Swann Auction Galleries: Thriving as a Purveyor of Antique Paper Goods by Leveraging Passion & Patience for Three Generations
Updated: 4.11.18 Entrepreneurial Success

Swann Auction Galleries: Thriving as a Purveyor of Antique Paper Goods by Leveraging Passion & Patience for Three Generations

By: Jon McDonald

The Crunch: Technology is making it easier to buy things, but as it does, those purchases become more transactional. One format remains a vestige of passion and delight for buyers: the auction. Swann Galleries, a third-generation auction house in New York, believes in putting the same enthusiasm into its items as do the collectors it serves. After all, most of the specialists, including Nicholas D. Lowry, President and Principal Auctioneer, are collectors themselves. When it comes to meeting the demand of buyers who want more ways to bid, the company has been careful to make sure emerging strategies work before implementing them.

The emotional thrill of buying is a rarity in today’s world of digital purchases and two-day shipping, but there is one place where it maintains a stronghold: the world of auctions.

Buyers bring more than just money to an auction; they bring their passions, dreams, and even, sometimes, childhood memories. They bid for the chance to win an item that they covet more than anyone else.

And those on the other side — the auction houses and auctioneers — are often just as passionate about the items on the block. They spend much of their time searching for those items, authenticating them, and getting them ready to delight collectors and connoisseurs. Once the final gavel falls, those auctioneers go back to procuring more items that collectors will enjoy.

For three generations, Swann Auction Galleries in New York City has delighted lovers of prints, posters, photos, maps, and other antique paper collectibles. The gallery remains committed to the traditions of the industry while also exploring new ways to make it easy for clients to buy the items they’re passionate about.

“Swann was started by my grandfather’s nephew in 1941, taken over by my father in 1969, and I took over in 2000,” said Nicholas D. Lowry, President and Principal Auctioneer at Swann Auction Galleries. “The fact that we are a multi-generational family business dictates how we work within the marketplace. The auction world is historically traditional, not a cutting-edge industry.”

For example, Swann took its business model online only when the time was right and is gauging the best ways to continue to implement technology to satisfy the needs of buyers.

And that pace of change is just right for Nicholas, who wants the focus to stay on the items that he and his team of specialists curate for buyers, and that they both love

“We are a company of collectors for collectors,” Nicholas said.

A Company Built by Connoisseurs to Serve a Community of Collectors

Swann Auction Galleries’ success is partially due to its priorities aligning to those of its clients. Nicholas and his team understand what buyers want because they’re collectors who share the same enthusiasm for the pieces they procure.

“I am a collector, and that is one thing that separates Swann even further. When you come to one of our specialists, you’re dealing with someone on the same level as you,” Nicholas said.

Swann Auction Galleries is not only a bidding destination, but a resource. Their website hosts an archive of catalogs and auction results dating back to 2001 so that buyers can educate themselves on an item’s price history or the rarity of a listing.

Nicholas wants each listing to reflect the unique importance of each piece. Swann goes to great lengths to expound on each item’s significance — whether it is a book featuring the signatures of 18 US presidents, a previously unknown edition of the Bay Psalm Book, or a recently discovered painting by Jacob Lawrence.

“Behind each piece, there is a story, and emotions that it evokes,” he said. “We want to keep it all intact, and handle it with the respect that a collector knows it deserves.”

That dedication has led the auction house to differentiate itself from others that may be trying for the most high-profile sales, or that sell mainly to investors — not dedicated enthusiasts.

Swann judges its own success by how many items make it into the hands of collectors, though they certainly set records for prices achieved. In a highly successful September 2017 auction, Swann sold an etching by Henri Matisse  — Jeune femme à la coiffure hollandaise, regardant des poissons, 1929 — for close to $15,000 more than its record price. In that same sale, a lithograph by Pablo Picasso fetched $125,000. Swann also holds the record for any print by Edward Hopper: $317,000 for the etching The Lonely House, 1923, in November 2017.

“What sets us apart is that we view auctions differently. We operate under a labor of love, and our clients understand that, which is why they keep coming back to us,” Nicholas said.

The company’s reputation for quality and attention to detail have allowed them to grow. Swann Auction Galleries is making sure to expand in a way that aligns with its values.

Expanding Within the Paper Niche Without Forsaking Its Expertise

That desire to stay true to its core mission was at the heart of the gallery’s gradual expansion strategy. Nicholas is wary of the major growing pains that businesses often suffer when they overextend themselves.

Photo of Swann Auction Galleries exhibition space

Swann Auction Galleries has an exhibition space for buyers to experience items before they bid in an auction.

“We were able to avoid that problem by understanding what our strengths are and focusing on that. Our core business is selling everything antique on paper: autographs, maps, manuscripts, posters, and artwork,” Nicholas said. “We have carved out a prominent niche in the antique paper world. When we expanded, it would have been a perfect time to expand to other things — like pocket watches, wine, or jewelry — because we have all this space and we’re an auction house. But we kept ourselves focused on our core passion.”

Methodically Bringing the Visceral Auction Experience Online

“As collectors ourselves, we can be helpful to the community by leaning on our own experiences,” Nicholas said. “How would we react to a mobile bidding platform for an auction? What would we like? We use ourselves as quality control.”

Swann Auction Galleries is modernizing with the shifting dynamics of the industry and the preferences of its buyers, who still enjoy the visceral experience of seeing, touching, and interacting with items, but also love a wealth of bidding options.

Screenshot of Swann Auction Galleries online catalogue

Swann Auction Galleries offers online bidding, as well as full versions of all its auction catalogues.

Before each auction, buyers can attend an exhibition of the items, so enthusiasts can physically interact with them. Then, during the auction, they can bid online from home. It is all part of Swann’s commitment to the craft and its clients.

A Tradition-Rich Auction House Committed to a Core Passion

And what type of collectibles does the owner of an auction house collect? For Nicholas, it’s posters from his homeland.

“I collect posters from Czechoslovakia, where my family is from. My father was born in Prague, and I lived there for many years in the early 1990s,” Nicholas said. “My father and I have assembled the largest collection of Czech posters in the world — outside of the Czech museums.”

What drives the team at Swann Auction Galleries is the quality of artifacts and the delight of their its clients. The company is moving into the digital age while preserving the feeling of its auctions and giving enthusiasts and collectors more ways to buy.

“We move forward in a methodical way so as not to disrupt our pre-existing traditions, but to build upon them,” Nicholas said.