Empire of Doubt

Empire of Doubt

The December 11, 2008 auction of drawings and materials by the architects of the Empire State Building at Wright in Chicago drew impressive bids. The highest seller was a 32.5-inch wooden massing model, attributed to 1930, that went for $72,000. The authenticity of the model’s date attribution is now being disputed, however, as a former partner of the building’s design firm, Shreve Lamb & Harmon, claims he built the model in 1972.


Courtesy the New York Times

The disputed massing model (top) is similar to one seen in a 1972 New York times photo-illustration of schemes to add floors to the empire state building (ABOVE).

“I know I made that model,” said Robert W. Jones, a former partner at the firm, in a telephone interview. Jones claims he made it as part of a speculative study in 1972 to add floors to the building to compete with the World Trade Center and the Sears Tower. The schemes, which Jones admits were designed to generate publicity as much as for serious investigation, were given extensive coverage in the October 11, 1972 edition of The New York Times. A Times photo-illustration shows a model, which resembles the one auctioned in Chicago, with cardboard additions added to the top of the building. “We stayed late that night and built it before the Times photographer came in,” Jones said.

Jones, who learned of the auction through AN, said his model was 32.5 inches, the same dimensions as the piece sold at Wright. He claims the original model was closer to four feet tall. He also claims the 1930 model was extensively damaged.

William Plyer, one of the partners who brought the materials to Wright, disputes that claim. “It’s totally false. The model that was sold was the original 1930 model,” he said. Plyer said he has no memory of any new massing model made in the 1970s, but he also said that the original was not used in the photo-illustration cited by Jones. “The original model was not used in any pipedream scheme,” Plyer said.

When told that Plyer seemed unfamiliar with the speculative study, Jones said, “Bill may not remember it. He wasn’t involved in the study at all, so I don’t find it surprising that he wouldn’t know that we made a new model.”

Richard Wright, founder and president of the auction house that sold the model, intends to investigate the claim. Wright supplied AN with a 1930 clipping from the New York Post, which shows a model similar to the one that was auctioned. The model in the 1930 photograph, which is shown next to the former Governor Alfred E. Smith, a politician noted for his political stature but not for his height, does not appear to be four feet tall as Jones claimed. “Sounds like we have a ‘he said, he said’ on our hands,” Wright said.

“The auction house has a dedicated research team. We do our best, but mistakes do happen,” Wright said. “If something emerges that would affect the value of an object, as this would, we would inform the buyer.” The incident reflects the ambiguity around selling architectural materials, such as models, which are often reproduced in multiple versions by many different hands. “The piece looked like it had nice age,” Wright said. “I’m here to deal with it. Our business is based on our reputation.”

Wright declined to name the buyer, an individual, but said that the buyer has been a longtime client of the auction house.