California auction house caters to western clientele

If you are looking for a handsome, baronial baroque chest, made for one of the early gold barons of California, you're likely to find it a Butterfield & Butterfield auction galleries in San Francisco.

Butterfield's is neither a Sotheby's nor a Christie's of the West. Rather, it is proudly provincial in flavor, although international in scope and reputation.

For 116 years Butterfield's has been a California institution in which the goods and chattels of generations of pioneers and settlers have changed hands.

Westerners, above all else, look to Butterfield's for great baronial furniture, Victoriana, goods from the Orient, and the works of California artists and artisans.

The auction house began in 1865 when William Butterfield, a local sheriff, decided he liked conducting sheriff sales more than trying to keep law and order in this somewhat tumultuous city. He also had a distinct distaste for shooting guns. Soon he was offering surplus goods consigned by sailing ships entering San Francisco Harbor. Also realizing that people needed a place to dispose of and buy personal property and estates, he launched the auction and appraising business that exists today.

His son, Fred R. Butterfield, joined the firm in 1914. By 1963 he had realized his ambition to put Butterfield's on a par with the great salesrooms of London, establishing for it a worldwide reputation.

Reeder Butterfield, a grandson of the founder, joined the firm in 1935. He is still an active consultant, although he sold the gallery in 1970 to Bernard Osher, who is its president today.

Peter Fairbanks, who heads operations, arrived early last fall from the New York auction scene to find a gallery he describes as somewhat deceiving in its down-at-the-heels appearance, since it is equipped with one of the most sophisticated computerized operations systems in the business. Its efficient handling of sales makes it today an advanced and modern auction gallery.

There is a distinct Western taste and a Western demand for Western goods. There is also a well-developed appetite here for collecting Western Americana and paintings. This market gives Butterfield's its provincial place in the total auction picture of the United States. It caters to people who are familiar with local history, lore, and romance, people who are eager to purchase a piece of the colorful "Westward, Ho!" past.

"The gold rush that began in 1849 suddenly developed a lot of wealth and power very quickly," Mr. Fairbanks explains. "Gold speculators wanted enormous mansions furnished with what they considered to be elegance and style. Many of these wealthy settlers imported craftstmen from Italy and Germany to build their homes and the furnishings in them, thus evolving what is today known as 'Victorian Baronial' furniture in the heavily carved baroque style."

This furniture is being bought today by people involved in historic preservation who are looking for authentic furnishings, and by those who want to add an enormous California chair or chest to an otherwise contemporary setting.

The works of artist who came out with the surveyors to California and later settled in the West make up an important segment of Butterfield's art market. Americans and Europeans alike are recognizing the collectibility of West Coast art, particularly the art that depicts scenes unique to California's topography and history. Artists such as Thomas Hill, William Keith, Thaddeus Welch, Manuel Valencia, and Percy Gray are among those painters whose work is today commanding the highest prices.

Mr. Fairbanks indicates that there is also a large interest here in what he terms Bohemian Americana, an unusual mixture of objects which usually includes a blend of Oriental and Victorian elements, golden oak, stained glass, and frontier accouterments. The gallery also has the largest Oriental rug market outside of New York City, and its Chinese and Japanese furniture and porcelain are considered among the better buys offered by the gallery.

Butterfield's has 25 areas of specialization, including American Indian, and pulls on the expertise of its own staff of 45 experts as well as on the knowledge of experts in nearby universities and foundations.

According to Mr. Fairbanks, Butterfield's "defines the place of the regional auction gallery. Many of the items that we sell here could never be sold in New York. They are of local interest to local collectors, and we satisfy that appetite. We operate on local turf. We are familiar with Western history and development. We know that peculiarities of our local market and that people here want to own something of their own heritage. That's why we would never try to be Christie's West. We sell to customers all over the world, but we are a gallery geared to the West, situated where the West ends a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean."

Butterfield's newly renovated and enlarged gallery at 660 Third is at present an additional gallery to the longtime sales headquarters at 1244 Sutter Street, where specialized sales in fine jewelry, paintings, carpets, Orientalia, and fine Victorian and 18th-century furniture are still conducted.

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