In appraisal of Read & Mullin
Charleston collectors benefit from local experts with international experience
By Emily Havener
Bart Mullin and George Read moved into their Church Street location just over a year ago.
Walk south on Church Street and you’ll come to a lesser-known Charleston attraction: Catfish Row. Once the home of free African-Americans selling vegetables directly out of the ground-floor windows, and made famous as the setting of Dubose Heyward’s novel Porgy. It is now the location of several local businesses; among them is the charming storefront for the Gallery Mondrian, headquarters for Read & Mullin, a personal property appraisal firm cofounded by former Sotheby’s auctioneer George Read and American furniture specialist and silver expert Bart Mullin.
Inside, the gallery is both comfortable and elevated. Directly to the right is an impressive wall of bookshelves filled with various objet d’art that are for sale and books that are not, though customers are often tempted to ask; on the left are antiques and art attractively displayed. You can just imagine picking out more than a few things to take home, or even sitting down among them right then and there.
This is not by accident. George learned during his years at Sotheby’s that “exhibition is the engine that drives the sale.”
He was hired directly out of Harvard for 10 years before branching out as an independent appraiser. While at Sotheby’s he learned the importance of laying out the exhibits so they felt natural, with the furniture arranged in little “vignettes of rooms you might actually live in” so potential buyers could envision how a piece might work in their home.
“We were trained to make that person you’re talking to feel as though it’s theirs when they leave,” George says. This has been the challenge since March of 2020, when COVID-19 shut down auctions all over the world, and before they knew it, auctioneers were calling to rooms full of screens rather than people.
“How do you hold an auction with no one in the room?” George asks. “It all went virtual in the space of two months. It seemed like impending disaster.” But instead, it worked. Auction houses began taking multiple photographs and focusing on lighting to get an accurate representation of color, and collectors are able to bid and buy without ever having seen a piece in person.
As appraisers, George and Bart often place pieces for sale with these auction houses for their clients, so they’ve seen firsthand how the industry has rallied. And fortunately, Read & Mullin has a brick and mortar establishment where they are able to showcase certain pieces that come through their hands, from furniture to art to tableware. Some of their most recent pieces of note are a Louis XVI provincial oak circular breakfast table, a pair of Dolton Lambeth English stoneware beakers date stamped 1878, and two pieces of 19th century Turkeywork shadowbox art that were part of Lauren Bacall’s collection.
Dolton Lambeth English stoneware beakers, 1878 (left), and Gallery Mondrian's charming storefront (right).
Louis XVI breakfast table (right); glass table mats and a Chinese Peking glass lamp (right).
They also get a lot of traffic from carriage and walking tours that come down Church Street and stop in or come back later.
And perhaps it isn’t surprising that the art and antiques world has survived such a shift, considering that this isn’t the first shift that world has seen in recent years. Appraisers choose a specialized area of expertise, be it porcelain, silver, Art Deco, Old Master Paintings, what have you — but they deal with so many different pieces spanning such a wide range of categories that they must work closely with a network of experts. Before the days of the Internet, everyone relied on two sources to fill in the gaps. The first was auction catalogues — “and then you had this gigantic Rolodex, so to speak,” George explains. “And if you ever had a question, someone on the Rolodex was probably the world expert.
“I don't know how an independent appraiser in a place like Charleston or Chicago or Los Angeles without all of that did it because all you had was what was in your books and your memory and some phone numbers.”
But now, the Internet provides access to information that otherwise would have been inaccessible. George tells the story of a painting built into the mantel of a house of some clients on South Battery who were doing a renovation. When they pulled the painting off the mantel to fix the moldings, they found a signature on the back — “a name that was very legible but didn’t turn up in any of the data.” He sent the name to a friend who is part of a group of self-described “Old Master Painting nerds,” and they looked it up and discovered that the name belonged not to a painter but a German art critic.
“To become a German art critic back then, in 1880 or 1890 you had to submit a masterwork, a painting to the board, and if you passed, then you would graduate with a master’s in fine arts. And this was his submission to graduate. And who could ever in a million years find that information in the old days? It would have been impossible.”
Even though appraisers now have access to information like this at their fingertips, relationships with other appraisers and experts, and auction houses, are still essential. “In this business, if you’re 95 percent sure of what something is, that means you don't know what it is,” George says.
Interestingly, he wasn’t always destined for the world of appraisals. He was at Harvard studying premed to become a doctor like his father when he took an art history class to fulfill a humanities requirement.
It was a lecture class by art historian Seymour Slive, a Rembrandt scholar and “probably the university’s most famous lecturer,” George remembers. “He lit it up for me, and I said, ‘I gotta do that.’”
Immediately he switched majors to art history, and the attention to detail he learned as a medical student has paid out a hundredfold in the antiques and appraisal business.
