Freeman's, Oldest U.S. Auction House, Sells for Survival

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  • Founding family has owned the Philadelphia company since 1805
  • Senior managers who led turnaround aiming at `greater heights'

Freeman’s, the oldest U.S. auction house, is changing ownership for the first time after more than two centuries in business.

Ming era gilt bronze and cloisonne jar

Source: Freeman’s Auction House

Three senior managers, who have led the company’s turnaround since 1999, are buying out the family that has owned the auction house since founding it in 1805, according to a statement from the company. Terms weren’t disclosed.

The Freeman family will maintain a minority interest. The transaction includes the transfer of the Freeman’s headquarters at 1808 Chestnut St. in Philadelphia, where the company will continue to operate.

“The new owners will take it to greater heights than we were able to do,” Samuel “Beau” Freeman, who will remain chairman of the board of directors, said in an interview. “This is the best way to hope that the business survives and the name survives.”

Freeman’s plans to hire staff, add salesrooms across the country and upgrade its 1920s Beaux-Arts headquarters, said Alasdair Nichol, its vice chairman. Some of the bigger auction houses, meanwhile, are focusing on efficiency amid signs of an art-market slowdown. Sotheby’s trimmed 5 percent of staff through buyouts and Bonhams recently fired employees in Hong Kong.

The changes at Freeman’s arrive just as the auction market is sputtering after two years of growth. Global auction sales fell to $29.9 billion in 2015, down 9 percent from the previous year, the European Fine Art Foundation said in its annual report on Wednesday. The Chinese auction sector fell 23 percent to $7.8 billion in 2015, according to the report.

‘Next Stage’

In May, Freeman’s will hold an inaugural auction in Hong Kong in conjunction with sister company Lyon & Turnbull of Scotland.

“We will take it to the next stage,” Nichol, one of Freeman’s three new owners, said in a telephone interview. He is buying the company along with Hanna Dougher, Freeman’s chief operating officer, and Paul Roberts, its president who doubles as vice chairman of Lyon & Turnbull.

Started in 1805 by an Englishman Tristram B. Freeman, the auction house has adapted to shifting tastes and market conditions over the years. Its offerings ranged from heavy machinery during the industrial revolution to Chinese Imperial porcelain during the recent run-up in prices for Asian art. In the 1880s, Freeman’s sold a Philadelphia Post Office building for $425,000. In the 1920s, after the World War I, it sold several U.S. Navy battleships. Fine art and big estate sales followed.

By the late 1990s, Freeman’s was stagnating. Unlike bigger auction houses, it didn’t have specialized departments, instead offering a mishmash of fine art, collectibles and furniture in weekly sales. In 1998, the company hammered down 50,000 items for about $5.5 million, or $110 for the average lot.

‘Very Dark’

“It was very dark -- paintings, furniture, everything was piled up on top of each other,” Nichols said recalling his first visit to the auction house. “It’s to Beau’s credit that he recognized that the company needed to change. Otherwise it might not have existed now.”

Qianlong era white jade seal

Source: Freeman’s Auction House

Beau Freeman hired Nichol and Roberts, both of whom had previously worked at Phillips, then the world’s third-largest auction house. Joined by Dougher, the trio set out to reorganize the company. They created 15 specialized departments in the areas including modern and contemporary art, Pennsylvania Impressionists, Chinese paintings and 20th century furniture and design.

Since 2009, clients could participate in Freeman’s auctions by bidding live online. In 2011, it sold a white jade seal from the era of China’s Qianlong Emperor for $3.5 million, still the most expensive artwork ever sold at Freeman’s. In 2015, the company sold 6,000 lots, reaching $33 million in revenue.

“The middle market is still pretty solid,” said Nichol. “We have a ways to go.”