Interview with Arlan Ettinger from Guernsey’s Auction House

Horacio spoke with Arlan Ettinger, the President and Founder of Guernsey’s auction house in Manhattan. Guernsey’s will be auctioning off the Elizabeth Meaders Collection on March 15th at 2 PM ET. Arlan’s previous work with high-profile auctions has garnered worldwide attention and the Elizabeth Meaders Collection is no different. Ms. Meaders’s collection offers a comprehensive look at African-American history through one-of-a-kind artifacts acquired because of her life’s work to collect. Arlan provides unique insight into the collection and the buzz leading up to the auction.

Discussion topics include:

  • Guernsey’s history of high-profile collections
  • The scope and depth of Elizabeth Meaders’s collection
  • A collection full of the good, the bad, and the ugly
  • The lack of a comprehensive African-American Museum in New York City
  • The impossibility of knowing who will buy the collection and for how much
  • Valuing a collection with 20,000 items and comparing it to other historic auctions
  • Using the collection to complement existing museum collections
  • Guernsey’s work with pre-auction events to market collections for sale
  • Auctions having unique characteristics and results

You can listen to the podcast through Spotify or YouTube.


[Horacio Ruiz]


Welcome back to the Alts podcast. I’m your host Horacio Ruiz. We bring you industry leaders and creators to give their insights on the rapidly changing and exciting world of alternative assets. Opinion expressed on this podcast by the host and podcast guests are for informational purposes only and should not be considered investment advice. Podcast hosts and guests may maintain positions in the offerings discussed in this podcast.

[Horacio Ruiz]


As part of our coverage of the Elizabeth Meaders, African American historical collection. We’re speaking with Arlan Ettinger, the President and Founder of Guernsey’s Auction House in New York. Guernsey’s will be auctioning off Miss’s Meaders collection on Tuesday, March 15th at 2:00 PM Eastern. This is the second part of our podcast. If you happen to begin listening to this podcast without first listening to Miss Meaders, I recommend you pause for a minute, listen to Miss Meaders and then come back to listen to Arlan. Guernsey’s has auctioned off collections from some of the biggest names in the world, including collections from Princess Diana, Elvis and John Coltrane. Now add the Elizabeth Meaders collection to that list. Arlan shares his experience from previous auctions as a guide for what to expect on March 15th and puts Miss Meaders’ collection as having historical significance and as an incredible individual accomplishment. I hope you enjoy my conversation with Arlan.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Okay. So today we have Mr. Arlan Ettinger with us. He’s the President and Founder of the Guernsey’s auction house in Manhattan. Thank you so much for being with us here today Mr. Ettinger.

[Arlan Ettinger]


My pleasure.

[Horacio Ruiz]


You know, I had the privilege of speaking to Miss Meaders a couple of days ago and just talking to about her collection and what she’s been through and what inspired it. And I guess I just wanted to begin with your thoughts on her and her collection.

[Arlan Ettinger]


Well in meeting her, I came with the background of having experienced many, many great collections through a long career. Collections that have gone into the fields of historical collections, theatrical collections, sports related collections. Guernsey’s is the firm that has produced the auctions on behalf of John F Kennedy, princess Diana, the Beatles, Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Dick Clark, Waylon Jennings, many other celebrated people. Jerry Garcia, the grateful dead and so on. So, I came with that background when I first met Elizabeth as far back as 20 years ago. Seeing in her an extremely passionate, dedicated woman who really knew what she was after. And that was to in a sense, create a tree, a tree that told the African American saga with the main trunk being that just that African Americans in America, the branches then would be the categories within her collection, the scourge of slavery, the struggle for civil rights, black people in the military, in religion, in politics and sports and entertainment and so on.


And then even those limbs would twig off into subcategories. So, for example, it wouldn’t just be black people in the military, but black aviators in the air force. And so, it was quite a complete collection. Impressive all the more so, because here she was a New York City school teacher, which is an occupation notorious for not paying very much. And how could she have achieved this on that salary. And it just points to her remarkable gumption and determination to seek out treasured items wherever they might be. So very impressive overall.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Yeah. When you describe it like a tree and the collection kind of branching out, you kind of get some insight into her vision for it, I guess, because she says she’s telling a story and I guess this story, obviously the African American story is, I mean meant – I don’t know that any one person can tell it, but you kind of get an idea of what she was collecting and why she was collecting. What are some of those items that kind of stand out to you in particular?

