Rago Arts and Auction Center anchors the hodgepodge northern end of Lambertville far from the antique stores and restaurants that draw tourists year-round to the center of town. The Delaware River courses nearby, a modest shopping center is across the street, the police station is next door, and rural Hunterdon County stretches off to the north.
The husband-wife team of David Rago and Suzanne Perrault has turned their building, the former Silk Hosiery Mill, into a destination all its own. Once a month or so the surrounding parking lots and byways become clogged for a preview, then an auction, as they will the next two weekends.
On Friday, April 12, Rago and Perrault will also be center stage at the College of New Jersey, where they will speak on “The Value of Art” at 11:30 a.m. in the Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall. The event is free as part of TCNJ’s “Brown Bag.”
Of course, the “value” of art may be almost as difficult to pin down as what art is in the first place. After nearly 40 years in his business Rago has written six books and hundreds of magazine articles. He publishes two magazines: “Modernism” and “Style 1900,” on the Arts and Crafts period. He speaks nationally at conferences and is recognized as an expert in American and European 20th-century decorative arts and furnishings. Yet an auction last October showed how “the eye of the beholder” sometimes gives way to the unexplained.
“We had a smallish tile panel by Frederick Rhead, made in St. Louis in 1910, that we thought we were somewhat conservatively estimating at $35,000 to $45,000,” Rago said. “I was hoping it might hit $100,000. And bear in mind that ceramics are my specialty within my specialty field, especially the work of Frederick Rhead who, among other things, created Fiesta Ware near the end of his career. There were three bidders at over $350,000 and it finally settled at $635,000, a record for any piece of American art pottery. So much for being an expert.”
Rago’s story is one that can truly be titled “Only in America.” In the early 1970s, as a teenager in Hamilton, he noticed that his neighbors sometimes put perfectly nice things out on the curb. He started taking these street-side gleanings to weekend flea markets in Lambertville, Columbus, and Englishtown, usually arriving in the wee hours — the traditional time when vendors deal among themselves by lamplight. By 9 a.m., when well-heeled bargain hunters arrived, he would be heading home with his profits.
As a dealer he began to specialize in art pottery and Arts and Crafts furniture, and his client list grew until he was selling up and down the metropolitan Northeast. He stopped pursuing a degree and focused on his business, eventually running his own auction in New York City. There he met Perrault, then an independent antiques dealer with a specialty in art tile. They opened the Perrault-Rago Gallery in Lambertville in 1991. By then, the auctions in New York involved loading up a caravan of large trucks and a small army of employees. When the Silk Hosiery Mill building became available in 1996, the Rago Arts and Auction Center moved in.
“We bought the building in Lambertville in 1996, and it was certainly a game changer,” Rago said. “It was the second riskiest move we ever made — my hair went gray in a year. But it forced an expansion into other areas — estates, jewelry, silver, fine art — that had previously been impossible.”
At about that time Rago and Perrault began appearing on Antiques Roadshow, the popular PBS series that sends experts around the country to appraise family heirlooms, among other things. As a couple, Rago and Perrault are quietly fashionable and are certainly recognized on the streets of Lambertville. This summer they will be married 20 years.
“We’re a good team,” he says. “She is more detail-oriented. I tend to look at the big picture. She keeps me on the straight and narrow.”
Rago chuckled recently when he was told some people might come out to the TCNJ talk because he and his wife were “personalities.” For someone whose name is attached to a company with gross revenues in eight figures, status does not seem to be a priority for Rago. He also doesn’t spend much time looking backward.
“I don’t like to think I’ve achieved success,” Rago said. “It sounds like too ego-driven a concept. Things came together for our business probably in the early 2000s, once the proper management and partnerships were in place. It was 30 years of trial and error, far more the latter, and the good fortune and hard work that have maintained the company during the difficult years.”
Rago and Perrault seemed to be heading for early retirement, or at least significantly scaling back their roles, when the recession hit in 2008. The next year was the company’s worst ever, he said.
