A Case of Good Taste and Bad Timing
By Bruce McKinney
On May 6th, in London, the map collection of Frank Benevento, of Palm Beach Florida, was sold by Sotheby's. The sale brought British pounds 1.343 million for the 56 items [of 71] that found a buyer. Winning bidders altogether paid about what Frank paid over the past decade. After deducting auction commissions he sustained a loss of 24%. The 15 unsold lots, including several of the best items, amounting to about 15% by value, remain to be dispersed. Of the lots sold, seventy percent changed hands at or below the low estimate. Mr. Benevento's total investment in the auctioned material was BP 1.9 million, in dollars, $2.4 million. Following the sale Mr. Benevento expressed disappointment. In addition to being a map collector he's an investor. As an investment it didn't work out.
Mr. Benevento selected Sotheby's to conduct the sale based on personal impressions and his relationship with Catherine Slowther, a Director of the books and manuscripts department. He signed a contract on September 17th, 2009 for a single owner sale to be conducted in London in the spring of 2010.
This is his story.
Frank Benevento has experienced success throughout his life, and as is the wont of successful men, sought to convert wealth into style and savoir-faire. Money takes you only so far. For some, and Frank is one, the greater goal was the patrician life, the unstated objective to become a renaissance man. Growing up in Chevy Chase, in an upper middle class family, he early on was immersed in history and remembers browsing antique shops in Chevy Chase and Georgetown when others were buying clothes and tennis rackets. His background is Italian with a strong attachment to European culture and history. In time this would become a factor in his collecting.
He graduated from Georgetown summa cum laude in 1970 and University of Virginia Law in 1973. Fresh from school, he was interested enough to buy antiques rather than reproductions. His first job was as a lawyer with Sharon, Pierson, Semmes, Crolius and Finley in Washington. In 1977 he moved to Lehman Brothers in New York as an investment banker working on mergers and energy, later starting a private equity fund in the oil and gas field. In the late 1980's he played a role in the RJR Nabisco takeover that was noted in Barbarians at the Gates. With financial success came the desire for cultural accoutrements. His work regularly brought him to Europe where a chance encounter at the Medici Apartments in Florence ignited his interest in important images, particularly maps and paintings. In the years following he assumed important maps were the exclusive domain of museums. He loved them but they were unobtainable. Ten years ago, quite by chance, he walked into the Arader Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York and found in the early maps of Italy a personal connection. He bought a few, and began to read about and later collect them.
Over the course of the next ten years he traversed the full arc from museum observer to collection owner, in time, spending several million dollars to acquire many of the earliest, rarest, and most expensive maps, often of the world, always the creations of the great European mapmakers. In his headlong pursuit he achieved, for a few years, the dealer sobriquet "whale", the term conferred sotto voce on the biggest buyers.
A Case of Good Taste and Bad Timing
In 2007 he was diagnosed with cancer. He disengaged from work to focus on illness and continued to collect for another year before accepting that his pursuit of important maps was ending. Over the next year he concluded that auction was his best alternative for selling. Private advisers suggested he direct the sale himself rather than shift the burden to heirs. He had spent a half a dozen years learning about maps, learning to appreciate their complexity and value, believed in the importance of knowledge, and did not expect his children to pursue the subject with the necessary intensity. He had dealt with investments most of his adult life and come to believe that information always trumps innocence. He bought maps born of passion. He would sell now as a duty.
At the same time the stock market was declining. Retrieving his investment would become important.
The decision to choose Sotheby's was straightforward. By reputation and experience he favored them. No other house was seriously considered. The standard consignment fee for single owner sales is 10%. The deal was done at 4%. When the contract was signed on September 17th, 2009, the BP was trading at $1.65, the horizon clear. Mr. Benevento figured that prospects for a currency play between the pound and dollar favored the pound. He would engage in a little natural arbitrage. The maps were primarily European and World again confirming a European, if not London, venue. Sotheby's responded with a single owner sale, 2,000 catalogues to be distributed, a limited number of them hard bound. The offer sheet signed, the material was shipped to England on December 1st, the sale date projected for late spring later set for the afternoon of May 6th.