[Arlan Ettinger]


Things that stick in my mind, for example, are a pair of Ku Klux Klan robes, hooded robes, one’s white, one’s black, not only with the robes, but with information about the men who wore them. And these hateful symbols, this is a collection with the sort of the good, the bad and the ugly. And that certainly represents the ugly side of things, just as there are joyous objects, the corner man sweater worn by a manager or a cut man for Joe Lewis. Great Brown Bomber, who not only was world champion, heavyweight champion, but also sort of held upheld America’s head above water at a time during World War II, when that mattered a great deal. So those are treasured items that come to my mind. There’s a Nazi flag recovered by black troops during World War II. And with the notations of the individual soldiers on it and their comments about the recovery. So, these are just a couple of things that stand out to me.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Yeah. And the collection has about 20,000 items. Is everything even like accounted for, I mean, in terms of like it being catalogued? Or you have an obviously a good idea of what’s in the collection and there are a ton of treasures in there. But is it even possible to go through all 20,000 items prior to the auction?

[Arlan Ettinger]


Well I can’t speak for Elizabeth’s knowledge, although I suspect that she has a recall about every single thing that she has. We certainly haven’t. And to be clear, this is a collection being sold in its entirety as a collection, not a sale of individual objects. So, although we certainly on Guernsey’s website, guernseys.com have assorted photographs, and today on the day that we’re speaking, the New York times online gave a very extensive spread to this where they must have pictured [inaudible 00:07:05] 50 items. To our way of thinking, it’s not about the individual items rather that this is a museum, it’s a museum crammed into a modest Staten Island, New York home. But that given the light of an exhibition hall could really shine in a way that museums can. And of course, the hope is that this will remain not only as a collection but will at some point be available to the public to benefit from this lifelong 65-year effort of Miss Meaders. it is an auction.


The auction’s taking place on March 15th. It’s being sold as one lot. And it could get sold to an existing museum, it could get sold to a school. It could get sold to an individual who would then donate it to a school or a museum. Or turn it into a museum. Then again, it could be acquired by a collector who may decide to just live with the material for a period of time. Although it’s been my experience that even a collector after years of ownership might well then turn around and make a donation of it. But that’s not for us to decide. But it is absolutely a museum ready to go. In New York, as you pointed out, Miss Meaders is in New York strangely enough, New York City, the biggest city in the country that has museums for almost every conceivable topic is lacking a full blown African American museum. There are sort of partial museums, the studio museum, the Shamburg archive, but is there a full African American history museum? The answer I believe is no. And how nice it would be if someone were listening to this and could contact us and help make a difference and help the collection stay here. But then again, this will shine no matter where it ends up. That’s for certain.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. A couple things I just want to touch on. What are the challenges? I think if I can call it that of having such a collection being sold as one lot? And I know you mentioned before, you did a lot of sales, estate sales for some of the biggest celebrities ever in the world. But I imagine that those were sold at items or pieces. What is that like? Have you ever been involved with something like this where you’re selling 20,000 items in one lot and how difficult is it to move something like that?

[Arlan Ettinger]


Well, my business is a very unpredictable one. You work for months and months on rare occasions sometimes for years, all for targeting a certain moment. When the efforts of your labour is determined. And we have sold complete collections before, but each one of these events truly is without precedent. To my knowledge, there’s never been a major effort, an American related collection sold in one shot. And so, this is what’s happening. And the results are impossible to predict. It is unnerving. I suspect it would be a lot easier were these items to be sold one by one, because even there, if you couldn’t nail an estimate to the dollar or to 10 dollars or even a hundred dollars on an individual object, it would tend to average out. You’d be a little high in estimating one item and a little low estimating the next, but it would average out when you have the whole collection being offered as one lot, there’s no averaging, this is it. And we’ll see what happens, but there have been appraisals done of this collection long before our involvement and they all – there are four that I’ve seen and they’re all well into the millions of dollars. But again, this is to be seen. Guernsey’s is the firm that among many other examples sold a single baseball for three million dollars, sold a guitar played by Jerry Garcia for three and a half million. Sold a dilapidated, almost worthless boat that at one point had been own by the Kennedy family. Nevertheless, that boat sold for six million dollars, simply the because of its provenance. But you look at a baseball for three million dollars, do you believe in your heart that that’s worth more than this collection of thousands of items? Some people might say yes, others might be very vigorous in saying no way. But it is what it is. It it’s a lifelong work of a dedicated person that covers a very very important topic, which is African American history. And we’ll see how it ends up.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Yeah. You mentioned before that it can be a little unnerving and auctions are unpredictable, and you know, Miss Meaders expressed that too. I asked her, how do you feel about your collection, basically not being hers anymore and where it’s going to land and who’s going to own it. She prefers that it goes obviously to an institution or that something could be set up for the collection where it can be housed and displayed. But as its own educational form of tools, there’s so many things that you could use it for. What you hearing, are you hearing interest from institutions, individuals? Is there anything that you can give us some insight on?

