Going Once, Going Twice: Q&A with Revere Auctions' Sean Blanchet
Posted May 13th, 2021 by Russ White
Based in Saint Paul, Revere will be auctioning off all five 2020 MPLSART Sketchbook Project books on May 22nd as part of a larger community benefit auction
The 2020 MPLSART Sketchbook Project is drawing to a close this month. The Project collected 120 original works of art by 69 local artists in five traveling sketchbooks over the course of a very challenging year, and now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign to produce a limited edition book and an awesome group exhibition at Gamut Gallery, the 2020 sketchbooks have one final hurrah: going up for auction. We've teamed up with local auction house Revere Auctions, who are hosting an online auction on May 22nd at noon CDT full of amazing art that will benefit several local causes and organizations. You can start bidding now though, and go see the books in person at Revere starting May 17th.
I sat down with co-owner Sean Blanchet to find out more about fine art auctions, how he got interested in what seems like such a rarefied world, and whether there's room for the rest of us to join in the fun.
Russ White: When people think about the “Art World,” I think auctions often loom large in their imagination. We read headlines about these art objects selling for millions of dollars, and it helps feed into this sense that the art world is very distant, unattainable, and inaccessible. And part of that is that it’s all happening far away, in New York or maybe in Europe somewhere, I don’t know.
As an artist here in Minneapolis, I have no connection to the world of auctions or the secondary market, and I was surprised to hear that we actually have an auction house here in the Twin Cities. I want to hear about Revere, but let’s start with you: how did you get into the world of auctions?
Sean Blanchet: Well, it's interesting you bring up the market and New York and London; Paris, I think often comes to mind for people. Because that's definitely what kind of shaped a lot of my like early ideas about auction houses.
But also what shaped them for me were country auctions. When I was 16, my brother and I had an old beat-up station wagon, and we spent a lot of time driving out to country estate auctions, like out on the front porch. A lot of these estates had really amazing 18th century Pennsylvania painted furniture, along with folk art that was really incredible and super desirable, especially then.
And it was interesting, because those little auctions were actually the end of a very long chain of ownership for the objects that had started a few hundred years before when the person made it. For instance, there were blanket chests that were very profusely decorated with beautiful patterns and unicorns and mermaids but done in what would we consider now a “naive” style. These artists were carpenters by trade, and then they'd taught themselves to paint, so what they're doing is like spectacular decorations without all the formal training that a lot of other artists are getting in Europe.
At any rate, these items started at these auctions, and then they trickle back to the big cities and the big galleries and the big auctions. ASo it's all part of this interesting food chain. And each time, people add a little scholarship, or they add a little knowledge and a little more context; they add a little more sizzle to the steak, if you will.
That lesson really helped me understand the role that industry professionals, especially dealers and auction houses, have — the way they provide access for people to the objects. I think a good auction house or a good dealer or gallerist is working really hard to help collectors and audiences understand the context of the artists and the makers, the aesthetics of their time period, and the quality of the items.
Artwork by Black Daze.
RW: Are you a collector yourself?
SB: Yeah, it’s a war between daycare bills and collecting. As an auctioneer, you become really aware of shifting trends. Certain categories or time periods or artists are really unpopular at the moment, and they become very cheap. So you can buy incredible examples, the best examples in that period and style, for less money. For instance, Japanese art of the 17th and 18th centuries has been quite down in the last twenty years, so you can buy exceptional examples of that now for very little money. Whereas if you're trying to buy, you know, mid-century art, good luck; you're competing with hedge fund billionaires.
Largely what's sold at auctions are the collections of estates and collectors, so you don't get to see exactly what you want to see every month, you just see what has come to market. So for me, it's almost like going to the beach, and seeing what washes up. What are the treasures that have arrived this month, right?
I’ve talked a lot about older things so far, but there are also works by well known artists that are still working today. So there’s a huge spectrum, and it's easy to escape your ruts of collecting and consumption and discover new things.
RW: And I imagine for the people attending and the people buying, everyone has their own approach to it, whether they are collectors or history buffs or maybe folks who are interested in investing in this like a market, buying low and selling high. Is there a typical kind of buyer in Minnesota? More broadly, who are the people that are coming to your auctions?
SB: It’s a really great question. There's a real panoply of people that buy from us. I think that we're largely undiscovered, actually, within the Twin Cities, because 90% of what we sell leaves the state. We sell to a lot of galleries in New York, LA, London, and Europe in general. There's a really fascinating trend where people tend to buy art when they're traveling on vacation. Minnesota isn’t as big a destination for vacation, particularly the Twin Cities, because I think a lot of people go on vacation up on the North Shore and other places.
So we get like all these people buying things abroad, they bring them back, and the things live in their house. Then people move, they go into assisted living, they pass away, or they just want to sell the things because they're bored of them. Then we sell them and they often go back to London or somewhere else.
I would encourage people to expand their concept of when they should be buying art, which seems like a simple thing. But a lot of the casual buyers, the ones who intend to pay the most for the artworks because they're not trying to make money on them in the short term — the collectors and the scholars — they should be looking close to home.
You can acquire so much more when you husband your resources a little bit, and focus on buying things and looking for things more opportunistically rather than within the narrow confines of a trip.
Artwork by Papa Mbye.
