Gene Shapiro '94 is owner, president, and head auctioneer of Shapiro Auctions LLC, located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and will soon establish new headquarters in Westchester County, New York. This fine and decorative arts auction house specializes in works by well-known European, American, Asian, Russian, and Latin American artists, which it sells along with fine antiques, jewelry, and design. Shapiro Auctions works with many individuals as well as estates, offering its expertise and services through consulting, consignments, outright purchases, and fair market and insurance appraisals. The auction house also works closely with estate executors, lawyers, and private wealth management professionals. Those readers familiar with Public Television's Antiques Roadshow will recognize Shapiro's name for his role as a paintings appraiser on the popular show.
Shapiro came to Hotchkiss in the fall of 1992 as an upper mid after not feeling challenged enough at his public high school in New Jersey. "I wanted to go to a better school. Once at Hotchkiss, I appreciated the small classes that lent themselves to verbal interaction. There was an emphasis on being involved and participating actively in discussions, and that helps me in my current job when explaining art and antiques to others, and when dealing with people in social interactions. I can converse easily, and I credit Hotchkiss with that." Shapiro speaks highly of longtime faculty member and history teacher, Tom Drake. "Tom was very inspirational to me. I remember doing an independent study involving a project on the Jewish Pale of Settlement and the General Jewish Labour Bund, in pre-revolutionary Russia. He gave me great insight into both academics and life, and he took me under his wing. His enthusiasm for learning and his passion for history were catching."
Though Shapiro was the president of Model United Nations and served on the board of Speech and Debate at Hotchkiss, he did not participate in the arts. "At the time, I was simply an observer. I would go to the student art exhibits, and I was amazed at the talent. I enjoyed going to the Tremaine Art Gallery, never realizing at the time how influential the Tremaines were in the world of art and collecting. I really thought I'd finish at Hotchkiss and study economics. But I will say that I always had an appreciation for art (and auctions). As a child, I would go with my father to auctions, as he was a classical musician working as a violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and he was always on the lookout for old violins of high quality."
From Lakeville, Shapiro ventured on to the University of California at Berkeley and studied economics along with some art history courses. He remembers, "From those art courses, my interest grew, and I decided I wanted to be an art history major. So, I transferred back home to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where I received my B.A. in art history." Prior to founding the auction house, Shapiro spent time at Christie's Education, learning the practical skills and hands-on experience he needed before starting his career in the Contemporary Department at Sotheby's in New York. He then worked as a private art dealer for a time, specializing in European, American, and Russian artworks. In 2007 at the age of 30, Shapiro founded Shapiro Auctions LLC.
The auction house advertises globally and has established numerous price records for a large number of artists. The artwork, by old masters as well as contemporary artists, represents all time periods and nationalities, and is not limited to paintings. Shapiro is fluent in Russian as well as English, Spanish, and French, giving him an advantage in various niches of the fine art market as well. "For example, when I began in 2007, the art market for Russian art was really strong. We are one of the few houses with both experience in this field as well as Russian language abilities, so we capitalized upon that. However, this is just one of our specialties. Our sales include works by blue-chip American contemporary artists, Asian classical artists, South African masters, and so on. Our audience is truly global, more so than most regional auction houses in the US. We advertise globally and in numerous languages, both in print and online." Shapiro credits Hotchkiss's exceptional foreign language programs and cosmopolitan student body as two of the reasons for his international outlook on business. Called on frequently by collectors, art dealers, and governmental organizations, Shapiro has lent his expertise by appearing on the BBC World News and Al Jazeera America news programs as a commentator on the art market. He has also lectured extensively on the subject.
The auction house works frequently with estates. "We are buying a lot of merchandise directly from estates, including broom-clean estate buyouts, and recently purchased a large building in Mamaroneck, New York, for exhibition and sale of all kinds of items, including signed jewelry, furniture, household items, and contents - not just art, for the estate auctions." Regarding the sourcing of material for auctions, Shapiro explains, "There are three ways auction houses traditionally obtain items for auction, the three 'Ds': death, debt, and divorce. I add a fourth, downsizing. We are helping people extract the most value from their belongings, especially during otherwise difficult times."
Shapiro recognizes that there is much less interest in antiques among the younger generation, who are more interested in a contemporary and minimalist aesthetic. "They don't want to collect porcelain, for example. Things will change, but right now, it is almost impossible to sell certain items for adequate prices. Brown furniture is a good example. This generation is far more mobile, and they don't spend 20-30 years living in the same place - they move around a lot. Young professionals need their money for living expenses and for paying off debt, such as student loans. The heirloom culture has disappeared along with the hope chests. So, things don't get passed down as much as before.
"But there are still people in the world who love antiques, and many are not Americans. We focus heavily on a global audience, as antiques are very popular in other parts of the world. Auctions are a secondary market, and things go to where they are desired and to where the money is. If we find an Australian painting in a New York collection, it will most likely go to an Australian collector. Post-World War II Americans were buying everything, and baby boomers created a lot of wealth and therefore were able to buy a lot of beautiful art and antiques. Much of this will end up going back to the countries where they were originally produced." Very often, Shapiro stumbles upon an exciting find in an estate situation, and one example would be a piece by the Austrian artist Alfons Walde. "We found one of his paintings in an apartment in Manhattan when we were performing a general estate appraisal. The owners were guessing its worth at about 10-15K, but we ended up selling it for $275,000, to an Austrian collector."
"The baby boomer generation is now dealing with the question of what to do with all their stuff, so a lot of property will be coming on the market. We can take individual works on consignment, or buy out the entire estate. This can be a stressful time for many people, and they welcome the chance to work with a reliable and trustworthy company."
When appearing on Antiques Roadshow, Shapiro is quick to note that the experts do not have an opportunity to assess the pieces before the show is broadcast. "We definitely do not have the opportunity to see a particular piece beforehand. We start at 7:00 a.m. and see literally thousands of items, but only 50-100 make it to longer, taped segments on the show. As the appraiser, when I see something interesting, I don't say anything to the owners except to ask them if they would like to get an appraisal on television. Everything after that unfolds spontaneously on camera."
Shapiro looks to his background and family when thinking about his path. "We emigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia when I was two. My father was a violinist in the storied Leningrad Philharmonic, and my mother was from a cultured family of doctors, so growing up I was surrounded by music, art, and books. I was dragged to many auctions in my youth, looking for instruments and art. I loved going to the previews as well as the auctions. Like museums, they are places where one can educate oneself in so many different areas of collecting, and the history of the times and areas where items were created. In addition to being educational, auctions have this aura of theatricality and an addictive energy, which even children can feel." The father of three young children, Shapiro is looking forward to exposing them to the auction world as well, where there is so much to learn. In fact, Shapiro advises current students and others interested in a similar path to do just that. "Get out there as much as you can! Visit auction houses and previews, and go to as many antique and art shows as possible. Keep looking at things and always keep learning."