[Arlan Ettinger]


We’ve been contacted by no fewer than a dozen or so colleges and universities that would hope that this could be gifted to their respective schools where my sense is it would not simply become a museum, but rather a core curriculum where students could study the curatorial arts or services, learn the inner workings of a museum, learn the skills necessary, the business of galleries and antique shops by training with this collection. And at the same time, cataloguing the items in a more thorough way than Elizabeth would’ve ever had the opportunity to do. So, it could be a teaching tool as well as a meaningful museum. But you don’t really get that kind of option, that choice. We hope that Elizabeth’s right, and she would love to see it continue on in a meaningful way.


Not that I would ever expect that a buyer in some way would abuse this collection. Now that’s not going to happen. No one goes out and spends serious amounts of money to then in some way trash the objects they purchased, that’s silly. In today’s world. I could see someone perhaps having a museum, whether it was a static museum at one place or a touring museum, but then go a step further by monetising some of the items by turning them into NFTs. Which I’m sure your listers all know is very much the rage, which is not to say that anything that is made into an NFT is automatically golden. That doesn’t seem to be the case, but there are meaningful objects here that I could see becoming very appealing NFTs possibly. And so, as you know, there, you sort of have your cake and eat it too, because you are offering images and rights to certain things, but you are able to keep the objects. So, I could see an intelligent buyer doing something very good with this collection, but at the same time earning much, if not all their money back.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Yeah, absolutely. There’s so many items, right. That it’s almost like there’s so many different things like you pointed out that you could do with it and still own it. What are the mechanics behind the auction? You mentioned, I’m just curious, It’s March 15, the website says 2:00 PM. How long will it last? Will the auction be held in person? Is it virtual? How is it going to be run?

[Arlan Ettinger]


Yeah. First of all, you’re right. It’s 2:00 PM on March 15th and it is not an in-person auction. Just for listeners to know, over the last number of years as technology improved and people realise, they could bid at auction without being there. And it was at no disadvantage, many people then started thinking, well, gee, I’m in San Francisco, why fly to New York just to sit in a room to watch an auctioneer sell something when I can see that object on my computer screen and bid in real time against everybody else. So that was very much the coming thing. When COVID struck us all, then it really put the kibosh or pretty much cancelled live auctions. Having said that Guernsey’s has always done its best to have exciting in-person events. So, it is disappointing for us that we’re not seeing that these days. When we did the Elvis auction, for example, we did that at the MGM grand in Las Vegas.


And you had to be there to appreciate the thousands of people that jammed in to participate joyfully in that event as a similar but different crowd went to studio 54, where we conducted the Jerry Garcia auction. Or Madison square garden when holding the Mickey Mantle auction. These are not events that you typically would see in a movie where you have 20 or 50 people sitting quietly in a room. This is really pretty electric, extraordinary affairs with applause and all kinds of drama and excitement that we miss. Now, this being one lot, the Meaders collection, it really wouldn’t have fit that mould, even if it hadn’t been for COVID. So, people can bid either by simply calling Guernsey’s in New York. The number’s everywhere. It’s on our website, go to gurnseys.com, G-U-E-R-N-S-E-Y-S.com. Or choose to bid on one of the two bidding platforms, liveauctioneers.com or invaluable.com, both of which will give bidders an opportunity to participate.


But the whole event will be over in just a minute or two, as it is only one lot. Guernsey’s, among many other credits conducted the world’s largest auction. And in contrast to this sale was one lot. I don’t recall how many lots exactly that sale had, but it was well into the thousands of lots. And many of the lots and lot is that the auction turned used for selling unit. It doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of things. It just means something you’re selling at that instant and most auction lots are simply a single item. But in the sale, I was referring to the world’s largest auction, which was the contents of the ocean line or the SS United States. Typical lots might have contained four dozen bath towels or six dozen dinner plates from the largest ocean liner ever built in the United States. And that auction, when you added it, all up came to close to a million items that we sold everything from the littered to lifeboats on that grand and beautiful ship.


But getting back to Elizabeth, it’s going to be bang bang bang. It’s a one lot auction. So, I certainly would encourage anybody who’s listening and who would have interest, to call us to talk about this thing. And I wouldn’t rule out the possibility, although there’s only at this point and I’m not sure when this is airing, but barely a week to go, that if the right circumstances came around and someone said, look, I’d like to offer X number of dollars right now and do the right thing with this collection. We convey that to Elizabeth and who knows, maybe she’d say, well, let’s just take that offer and call it a day if that’s the right thing. And we would consider that. So, anybody interested would be urged to give me a call at Guernsey’s in New York. And I do our best to answer all the questions we could. And if someone wanted to speak to Elizabeth, I’m sure we could arrange that too.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. Now I was going to ask about that. I read a New York times article, you referenced, the possibility. There is that that possibility of it not going to auction, right. In case somebody made an offer that Elizabeth found with?

