Photos: Justin Miller (Left) and Sotheby's (Right)
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Everyone knows the old saying: one man's Facebook Marketplace listing is another man's Sotheby's consignment.
It's a tale as old as time.
When most people take to Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist for furniture, they're looking to score an affordable price for a functional piece. It's not often the case that a $50 find turns into an $85,000 payday. But that's exactly what happened for Justin Miller, an LA-based home design content creator. "I'll take job titles of the 2020s for $500, Alex."
Initially, Miller saw the listing and just liked the color of the leather and the shape, but when he inquired about it, the seller informed him it might be worth a lot once repaired. The seat of the chair was torn in multiple places, the type of damage that makes a potential six-figure piece easy to overlook.
Documenting the journey via TikTok (because of course), Miller discovered that the chair was a rare production from Danish designer Frits Henningsen. Thanks to TikTok commenters, he quickly landed on a pretty foolproof strategy: reach out to Sotheby's, let them handle everything from restoration to the sale itself, profit handsomely.
Profit handsomely he did. The chair was listed with an estimate of $30,000 - $50,000 at last week's Important Design auction in New York. It hammered for $85,000, selling for $107,950 with fees, a record price for the model. Miller posted a TikTok of him watching the auction as it unfolded, and that video currently has over 5 million views.
He also provided full details on his profits. He paid a 3% seller's fee on the $85,000 hammer, or $2,550. Shipping was $1,800. Most importantly, the repairs, which rendered the chair so incredibly valuable once again, ran him $3,000. So from Sotheby's, Miller netted $77,650 before taxes. Oh, but you know what, that's overstating his profit, because we forgot to factor in his acquisition cost. Silly - can't forget his massive $50 cost basis! That's $77,600 in pre-tax profit, thank you very much.
It doesn't have the mainstream appeal or headline cache of fine art, but "design" is sneakily a very large category for the major auction houses. The Sotheby's Important Design sale grossed $20.3 million in total volume. That's down from $22.4 million at last year's event, but with 22 fewer lots sold. Christie's also held its New York Design sale last week, grossing $23.4 million. That's up 32% from $17.7 million at the same event last year, and the total was just $6.5 million in 2021. Between the two houses, 2023's June Design sale total of $55.8 million was up 9% over 2022.
Miller's result was a standout for a Frits Henningsen piece. Ah yes, Henningsen, that household name most of us are hearing for the very first time...a regular Mel Ott of the furniture design world. It's not the first time one of his rare, high-back wing chairs has sold at auction, despite the low quantity produced (believed to be around 50).
Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, results for original leather examples of varying color had languished in the $45,000 - $75,000 range, depending on condition. Perhaps most comparably, the same model and color sold in October of 2009 at Sotheby's in London for £44,450, or about $72k at the time. A $107,950 result almost 15 years later doesn't produce an incredible rate of appreciation (it's about 3% annually), but given the perceived sleepiness of the category, it's not a pittance. The result also scores major points for the power of credibly executed restoration.
Justin Miller, though, doesn't need to worry about the chair's appreciation any longer. Unless this experience has rendered his tastes vastly more expensive - or should we say refined - he's pocketed enough loot to get just about the nicest La-Z-Boy money can buy fifty times over. Some may cry tacky, but pfff, the Henningsen doesn't even recline or have cupholders!
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