David Rago, Living La Vida Local
Meet David Rago, Founding Partner and Co-Director of 20thC. Decorative Arts and Design
21 December 2015
I started my career three miles from where I'm sitting, at the Lambertville flea market, in 1972. I started as a junk dealer, cleaning out garages and basements. I worked for myself, gathering customers by word of mouth and making about $50 a week, which was pretty good in the early 70s. Between that and two other jobs, I was probably making $100 a week, which may not seem like much, but I was able to support myself and pay my tuition at Trenton State College of New Jersey (TCNJ).
I got into American porcelain early on thanks to my proximity to Trenton. Trenton was the porcelain capitol of America from the Victorian era through the early 20th century. If you grew up middle class in the Trenton area, you knew about Lenox china. It was an integral part of the local culture.
I first discovered American art pottery in 1973, and quickly became an art pottery dealer. I expanded my market to include the Arts and Crafts Movement in the late 70s, largely because of the philosophy behind the work. I specialized in all things Arts and Crafts: pottery, furniture, metal, woodblock prints. In fact, I dealt exclusively in Arts and Crafts until 1991, when I added Modern Design.
The greatest studio craftsmen in Modern Design worked only miles from Rago's base of operations. We immediately focused on locally sourced art objects, including furniture by George Nakashima, Phil Powell, and Paul Evans. If you frequented the flea markets around Lambertville and New Hope around this time, you knew these artists, and you knew the quality and value of their work.
One of the first pieces I discovered by Paul Evans I stumbled upon by pure luck, and learned directly that there was a tremendous market for it. As we deepened our offerings from these local artists, collectors with furniture by the New Hope Modernists began contacting us and we sold more and more of it with each ensuing auction. But, in the immortal words of Robert Frost, nothing gold can stay.
Prices for Arts and Crafts furniture started tapering off around 2006-07. It never got better. In fact, it only got worse which, contrary as it may seem, actually presents a fantastic opportunity for savvy collectors and homeowners. Put simply, the Arts and Crafts style is so ‘uncool’ at this point that it has to become ‘cool’ again, and soon. The market is fresh for rediscovery and remix by a new generation, particularly among young professionals (those ‘Millennials’ you all hear so much about).
If I was just starting out and trying to furnish a house, rather than buying a mass produced slab of Swedish pressed-wood, I would buy a Gustav Stickley Morris chair for $3,000 that used to go for $15,000. I would buy a refinished Gustav Stickley sideboard for $2,000 instead of… well, you can't even buy a new solid oak sideboard for $2,000.
To spend thousands of dollars on factory furniture when there is a whole under-valued world of hand-crafted work out there is crazy; and the current generation of ‘hip’, up-cycling 20-somethings are going to catch on to that!