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Can Houses Be Sold Like Art? Neutra Kaufmann Home Sells For Less Than Expected

Can Houses Be Sold Like Art?

$15 Million Sale at Christie's Is a Milepost, But Some Experts Are Cautious
By Christina S. N. Lewis, with photos and links provided by yours truly

In a closely watched test of the concept of selling a house as art, a restored modernist home in Palm Springs, Calif., fetched $15 million this week at Christie's prestigious evening sales -- a record for a home sold at an art-house auction.

Given the cloudy economic forecast and sluggish real-estate market, the sale price of the Richard Neutra-designed house thrilled Christie's officials. Real-estate brokers had put the value of the two-acre property and house, completed in 1947 for Pittsburgh department-store magnate Edgar J. Kaufmann, at roughly $9 million. (Overall, the evening sale was considered a success, with a Lucien Freud painting fetching $33.6 million, the highest price ever for a work by a living artist.)

Above: The Neutra-designed Kaufmann home in Palm Springs that sold at auction for $15 million (to see more pics, go here)

Above: Benefits Supervisor Sleeping by Lucian Freud sold for $33,641,000 and Establishes auction record for a living artist

But some devotees of midcentury architecture, a style characterized by horizontal lines, open floor plans and minimal embellishments, were dismayed. The sale price ($16.8 million with the buyer's premium) was at the bottom of Christie's estimate of $15 million to $25 million, and the auction didn't generate the level of competing bids some expected. "It was kind of disappointing," said Bridget Restivo, a real-estate broker who is involved in historic preservation. "I thought there would be more interest, cachet, excitement." Michael LaFetra, a Los Angeles-based preservationist who has restored and sold a number of significant midcentury houses, says the low number of bids could indicate the modernist market is peaking.

above: Actor, producer and home preserver Michael LaFetra stands in the hall of a Rudolf Schindler home in Sherman Oaks. LaFetra hangs on to architecturally significant houses until he can register them as landmarks.

The buyer, who wished to remain anonymous, is a foreigner with homes in Europe and the U.S. who has an interest in 20th-century architecture, design and art, according to Joshua Holdeman, Christie's head of 20th-century art and design, who oversaw the sale. The buyer also agreed to purchase an adjacent orchard on a third of an acre, bringing his total outlay to $19 million.

Above: Todd Eberle/Wright Auction House The Louis Kahn-designed Esherick House in Philadelphia, set to be auctioned Sunday

Above: Located in Chestnut Hill, the one-bedroom house has a custom "sculpted" kitchen by woodworker Wharton Esherick and is in virtually original condition.

Only a handful of "collectible" houses have gone to auction since 2000, yet the gambit will get another test Sunday when Chicago auction house Wright offers up a Louis Kahn-designed home in Philadelphia for an estimated $2 million to $3 million. Located in Chestnut Hill, an upscale neighborhood, the one-bedroom house has an undulating, "sculpted" kitchen by woodworker Wharton Esherick and is in virtually original condition.

And next month, Sotheby's will auction the Artek Pavilion (shown below), a 130-foot-long, 16-foot-wide exhibition structure designed in 2007 by contemporary Japanese-born architect Shigeru Ban, at an estimated $800,000 to $1.2 million. The auction house believes the structure, which takes a construction crew a week to assemble, could serve as a good private-museum space.

Above Artek Pavilion Photos by Paul Petrunia, more in their Gallery

Some homes sold as architectural masterpieces have exceeded their estimates. In 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation paid $7.5 million, including the buyer's premium, for a Mies van der Rohe-designed glass box-style house near Chicago, over its $6 million estimate.

Above: In 2000, an Asian-influenced 1950 Manhattan townhouse designed by Philip Johnson for Blanchette Rockefeller sold for $11.1 million with the premium -- more than twice its $5 million estimate -- at Christie's. In 1989, the home had sold at a Sotheby's auction for $3.5 million with the premium, well over its $2 million estimate.

A few years ago, some preservationists worried that auctions would allow individuals to buy modernist masterworks and then alter the houses by moving them or creating inappropriate additions. Instead, design enthusiasts say, auctions have proved a boon by raising broader awareness of the style.

A sampling of houses designed by modernist architects and sold at auction (prices include buyer's premium)

Kaufmann House by Richard Neutra
Palm Springs, Calif. $16.8 million on May 13

Maison Tropicale by Jean Prouvé
Modular $5 million in 2007

Case Study House No. 21 by Pierre Koenig
Los Angeles $3.1 million in 2006

Farnsworth House by Mies van der Rohe
Plano, Ill. $7.5 million in 2003

"I am a big supporter," said Christy MacLear, co-leader of the modernism initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It creates this unbelievable awareness about modernism and enhances its value." But the practice may work only for landmark properties designed by an architect of national significance, auction officials say.

In October, the Wolfson Trailer House in Dutchess County, N.Y., designed by modernist pioneer Marcel Breuer, sold at auction in a single bid for $1 million (hammer price), its low estimate, according to Richard Wright, the owner of the Chicago auction company. However, the buyer never visited the unusual two-bedroom house, which uses an attached aluminum 1948 Spartan trailer as its kitchen, and the sale subsequently fell apart. The house still is owned by the original sellers. Mr. Wright, citing legal issues, declined to elaborate.

Above: The Wolfson Trailer House

"The price was modest and the property was modest," said Mr. Wright. "In the future, I will only do historically important properties." The house's co-owner, David Diao, says: "I'm just as happy it didn't go through. I think he got it at too low a bid." The property now is on the market for $1.5 million.

The high prices being paid for some modernist houses viewed as art seem a continuation of the booming contemporary-furniture market. Prices for limited-edition contemporary furniture have zoomed to hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. And the art world increasingly is recognizing the house as an art form. In July, New York's Museum of Modern Art will open an exhibit of prefabricated homes.

To pitch a house as a masterpiece, auction houses often create unusual catalogs. Christie's Kaufmann house brochure was delivered in a clear Lucite box with a cork bottom referencing the home's cork floors in the bathrooms and kitchen. It was sent to 500 key clients enclosed in a cashmere bag.

Wright's hyper-stylized catalog for the Kahn house in Philadelphia features quotes by some of contemporary architecture's biggest names, including Zaha Hadid, Richard Meier and Annabelle Selldorf. The Sotheby's catalogue for the Farnsworth house was bound in metal with a clear plastic cover, a reference to the home's glass box style. The catalog quotes a 1951 letter Philip Johnson wrote to Mr. Rohe after visiting the house: "There is no way I can tell you how much I admire the architecture."

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