Anyone looking for a deal at the Four Seasons Restaurant auction on Tuesday would have left disappointed. The sale carried a high estimate of $1.33 million, but when the hammer fell on the final lot at 12:30 a.m. Wednesday (lot number 963, a set of four guest check holders that carried an estimate of $150 and sold for $1,400), the total, with premium, was a staggering $4,102,500—215 percent higher than Wright, the auctioneer, had anticipated.
The auction was held in the iconic Pool Room at the Four Seasons, whose soaring ceilings and paneled walls were designed by Philip Johnson. While the interior itself is landmarked, its plates, pots, tables, and banquettes are not. Following a failed attempt to hold onto the restaurant's lease, proprietors Alex von Bidder, Julian Niccolini, and the Bronfman family held what amounted to a very expensive, very comprehensive fire sale before they move the restaurant to a new location a few blocks away.
The auction began at 10 a.m. amid a sense of giddy euphoria that never quite subsided. The first lot—the Four Seasons sign designed by Emil Antonucci, replete with its four modernist trees—carried a high estimate of $7,000. It eventually hammered for $96,000. While that price—almost 1,300 percent above expectations—was spectacular, some smaller lots almost matched it in relative terms. Four ashtrays with the Four Seasons logo sold for $10,000 above a high estimate of $700—almost 1,400 percent above estimate. A curved banquette and table 35 from the Grill Room carried a high estimate of $5,000 and sold for $50,000—900 percent. Banquette 74 from the Pool Room had an estimate of $1,500 and sold for $12,000—700 percent. (Prices in this article are for the hammer price; successful bidders will also pay a buyer's premium of 25 percent.)
While many of the lots have inherent design value—these are objects designed by titans of modernism, including Eero Saarinen, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Philip Johnson, and Garth and Ada Louise Huxtable—it became increasingly clear as the auction progressed that many lots were being bid up by the restaurant’s deep-pocked (and apparently, deeply nostalgic) former patrons.
How else to explain the $6,000 spent on an ancient cotton candy machine? Or the fact that table No. 2 from the Grill Room sold for $1,000, while an identical table, No. 12, sold for $1,800? Or that a three-sided banquette and table No. 32 sold for $28,000, while the same setup from table No. 37 sold for $42,000? (Both carried high estimates of $5,000.)
The auction was led by an increasingly weary Richard Wright, owner of the Chicago-based auction house; Wright switched every several-hundred lots with another specialist, but by the time late afternoon rolled around, he had become increasingly laconic. When a wine cooler failed to find much enthusiasm at its opening bid of $1,000, Wright sighed. “Another sold for quite higher earlier,” he said. “It seems like a good deal to me.” A few bidders in the audience apparently agreed: After a slow start, it hammered for $8,000.