“We just flatlined,” Rago said. “Recessions tend to be bad times for people selling nonessential luxury goods.” A partner, John Sollo, also decided to retire at that time.
Contingency plans went into effect. Some auctions were consolidated, others were increased from twice to three times a year.
“While we increased the amount of material we were selling each year, we didn’t put as much of it on the market at any one time,” he said. “There were a lot of other adjustments, but losing staff was not an option. Out of nearly 40 employees, the only three we lost were two who went back to college and one who took a job elsewhere. We also saw our fine arts and the estates divisions finally begin to grow at that time — 2010 was, to that point, the most profitable year we ever had, and 2012 our highest grossing at $28 million.”
With retirement delayed and the seas calmed, Rago and Perrault broadened their professional interests; she into contemporary glass, he into mid-20th century furniture (“There’s a lot of really good designers from the 1970s and 1980s.”) They still handle the auctions, pointing to bidders, and bringing down the gavel. For a couple that has barely ventured into Twitter, they have accepted online bids for more than 20 years.
In the meantime, Rago has returned to the College of New Jersey to finish his undergraduate studies in English literature, the same degree that Perrault received from McGill University in her native Montreal.
“Why not?” Rago asked. “I needed 11 more classes. After this semester I’ll be down to five.”
Even if the auction business is seeing better times, Rago doesn’t think that serves as a broader economic indicator for the future.
“I don’t think the auction business is much of a bellwether,” he said. “When we market, say, a painting, it is in a print catalog that goes to a targeted audience of about 4,000, a virtual catalog that goes out to about 2.5 million, with full disclosure and guarantees of condition, authenticity, etc. That painting is then sold at a specific time to competition in our auction hall in Lambertville, simultaneously against hundreds of phone bidders, usually nearly 1,000 more bidding live online, against 100 to 150 people who have left absentee bids.
“As an auction buyer you have about 45 seconds to decide if you’re buying it or not. Imagine a store or a gallery telling you, ‘Well, it’s now or never.’ You’d probably walk out and never visit them again. Here, at auction, for better or for worse, it cuts to the chase. So no, I don’t think our auctions are an indicator of anything beyond how things are doing at auction. That said, our auctions accurately depict what’s happening at auction in general, from New York to Philadelphia.”
Rago is also writing his seventh book, this time dealing with the antiques and decorative arts business rather than the objects. Among other things, he will give how-to advice for people attending auctions as potential buyers.
“I want to call it ‘Confessions of a Pot Dealer,’” he said, barely concealing a wink. “My favorite chapter is where I get five auctioneers around a table, 170 years of experience between us, and just let the tape run.”
Rago doesn’t think someone could get started in his business today the same way he did in the era when Richard Nixon was being re-elected. “People are handling things on eBay now,” he said. “The product isn’t coming out like it used to. Antique shows are dying, too. It’s hard to find vendors.”
And what does he think his younger self would say to him today?
“Why?” he said with mock exasperation. “You were making a lot of money. You were having such a great time. It would be two o’clock in the morning, my Econoline van didn’t have any heat, I was dead tired, but I had a great time.”
The Value of Art, Mildred and Ernest E. Mayo Concert Hall, the College of New Jersey. Friday, April 12, at 11:30 a.m. Free. In conjunction with “Value Added: Artists’ Perspectives on the Meaning of Worth” at the College of New Jersey Art Gallery. 609-771-2633 or www.tcnj.edu/artgallery.
Rago Arts, 333 North Main Street, Lambertville. Auction previews. Saturday, April 13, through Wednesday, April 17, noon to 5 p.m.; Thursday, April 18, noon to 7 p.m. Auctions, Friday, April 19, 8 a.m.; Saturday, April 20, at 9 a.m.; and Sunday, April 21, noon. 609-397-9373 or www.ragoarts.com.