On the Block

On the Block

Pasadena's homegrown auction house, John Moran Auctioneers, competes with behemoths in New York and London by offering a personal touc

By Jana Monji 04/01/2009

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Many moons ago, John Moran had to satisfy his passion for auctions by listening to tapes of them while stuck in traffic. Now his name is on a small, personable auction house in Altadena, and for nearly four decades, John Moran antique & fine art Auctioneers has held regular auctions at the Pasadena Convention Center, logging more than 400 to date. But the family firm does more than merely turn high-end possessions into cash. Moran’s clients often become and remain friends — and he helps them in many ways, from down-sizing their accumulated belongings to refereeing family disputes over who gets what.

“Sometimes, I feel like I’m working on a TV drama rerun,” the company president and principal auctioneer says with a broad smile, perched on a seat beside a wall lined with art books in his West Woodbury Road office. “There’s the greedy neighbor, the distant relative who says, ‘Aunt Mildred always promised to give me the Steinway grand piano.’ Sometimes the family gets along very well and everything is very equitable. But sometimes the family has not spoken to each other for 10 years, and we have to be mediators, without bias or favoritism to the family, neighbor or buyers. That’s our fiduciary duty to the family trust or estate.”

At the moment, the spry, moustached Moran is nattily dressed in a gray pinstripe suit, textured white shirt and multicolored bow tie. “Every house is a challenge; every piece has a story,” he continues. He delights in discussing memorable moments at his auction house, such as the $1.2 million sale of “Early Morning, Summertime” by impressionist Guy Rose (whose family lent its name to Rosemead) in 2001 — at the time, a world auction record for the sale of a painting by a California artist (a record broken in 2005 by the sale of another Rose painting, which went for $1.92 million).

Another painting of note included in the firm’s February auction — one of three annual auctions of California and American paintings — was E. Charlton Fortune’s oil painting of a scene at the “foot of Tyler Street [Monterey, CA], near the waterfront in 1920,” as the artist described it in a letter. Titled “Town Gossip,” the work had been expected to bring in $600,000 to $800,000, although it was ultimately withdrawn by its seller, the Monterey History & Art Association.

Moran says the grim economy hasn’t dented demand for such valuable works. “The top 20 percent of the market is still doing well,” he says. “Affluent buyers are still buying really good things.” It does, however, seem to have increased supply, as more and more people liquidate their valuables. “There’s a lot of quality material up for auction, more so than normal,” says Moran’s son and vice president, Jeff Moran.

Over the years, father and son have gone to great lengths to search for treasures. Moran has been known to don a headlamp to navigate the dark tunnels of a recently deceased antique dealer’s home. That collector, an expert on Steuben glass, liked to scour Southern California’s secondhand stores hunting for great pieces. He’d store them at home in banana boxes he procured from his day job as a produce manager. By the time the collector died, he had amassed more than 20,000 objects.

Moran visited the residence with two colleagues. “The relatives had a horrified look and said, ‘See what you can do,’” Moran recalls. “When I came out, I told them, ‘We can handle it.’ It was such a giant relief for them. We worked there for weeks and weeks.” Each item had to be soaked, cleaned, dried and then photographed in detail. It was five months before the last piece was disposed of.

“Our work is very interesting because we see families in a situation that is very difficult for them. They may have had a relative who was out-of-control collecting. Say Aunt Mildred had 3,800 pieces of Elvis collectibles. The family comes in and goes, ‘Good grief.’ We organize it into realistic lots and sell it to [other collectors like] Aunt Mildred. It’s a win-win situation.” About 98 percent of their items are sold on a commission of 10 to 20 percent, the rate dropping as the lot’s value goes up.

Son Jeff, 40, makes appraisals and runs the day-to-day operations as vice president and auctioneer. Moran’s wife of 47 years, Madeleine, is vice president, public relations. Rounding out the 15-person staff are several former employees of noted London-based auction house Christie’s, and specialists are brought in on a temporary basis to meet specific needs.

Moran says his small firm has prospered alongside Christie’s and other behemoths of the auction world by offering a personal touch. In addition to arranging auctions, the firm offers what it calls “concierge-level” services associated with the disposition of estates: packing and shipping bequeathed items to out-of-state heirs, appraising objects for charity and making referrals to secondary sales outlets for items not suitable for auction. The firm restores art, frames pictures and even provides house-cleaning and disposal services. “We offer a level of service that they simply can’t compete with,” Moran says.

Moran grew up in Pasadena, after his family moved to the Crown City from New England when he was 10. As a young man, he was a sales and service manager at Robinson’s Department Store in Pasadena. He couldn’t afford the fine dining room set he wanted to furnish his home, so he worked his way up to the purchase by buying less expensive sets and selling them at a profit. The experience inspired him to move into selling high-end goods, and in 1969, with a start-up nut of only $2,000, he launched his antiques business.

At the time, most auction schools specialized in training students to sell livestock, so he learned by observing at art auctions and listening to tapes of them. Over the years, the business has grown to embrace sales of California and American paintings (mostly from the 1800s through the 1950s), European and American antiques, fine furnishings and jewelry and Native American art and objects. The firm also sells books and monographs on California and other American art.

Estates in greater Pasadena have been a rich source for these treasures, accounting for 80 percent of the firm’s wares. Valuables put on the block by local clients have included such singular memorabilia as a fishing rod custom made for Gary Cooper, which went for $700 — $200 above its high estimate — in last December’s sale.

Plums from the past have been the stock-in-trade for Moran Auctioneers, but the present marketplace is having an impact too, namely the relatively recent entry of eBay, which has had “a profound effect on our business,” Jeff says. “They made the auction concept more approachable, and people can see the benefits. [PBS’ ‘Antiques] Roadshow’ for a lot of people dispelled the myth of price and value. Tastes don’t necessarily correlate with value.”

In this era of eco-awareness, John and Jeff consider their auction business more relevant than ever. They call themselves “urban recyclers” involved in a fascinating form of contemporary urban archeology. Says John, “I’ve never had a boring day at work in my life because I’m constantly learning.”

John Moran Auctioneers will hold an antique and fine furnishings estate auction at the Pasadena Convention Center on May 19. The preview opens at noon, and the sale begins at 6:30 p.m. The Pasadena Convention Center is located at 300 E. Green St., Pasadena. Call (626) 793-1833 or visit www.johnmoran.com

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