RW: For those who are interested in coming to Revere and starting to dip their toes into the world of auctions, what are the kinds of items that you offer? What are the price points that people could expect if they come to an auction?
SB: When I went to auctions as a kid, it was not like a pointed enterprise other than I wanted to buy things, and I really enjoyed it. But then as I got older, and I got more serious about being a professional in the industry, I would go for the educational value. I would look at every single object, and I would try to understand who is the buyer for it? What was its value? And what drove its value? And I learned the stories behind the objects’ history.
So I would encourage people who are not even buyers, who see themselves as museum-goers or who don't have the resources to buy, I would encourage them to still go to auctions and learn. And the secret there is that, inevitably, many auction houses will sell things within your price range, which could be under $100.
Sometimes, we'll get a whole estate and the people say, “Well, you can take our Warhol, but you also have to sell the china.” Okay, so we'll sell the china but we'll do it with no reserve, just starting at the bottom. I feel like the urgency of an auction is one of the things that really drives people's interest in it, because it's gonna happen on a specific day. So if the people don't show up with money, it could be your lucky day. It's a place where fascinating opportunities lie.
We also have a preview for every auction so you can come for usually the week before, and you can look at every single object, and you can touch it, and you can learn about it. I have a brilliant staff here that have all of our history backgrounds, and they're all really excited to share their knowledge of objects with people.
Artwork by Jim Denomie.
RW: Are the objects you handle primarily fine art and crafts? Or are you doing items like baseball cards and other collectibles?
SB: If it's a rare and valuable object, we'll sell it. And so that has taken the form of what we think of as “collectible things,” which is kind of a comical term, but we need something to call them. So trains and baseball cards and really rare coins fall in that category. Selling money is the easiest thing we do. And we sell a ton of oil paintings, lithographs, silkscreens, and things of that nature. A lot of bronze sculptures.
And then there's everything in between, like designer mid-century modern furniture, which is really interesting because a lot of those designers are household names. They're really not recognized in the same ways as artists, though. Because they're designers, they occupy a different space intellectually.
But that all kind of levels out in an auction. An Eames sofa can be right next to a painting, and then they can sell for the same amount of money. It helps you realize that these people were both striving to make a visual impact or a signal or message, and some of this furniture, you realize, is so far beyond utility. This is designed to be an artwork in and of itself.
RW: I wanted to end by talking about the MPLSART Sketchbooks that are coming up for auction at Revere soon, as part of a larger auction on May 22nd. These are the original five traveling sketchbooks, and they will be part of a community benefit auction, right?
SB: Yes, we are trying sort of a new concept: people are donating objects and choosing their own benefactors, essentially. So we're donating our abilities and resources as a conduit to the marketplace, and we’re doing it all for free. It’s going to give people the opportunity to turn their objects into money that they can then give to the nonprofit or charity of their choice, which I'm excited about, because I've never seen anyone that allowed that level of flexibility, and it acknowledges the real diversity of need and of organizations that are out there.
Some of the items that will be included in the May 22nd auction. Artist attributions, clockwise from top left: Kim Russell, Chuck Solberg, Bruce Tapola, Shephard Fairey, Pablo Picasso, and Frank Big Bear.
These are collectors who really want to give and share. We have works by George Morrison, Alec Soth, Frank Big Bear, Rauschenberg, Picasso… And then the sketchbooks are just an astoundingly innovative idea, which I was really excited to participate in. Because I know a lot of the artists who are in there, I was pretty excited. I know that they're all really thrilled about participating in what has become a historically significant time capsule.
RW: It really is. The experience of flipping through the pages and seeing all these little original artworks is pretty mind-blowing. The breadth of expression, the breadth of experience, the fact that there are internationally renowned artists alongside young, emerging artists, and everyone in between, working in all different media. (See the full list of participating artists here.) Hats off to Blaine Garrett for being the genius to make this happen.
Do you have any expectations for how the sketchbooks will do at auction or what kind of bidders they might attract?
SB: That's one of the exciting things about it. A lot of people I've talked to are interested in them. Sketchbooks are very popular in the marketplace. I think there will be institutional interests; I know there's collector interest. It's the kind of thing where I think that nobody should exclude themselves from bidding on them for any reason.
As I mentioned, there will be about a week-long preview period before the auction, starting May 17th. Check our website and call to make an appointment, given the restrictions of COVID. There's also only a limited number of sketchbooks, and we want people to not feel rushed with them. We're spreading people out a little bit. And also, the books are incredibly precious. So we were keeping a close eye on them.
But it's a nice opportunity to experience them in person. There's at least one artist, no matter how well the books are reprinted, their work cannot be replicated; you have to see it in person. I don’t want to give it away, so you should just come look for yourself. ◼︎
Artwork by Kristina Johnson.
Revere Auctions is located at 755 Prior Ave N in Saint Paul (in the same building as Can Can Wonderland). Their Community Benefit Auction will take place on May 22nd at 1pm EDT. All proceeds from the sale of the Sketchbooks will be divided among the participating artists. Proceeds from the sale of other lots will benefit various local organizations, including the Hmong Museum, MIGIZI, Juxtaposition Arts, the Minnesota African American History Museum and Gallery, and more. Register and place bids at this link, and schedule an appointment to see the sketchbooks in person between May 17th and the 21st.