers to break up drawing sets rather than donate them as intact archives.
The materials had been in the hands of the partners of Empire State designer Shreve, Lamb & Harmon’s successor firm, which closed in the mid-1990s. The retired partners approached several auction houses, and Wright was apparently the only house to see the collection’s potential value. Prior to the auction, Wright had put a low estimate on the collection of $475,000, but the sale came up short. Half of the forty lots were sold, including the 32-inch-tall wooden massing model that garnered the highest price, $72,000. According to auction house president and founder Richard Wright, the sale attracted buyers with an interest in architecture, as well as dealers and Art Deco collectors, including the buyer of the massing model. “I was pleased with the sale. Fifty percent did not sell, which shocked me, but of those that did, we nearly made our estimate,” he said. “One of the reasons we took the archive was because we knew that it would appeal to different groups of collectors.”
Prior to the sale, Wright approached several institutions, including MoMA, the Skyscraper Museum, and the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library at Columbia University, to solicit interest in the materials. In interviews prior to the auction, curators at the three institutions expressed skepticism about the sale, especially Wright’s decision to sell the collection in multiple lots.
“It’s a mistake to call this an archive, because it’s being broken up. That contradicts the term,” said Carol Willis, founder and curator of the Skyscraper Museum. Barry Bergdoll, chief curator of architecture and design at MoMA, echoed Willis: “I don’t think an archive should be sold at auction. Its value is in its coherence, and once it is broken up, its coherence is lost.” Still, Bergdoll called Wright’s reputation “sterling” and added, “He’s a businessman, not an information placement service.” Wright believes he pursued the sale appropriately. “I reached out to these museums. No one reached out to me,” Wright said. “I would have been willing to work with them on an appropriate arrangement.”
Not all curators agree with Willis and Bergdoll, however, as one drawing, a rendering of the west wall entrance panel, was acquired by an unnamed New York museum for $25,200, more than $10,000 above estimate.
Willis, Bergdoll, and Avery curator Janet Parks agreed that no scholarly information was lost in the dispersal of this particular collection, as the building has been comprehensively documented, but they expressed concern about how it will affect other collections. “What happens when another archive, that does not exist in facsimile, is scattered in the wind by an auction house?” Bergdoll asked.
Wright dismissed such concerns. “To stand on the moral ground saying that all materials should go to museums is fine, but not everyone is in a position to donate their materials.”
Among the works that sold, details of decorative elements and facade studies tended to perform best, such as 36-by-48-inch ink on linen elevations of 33rd and 34th streets, which went for $25,200. Many working drawings, floor plans, and zoning studies were passed over. The house will sell the remaining drawings privately.
Time will tell if there is a new market for these kinds of construction documents, or if the mystique of the Empire State Building is singular. Wright predicts the latter: “I think the market is very limited. It has always been a small market. Architectural drawings do not speak to everyone.”