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Empire on the Block
Archive of famed skyscraper to be auctioned
Courtesy Wright

The Empire State Building archive, which includes more than 500 items, is going on sale at the Wright auction house in Chicago on December 11. Wright’s low estimate for the collection, which includes elevation renderings, working drawings, models and maquettes, and other ephemera, is $470,000. The drawings of  the building, arguably one of the most recognized in the world and the most loved in New York, had been stored at the homes of the last partners of the successor firm of Shreve Lamb & Harmon, the firm that designed the building. The office closed in 1995, having never surpassed the glory of the 1931 tower. The partners declined to be named.

courtesy wright

Reached by phone in Miami where he is attending Art Basel Miami, Richard Wright, the president and founder of the auction house, indicated that several institutions and collectors had expressed interest in the archive, but he declined to name them. “Sometimes it is difficult for institutions to pull together the funds in time for an auction,” he added. The items are being sold separately, so it is likely that they will be dispersed among multiple collectors. “I’m confident that the best pieces will be seen by the public,” Wright said.

Carol Willis, founder and director of the Skyscraper Museum, one of the institutions Wright approached, expressed some regret that the collection would likely be dispersed. “Is it a shame that this collection, which is coherent for the moment, would be broken up? Yes,” she said. “Is it tragic for our understanding of the building? No. This is one of the most documented buildings in the world.” Willis said that the Empire State is her favorite building, but when asked if the Skyscraper Museum would be bidding on the lots, she replied, flatly, “no.”

Janet Parks, curator of prints and drawings at Columbia’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, was also aware of the sale and questioned the pricing of the lots. She could not recall another example of a group of original drawing from this period commanding such prices, but she said that a single reproduction of a print of the Chrysler Building by Hugh Ferris, signed by the building’s architect William Van Alen, was sold at auction for $15,000 last January to the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia.

A spokesperson for the Museum of the City of New York said that they were unaware of the sale and indicated that they were not pursuing it.

While Empire State has long held the public’s imagination, the market for architectural archives is relatively new. “These are the kinds of materials that donors used to have a hard time finding homes for,” Willis said. Further, since Shreve Lamb & Harmon is not a marquee name, but the building they designed is now so legendary, having held the title of world’s tallest building for forty years, it is uncertain how the items will fare with private collectors. Wright, however, is confident: “This was a building that was designed and built during the Great Depression. During difficult times, the truest material is what collectors want to focus on.”

Alan G. Brake