Later in December, in discussing the sale with this writer, the idea of including source, date and price information, a la the de Orbe Novo Sale, was broached. Frank then brought the idea to Sotheby's and later reported they didn't feel it would be helpful. It was dropped. Frank subsequently raised a second idea - of extending terms to buyers. He gathered that this was acceptable to Sotheby's but did not immediately understand that such terms would be communicated quietly, without fanfare, only to bidders inquiring for them. It turns out such terms are rarely publicized. In the ensuing two months only one bidder, Graham Arader of New York, requested and received them. Later, when Mr. Arader dominated the purchasing, buying a quarter of the lots and spending almost 40% of the total, the possibility that credit was an important factor emerged.
On April 6th, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a general election for May 6th. The date of the Benevento sale long since settled, the elaborate full color catalogue was about to be released. Two events would occur in London on May 6th.
Come sale day the auction room was mostly empty. At 2:30 pm in London as the sale was getting underway, in New York it was 9:30 am, and the New York Stock Exchange opening about even before a few hours later collapsing on a sell-side imbalance. This would be one of those days. Mr. Arader, himself in New York, commanded the sale, bidding by phone as is his norm. Seventy-eight percent of the lots sold, seventy-percent of them at or below the low estimate. A wealthy bidder from Chicago, someone introduced to Sotheby's by Mr. Benevento, was an important participant, bidding on eight expensive lots, winning two. On the six items this bidder pursed but didn't win other bidders bid more when confronted with competition. Many other items fell to walk-away bids, that is, offers at or below the low estimate. In the aftermath Mr. Benevento was left wondering if Sotheby's could have done more.
A Case of Good Taste and Bad Timing
Pierre Joppen of Paulus Swaen was in the room May 6th. He describes the bidding as light, the catalogue prepared by Sotheby's as first class and the results, if disappointing to Frank, nevertheless understandable. "The market is less interested in world maps right now. It's a cycle, they are out of favor." He also mentioned the noticeable deficit of collectors in the space.
Massimo de Martini of Altea Gallery in London said much the same thing. "You must buy to collect, not to invest." If you buy well and hold the material long enough you will sell well. Frank needed to sell too soon. It was a case of good taste and bad timing."
The following is a list of the material that sold followed by a list of unsold lots. Included are the sources, dates and prices paid. This is the information Mr. Benevento was willing to include in the lot descriptions.
List of lots sold is here.
Mr. Arader issued a statement shortly after. "The sale demonstrates the strength of the map collecting market in very uncertain times." He spent $550,000 to buy eighteen lots including 3 of the 4 items he sold to Mr. Benevento.
In the sale's aftermath another dealer, interviewed for this article, referred to this auction as the Graham Arader Sale. It wasn't, but it did turn out to be Graham Arader's opportunity.
Two weeks later the landscape has already changed. Economic uncertainty reigns. The EU is developing plans to aid Greece and other member countries may need help. The Euro has collapsed, England has had a change of government and "austerity budget" is becoming the watchword. In this perfect storm auction houses around the world continue to function normally. Auction realizations have fallen about 10% but material continues to change hands. Both Massimo de Martini and Pierre Joppen confirm: the market will come back.
"If I was negotiating again I would insist on terms for buyers. I think it would have made a difference. It turned out I needed a great house, a great catalogue and great terms. I was one short on May 6th. Who knew?"
Perhaps, in retrospect, Mr. Benevento will feel differently. He'll never know what might have been but the market over the next few months looks tough. By summer he may be feeling lucky and two years from now wish he had never sold. With highly important collectibles this is the way it is. It is always windy on the high wire.
link to unsold lots available for Purchase from Mr. Benevento.