What you see: A unique vertical cabinet made by Paul Evans, featuring steel, 23 karat gold leaf, brass, and enameled finish. It stands just over seven feet tall, about four feet wide, and about 18 inches deep. It sold for $382,000 against a $140,000 to $160,000 estimate at Rago Auctions in January 2017, an auction record for Evans.
Who is Paul Evans? He was an American studio furniture maker based in New Hope, Pennsylvania. He was best known for furniture with distinctive, elaborate, sculpted metal fronts. He died in 1987, at 55.
This cabinet is a custom commission. How often did Evans accept commissions? “I haven’t heard of a lot of them,” says David Rago of Rago Auctions. “Custom commissions were often made to scale for certain interiors with only so much wall space or ceiling height. This is one of the few where [the commissioner] said, ‘I don’t like the other stuff you do, I want something like this.’ Paul Evans probably didn’t like to be told what to do. That’s probably why you don’t see many.”
The cabinet came directly from the person who commissioned it to your auction house. How rare is that? “Not as rare as you might think,” he says. “One of the reasons we get the prices we get [for Evans], is because we get them from the owners.”
Are the opportunities to receive Paul Evans consignments direct from original buyers drying up? “Not for us. Not yet,” Rago says. “He made furniture into the 1980s.”
Why did this Paul Evans cabinet do so well? “One, it was a one-of-a-kind bench-made piece. Two, it was consigned by the original owner, who worked with Paul Evans to get it made. Three, it’s a vertical cabinet, and most of these are horizontal,” he says. “Four, this is big, a big two-door vertical cabinet, so it has scale. Six, the New York Times highlighted this piece with a story titled Is This Cabinet Worth $500,000? That was a bit of a problem for me–I didn’t want people to think they had to spend $500,000 or they shouldn’t bother to bid. And the market was in a good place. People spend a lot of money on great things. There’s a lot of wealth in America.”
Were you surprised when it broke the auction record? “I thought it had potential, but I didn’t want to jinx it. I didn’t want to go there,” Rago says. “I was surprised it broke the record by that much. To break it by almost $100,000 is really unusual.”
Prior to the January 2017 Rago sale, the Paul Evans record seemed to change every six or eight months or 12 months, by $5,000 here and $10,000 there. Why do you think his auction record has been so volatile? “The more accepted Paul Evans becomes as an important, high-end designer, the more tastes change to accept other designs of his,” he says, adding that the cabinet is “A hybridized piece. It’s a little bit of a sculpture front, and a little bit of a wavy front. He put in a little of this and a little of that and he came up with a bench-made masterpiece.”
What does it feel like to have founded the auction house that set the record for Paul Evans furniture? “There’s probably one person on the planet who’s seen more Paul Evans than I have, and that’s Dorsey Reading, and he made the stuff. I grew up here. Some people say I’m geographically blessed as far as New Hope Modernism is concerned,” Rago says. “I have a lot of gratitude. It’s an honor for me to do this for a living. I started as a flea market three miles from here in 1977. To survive so long–this cabinet wasn’t made when I was at the flea market. It was made two miles from here. To do this, and handle stuff like this–I feel a bit of Jersey pride in that.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Rago Arts and Auctions.