Sotheby’s halts auction of Detroit mosaics

Louis Aguilar
The Detroit News

Pieces of a Detroit building that were set to be auctioned Wednesday morning by the elite Sotheby’s have been pulled from the sale due to a complaint about “rightful ownership” of the items, said a spokesman for the international auction house

Two historic preservationists told The Detroit News on Tuesday the items were likely stolen from the building decades ago.

The items are fragments from a Tiffany Studios-designed glass mosaic ceiling from the Farwell Building, an historic building in downtown’s Capitol Park. The Farwell has been empty since at least 1984 and it has been hit by scrappers who have stripped pieces of the building over the years.

The Sotheby’s catalog described the pieces this way: “Mosaic ceiling fragments, Farwell Building, Detroit, Michigan.” One fragment of the ceiling, 41 inches high and 24 inches wide, had an estimated selling price of $6,000 to $8,000. Another piece, 271/2 and 151/2 inches wide, had an estimated selling price of $3,000 to $5,000.

But the two pieces will not be auctioned, a Sotheby’s spokesman said in a Wednesday email to The Detroit News.

“At the time of your emails (Tuesday), we had received no formal claim from parties asserting rightful ownership,” said Sotheby’s spokesman Darrell Rocha. “We have subsequently received such a claim, and have in turn withdrawn these lots from today’s auction.”

Sotheby’s didn’t identify who made the complaint.

Neither of the Detroit preservationists suggested the prestigious Sotheby’s was knowingly about to auction items stolen from a Detroit building. But the items may have been scrapped so long ago that somehow they may have been eventually sold to a legitimate collector. Sotheby’s declined to say who claimed to own the pieces.

“These pieces were almost certainly stolen, probably a long time ago,” said Rebecca Binno Savage, an historic preservationist who has been in the Farwell Building numerous times over the past five years. She’s working with the current owners of the building, which is slated to become lofts and ground-floor retail.

Another person familiar with the building is Dan Austin, author of two books on Detroit historical buildings and places. He runs the website Historic Detroit. From 2007-09, Austin visited the Farwell numerous times and said the ceiling had been severely damaged.

“The ceiling had holes punched in it; where scrappers have just taken pieces,” Austin said. “It’s hard to imagine that someone who cares about historical preservation would damage the ceiling that way.”

According to the website Historic Detroit, the lobby of the Farwell was once “inlaid with thousands of tiny Tiffany glass pieces. Each piece of Tiffany glass, or as Tiffany named it, favrile, was individually cut and polished. The sheen of the ceiling resulted from a backing of gold leaf.”

Tiffany Studios is the esteemed U.S. glass designer that operated from the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

The Farwell began to be looted around the mid ’70s. The eight-story building has gone through multiple owners. The current owner, Lansing-based Capitol Park Partnership, has secured the building since taking control of it, Binno Savage said. The owner couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday.

Scrapping has been a major challenge in this city with tens of thousands of vacant buildings for years. The Farwell was one of many historical structures scrappers entered illegally and stole anything they could haul away.

Binno Savage believes she knows the exact spot in the ceiling where the larger piece used to be located. She provided a copy of a 1975 newspaper article that shows the Farwell had already begun to be looted by scrappers. After a 1975 fire, a Tiffany-made chandelier and pieces of the ceiling mosaic had been stolen.

Sotheby’s is a multinational corporation, headquartered in New York City. It’s the world’s largest brokers of fine and decorative art, jewelry, real estate and collectibles.

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