“It was just as hard as medicine,” he says. But the skills were remarkably transferrable. When he’s appraising something, “it’s like a patient with symptoms. You’ve got to analyze them and come to a conclusion, which is sort of what you do when you’re looking at a painting to see it is a fake or is it real.”
Bart and George met in Charleston doing the estate appraisal of Countess Alicia Spaulding Paolozzi, one of the founders of Spoleto. As they catalogued and appraised items in her Charleston home, they discovered evidence of one property after another filled with items of value. “She had some incredible stuff,” George remembers. “We were up to our chins in steamer trunks and paintings and carved doors from Torino, Italy.”
The steamer trunks were packed with papers, and as George and Bart went through every one, they discovered a receipt for a safety-deposit box in Switzerland. When the estate accountant flew to Switzerland to investigate, he discovered a pendant necklace containing a 26.98 carat Golconda diamond and a Burmese sapphire of 47.64 carats.
He brought the necklace back to the states, but George soon sent it back to Geneva to be sold for $2.7 million at a Christie’s auction. According to the details on the auction web page, during World War II, the countess fled Rome carrying the necklace in a picnic basket. It remained in the Swiss safety-deposit box until George and Bart discovered it.
Treasure hunting — and finding — is one of the most exhilarating aspects of the job.
Another large part of what George and Bart do is help owners who want to sell find the right buyer or auction house. They remember in particular a client who asked them to sell a painting by Eugene Boudin, Claude Monet’s teacher and mentor. In the art world of Sotheby’s, George says, there’s a quirk to valuing Boudin paintings: “The luminosity of the sky is what determines how good of a Boudin it is.” And based on competition with two other Boudins in the Sotheby’s sale, it was valued at between $70,000 and $90,000.
But George had a hunch, and he called another colleague, Andrew Brunk at Brunk Auctions in Asheville, North Carolina. Brunk worked as the head of the American Furniture Department at Christie’s in New York before joining his father’s auction house in 2005 and building it into a nationally known operation that was featured on “Antiques Roadshow.” Andrew was able to sell the painting for $280,000. “It happens over a really beautiful harbor and some nice boats, and it was the best painting of the sale.” It was a big fish, small pond kind of thing.
George says that placing pieces for sale in the right context and with the right person is something they’ve developed an instinct for throughout the years. “I was taking a bit of a chance by sending it to Asheville rather than to New York. And I was taking it on someone else’s behalf. It wasn’t going to be a disaster, but you’re a little bit out on a limb.”
It’s also important to know when not to let something go, whether because it’s a one-of-a-kind family heirloom or something that isn’t en vogue and won’t get the right price. Currently, “contemporary paintings are volcanic, street art, any modern paintings. Midcentury furniture is very strong right now. Art deco brokers have some fantastic furniture in.”
George acknowledges that Charleston is a wonderful location to offer bespoke appraisals and sales. “There’s such a history of artistic excellence here. A lot of things are imported from Europe. There was a point in America's history where we thought good painting and good furniture making was something that happened in Europe; it didn’t happen here.” For the whole of the 17th and 18th centuries, Americans brought back European art and furniture of high value, which was determined by craftsmanship: the amount of time and effort it took to weave gold thread into a tapestry or create the mechanisms that made drawers open just so.
Then, at the end of the 19th century, Americans started to build wealth in a new way. It sounds corny, George says, but wealth could be created by one person with an idea and the energy to change the world. Americans began to think that “the work of genius” was what created value, rather than craftsmanship. “When Americans started to buy things we liked, we liked the person, we liked the name because it was that ‘one man can do it’ sort of thing. So painters became rock stars.”
Ultimately, the appraisal business is about relationships and trust, and the instinct that is developed as those are built over years and experience. This plays out in myriad ways. George and Bart have been doing IRS appraisals for tax-deductible donations of art and antiques in such a reliable and thorough way that “now they kind of look at us as their field office. I mean, ‘if it comes in from Read & Mullen, it’s fine. You know, their guys don't screw around.’”
They also sent a collection of designer jewelry to Grogan & Company in Boston because they knew Lucy Grogan there was a jewelry expert. “She had a great outlook for estate jewelry and was uniquely qualified to handle both fine and estate jewelry, and she did brilliantly with it.”
And they have to be sure clients understand their choices when deciding whether to sell and to whom. “You’re giving people options so they understand the whole situation because we can’t tell you exactly what to do,” Bart says. “There’s often not really a wrong answer, whether you go to New York or stay locally.”
George agrees. “You’re just putting something in a place where it’s most likely to do well.”
Read & Mullin have certainly discovered that secret for themselves as well as for their clients. Visit them at 89 Church St. between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and by appointment.