By: Mary Beth Klatt
Hand-drawn pictures and plans of a suburban Prairie Style residence by Frank Lloyd Wright. An extremely rare sketch of signature Louis Sullivan foliage. A portfolio of a turn-of-the-20th-century modern house by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
All these were done by hand by the masters themselves with a pencil or paintbrush on paper, a hard-to-fathom task considering that today’s architects take to the keyboard to envision new buildings as small and simple as wooden huts or concrete-block two-car garages. Adding to the collecting appeal is the fact that in the time that Sullivan, Wright and Mackintosh worked, few architects sketched out their own plans.
“Most architects don’t do their own drawings,” says David Jameson, owner of ArchiTech Gallery in Chicago. “These three did. They were the most expert in architectural drafting and illustration.”
In fact, despite the sketches’ intended utility, any architectural drawings by Wright, Sullivan and Mackintosh fetch stratospheric sums because they have high name recognition and the artwork is so rare. Any drawing by even a contemporary architect as well known as Santiago Calatrava or Frank Gehry, would not command nearly as much.
A Sullivan drawing sold for about $50,000 five years ago to a private collector, and Jameson is asking $100,000 for the set of drawings and plans that Wright drafted for a LaGrange, Ill., house in 1907. Jameson, who specializes in architectural drawings, sold six plates from the Mackintosh portfolio; prices ranged from $3,000 to $5,000 each.
Who buys these gems? Surprisingly, most architectural-drawing collectors tend not to be architects—they are financiers, doctors, engineers and lawyers. Many wanted to be architects when they were children. Life intervened and they followed different career paths, but they continue to admire grand architecture. They can appreciate the lean, linear aspects of technical drawings.
“These drawings have a certain left-brain appeal with a right-brain aesthetic,” says Jameson. “Every design can be considered a concept drawing. Architecture is art and science enclosing a space. The work has to be scientifically balanced, aesthetically appealing.”
Even so, the dealer is somewhat amused that these drawings, technical in nature, are collectibles. “In my mind, design drawings are not meant to be works of art, pure creativity,” he says. The drawings were a way to communicate with the client; they were never intended for a third party, certainly not for admirers to purchase, frame and hang on a wall.
The market for these drawings is small. Most collectors tend to know what they want rather than seeking to discover new works or unknown architects. They buy what they can explain and show off to their friends. Jameson says, “People buy what typifies an era; Frank Gehry—known for his squiggles on napkins—doesn’t do drawings like Frank Lloyd Wright.”
Andy Calvimontes, a Chicago real estate developer and owner of a family printing business, is one collector who is big on names. As a teen, he loved to drive around his neighborhood and look at old houses. Later, he studied engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, whose post-World War II buildings were designed by Mies van der Rohe. He started amassing architectural drawings after he read a newspaper article about a gallery showing of work by the Burnham Brothers. “I was blown away,” Calvimontes recalls. “I can’t believe all this stuff still exists.”
He bought a drawing of the brothers’ famed Carbide & Carbon building, an Art Deco Chicago skyscraper that was recently restored and turned into a Hard Rock Hotel. Calvimontes says he purchases anything that elicits a positive response, but he’s drawn to the heavy hitters. He owns a rare Sullivan stencil frieze and a pastel painted by Daniel Burnham, one of two that exists. He has a drawing, also by Burnham, of a casino next to a pond and park. The artwork might be have been part of Burnham’s 1893 urban plan for Chicago, but he’s not certain.
San Francisco dealer and collector David Repp, owner of Rediscovered Paper, goes for looks rather than names. He owns one drawing by a well-known architect: Alfonso Iannelli’s rendering of the Goodyear Blimp for the 1933 Century of Progress fair in Chicago. It cost $4,500, the most Repp has ever spent for a drawing.
The remainder of his collection focuses on drawings from the 1930s and ’40s of bygone gas stations, movie theaters and churches. While he has mementos from the ’50s and ’60s, he likes the Art Deco sizzle of the ’30s and ’40s. He’s made some finds on eBay and others through dealers. He actually sought out numerous theater architects who advertised in a World War II movie theater brochure he bought. Many of those he tried to track down had died. Eventually he hit the jackpot and found one of those architects still alive in his 90s, three blocks away from his home, clearing out his office and just days away from unloading his work into the garbage. The two were able to work out an arrangement, and Repp walked away with an era’s worth of drafts for gas stations and theaters. Unlike Calvimontes, Repp is a big believer in framing the work. “It’s more valuable and easier to sell,” he says. “Good art can always be punched up with a good frame, versus a bad piece of art that cannot.”
The sale of the Empire State Building archives this past December at the Wright auction house in Chicago falls somewhere between big names and an aesthetically appealing piece of history. While the Empire State is one of the most important buildings in the world, as collectibles, the archives don’t have a well-known designer’s name attached to them. Besides, many renderings don’t have immediate visual appeal, says Wright director Richard Wright. People who collect history are an even smaller niche, he says. Compelling one-of-a-kind items sold immediately: a 32-inch wooden model of the structure went for $72,000 and a model for the famed aluminum eagles for $31,200. “We didn’t sell as much as we would have liked,” Wright says, noting that about 30 percent of the collection remains unsold. The market for blueprints, even for a world-renowned structure, is limited.
Looking toward the future, Wright contends that there is a market for works by Gehry and any other contemporary starchitects, but their works rarely end up on the auction block. Architects of this stature tend to give their documents to universities or to museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, which has an architecture and design collection.
Will there ever be a market for drawings created with AutoCAD, the favored software of today’s architects? Dream on, at least for now. “They can do things drawings can’t,” says Jameson, “but, as works of art, it will be a long time before people understand their appeal.”
ArchiTech Gallery, Chicago
Edward Cella Art + Architecture, Los Angeles
Fleischer/Ollman Gallery, Philadelphia
Max Protetch Gallery, New York
Rediscovered Paper, San Francisco