[Arlan Ettinger]


Sure. This is her life. And a bird in the hand might be the smartest thing to consider right now, but that’ll only happen if and when it happens. So, you can’t count on that. We’re anticipating going forward with the auction. But dare I say it, I’ll be sitting by my phone minutes after your podcast airs. And we’ll see what elicits.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Absolutely. I guess my last question, and this is more, I don’t know if you have any insights into that, but when the auction is over and the items are all in Miss Meaders home, what is that process like now, the transfer of ownership? Right. So, do you help kind to facilitate that in terms of moving the items out of the home and maybe somewhere else where the owner can kind of make sense of what they own?

[Arlan Ettinger]


When I think back almost every event, I’ve overseen over more than 40 years, really has differed from every other event. And I’ve yet to see a textbook that describes how one conducts these kinds of auction sales. Sales that require sort of the talents that that one has. And if you worked at a museum, because we do – we’ve been known for doing very elaborate pre auction exhibitions. For example, we once held an auction of dinosaur bones and other kinds of archaeological finds, where we took over new York’s park avenue Armory, one of the largest interior spaces in America, and filled almost every inch of a it reconstructing skeletons much like you would see at a major natural history museum. And yet this was all a prelude for an auction, other events where we’ve had three or four or 500 vintage racing cars, arraying them all in anticipation of an auction that would follow.


So, we were known for doing very elaborate auction catalogues, auction books, that are collected by some and survive in many museums. And we’re very proud of those books. So, every event is different in terms of the removal of these items, following the sale, well, in this instance, when I think back to big collections that we’ve sold over the years, in almost every other instance that I can think of the owner of the collection was no longer around, was deceased. And here we have Elizabeth who I can’t say I know lots of 90-year-old people, but she’s about the youngest 90-year-old person I know. And I would think that that’s a great blessing because she would be there to help the new owner understand what went into the collecting of these massive objects and as much as possible inform the people about what is this thing, what is that thing? Which you don’t normally have the luxury of doing. In terms of the physical moving, that’s going to really be up to the buyer. Will Guernsey’s assist, of course we will, to the best of our ability, but the buyer could be around the corner from Miss Meaders, or around the world. There’s no set rules about how you go about something after a sale. And again, each collection, each item is different, and you just have to sort of do what’s intelligent, which I’m sure will get done.

[Horacio Ruiz]


Yeah, absolutely. And I want to thank you again for your time, if I can kind of throw in my observation, and I talked to Miss Meaders, she’s been getting some great press coverage for the auction. And you mentioned this before because you talked about holding these pre-auction events. And part of the beauty of the collection is not just the collection, but the fact of who collected it, right. The fact that it’s her and the fact that she’s a schoolteacher and she had to find a way to buy some of these things. And she did, and she’s as much of part of the story as the collection. And I think that the PR and marketing has been superb, and we’re just really intrigued by the entire collection. And…

[Arlan Ettinger]


…I think you nailed it when you when you speak to Elizabeth in closing now, she’ll be quick. As I heard her today, she was being interviewed by CBS and talking about the importance of certain figures represented in her collection. Figures that in some cases were alive 200 years ago. And the role they played, and she speaks of almost as if they were there in the room. I hope she can smile in realising that in her way, perhaps a hundred years from now, people will be talking about her as a person who furthered the public’s awareness of the importance of many figures that were otherwise possibly lost to history. So, she’s certainly playing an important role, and I think she should be proud of doing that

[Horacio Ruiz]


Well, Mr Arlan Ettinger, President and Founder of the Guernsey’s auction house. Thank you very much. We’re looking forward to Tuesday, March 15 at 2:00 PM. Best of luck. And I hope that as much word can spread out about the auction, the more, the better.

[Arlan Ettinger]

Horacio. Thank you very much.

[Horacio Ruiz]


It’s amazing to think that a collection that took Miss Meaders 65 years to amass will be transferred over in a matter of minutes at auction. I want to thank Arlan Ettinger for taking the time to put the collection in perspective and for his appreciation for it. I’m hoping that Miss Meaders’ labour of love, as she puts it finds an amazing new owner, and that it will add a new, exciting chapter to its existence. If you enjoy today’s podcast, let others know about it. We find our guests so interesting and knowledgeable, and I know others will too. Or leave a review or hit the follow button. Until the next episode. Take care.

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Author

Horacio Ruiz

Horacio Ruiz

Horacio is a veteran math teacher of the New York City public school system. Prior to teaching, he lived in New Orleans where he worked in sales for the New Orleans Hornets before joining The Institute for Sport and Social Justice to rebuild homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and neighboring St. Bernard Parish. He currently lives in Staten Island with his wife, Alicia, his three sons; Oliver, Henry, and Jacob, and their pitt-mi,x Tipitina. In 2019, Horacio published a biography, The White Knight: Calvin Patterson and the Integration of Florida State University Football.

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