Every reputable art business has the story of a work that could so easily have gotten away. According to Sandra Germain of the family-owned , the story at the Milford-based business begins with a phone call concerning a painting at a farm in Pennsylvania that its owners had kept because they liked its frame.
The frame turned out to be what is termed a frame lining, but the painting, they realized, was the work of Martin Johnson Heade, an artist with strong associations to the famed Hudson River School of the nineteenth century.
In 2004, Shannon’s sold the painting at one of their auctions, which they hold two times a year, for $800,000.
Far, far more likely are the transactions that result from an auction house’s expertise, its years in the business, unmitigated hard work and trust among all parties involved. It is trust that Gene Shannon, who, with his wife Maryanne, founded the auction business with offices in Milford in 1997, and his stepdaughter Germain seem to share in abundance.
Shannon described Sandra as “a clone of her mother," who, he said, now handles the business’s purse strings from the couple’s home in Woodbridge.
“She’s brilliant. She has an unbelievable eye,” Shannon said of his stepdaughter. “There’s a closeness. There’s a trust. [Family members] have been so pre-filtered.”
Germain, who became part of a family in Woodbridge at the age of 12, found herself surrounded by the art that reigned throughout the house. There, Shannon, who founded Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneers in Milford because of the city’s proximity to I-95, had worked as a private antique art dealer in American and European art largely from 1840-1940 since the late 1970’s.
Germain said that, in many ways, she had learned about art by osmosis, with conversations on art swirling about her at the house. “When you’re surrounded by paintings, you ask a lot of questions,” she said, noting that her two children, aged 15 and 16, now ask questions of her today at their East Hampton, Conn. home.
A business major in college, Germain was working in sales and marketing in Maine when her husband took a position in Connecticut. She arranged a child-share/work-share arrangement with her mother and quickly began applying her skills to the family's art auction business.
Within the fine art auction business, Germain said that the Internet has changed marketing dramatically. Among its other efforts, Shannon’s now sends targeted emails to museums, curators and persons who own a work by an artist — this, cross-referenced with the house’s own sustantial database — when Shannon's plans to sell one of the artist's works. In addition, it places advertisements in publications in London and Paris.
Last year, Shannon’s auctions sold to buyers in 18 countries and 42 states.
Shannon concedes that as the business has grown the size of the physical audience who attend the auctions has dropped, with the actual bidding now taking place frequently on the phone.
“The phones are the heart and the pulse of the auction business,” said Shannon, who described himself as an urban archeologist always looking for a painting that has not been seen in one hundred years.
Still, potential buyers, agents or restorers will stop by the auction house on Woodmont Road to preview a work of art slated for sale, which either Shannon’s or a peer group of experts on the artist will have authenticated.
“We’ve handled these artists forever,” Shannon said of the artists that remain a Shannon’s focus, with many from the 19th and early 20th century in addition to the more recent artists the business now also sells. “If something’s a forgery, it will speak to you. The eye is trained. There’s a lot of study. This is not a kid’s game.”
By no means a kid’s game was the discovery in New Jersey of a work by the Creole artist Louis Remy Mignot who, although born in South Carolina, studied in the Netherlands and painted in upstate New York before accompanying Hudson River School artist Frederic Church on a trip through Central America.
One of the canvases that resulted from the foray — this, exuding the sweep of a 19th century landscape but with palm trees and a tropical sky — brought more than $500,000 at a Shannon auction last year. The client, which Shannon identified as a major museum, has not yet announced the acquisition.
This year, Shannon’s Fine Art Auctioneer has an auction scheduled for April 26. Its breadth of art, which ranges from the 19th century artist Thomas Cole to the 20th century Robert Indiana, has its first preview April 16. A full list of preview dates and times in addition to the list of the works by the artists that will go on sale is online at shannons.com.