Every auction has its surprises, but no one expected the prison correspondence of Boston gangster Whitey Bulger Jr., to steal the spotlight at Urban Culture Auctions’ (UCA) February 24, 2019 debut. The 289-lot Sunday session that piggybacked a modern design sale hosted by UCA’s parent company, Palm Beach Modern Auctions, featured a lively mix of what auctioneer Rico Baca called “the fun stuff – from iconic pop furniture and graffiti art to street fashion, celebrity memorabilia and Space Age electronics.” But it was the Bulger material that ignited a media frenzy.
Shortly after the national press became aware of the Bulger archive to be auctioned, the gallery phone started ringing off the hook, Baca said. “Associated Press was first. After their story broke in newspapers across the country, the national TV networks soon followed. There was coverage from as far away as Australia. Everyone wanted to know what was in the letters Bulger had written to his friend. Even though he was a ruthless killer and old-school crime boss, Whitey Bulger was still morbidly fascinating and obviously worthy of a headline,” Baca said.
Bulger died at the hands of fellow prisoners within hours of his arrival at a U.S. penitentiary in West Virginia last October. Prior to that time he had maintained a correspondence from behind bars with Timothy Glass, a one-time prisoner he met years earlier while incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York. Glass saved all of the handwritten letters, cards, mugshots and other ephemera he received from Bulger, which, as a whole, painted a picture of an elderly criminal who found it difficult to adjust to today’s prison culture.
In his written recollections, Bulger longed for the “good old days” at Alcatraz. He even chose to use his 1959 Alcatraz mugshot on a 2015 holiday photo card that carried the greeting “Wishing You Peace & Cheer in the New Year.” The card sold together with a handwritten letter for $1,430. The same price was achieved by a letter and St. Patrick’s Day notecard with the image of a South Boston fence painted with Irish iconography.
Several other collections enjoyed a 100% sell-through rate (inclusive of after-sales). They included seven lots of NASA items signed by Apollo astronauts, art and photographs from the estate of fashion designer Michaele Vollbracht, and a colorful array of Swatch watches. Younger collectors responded enthusiastically to a fine selection of Haitian naïve art, with all but one of the 23 offered lots finding new owners.
Midcentury electronics attracted many enquiries, Baca said. The top lot of the group was a Weltron GEC-2005 stereo system with a “Jetsonesque” look. Supported on a pedestal, the all-in-one system included a turntable, AM/FM stereo radio, 8-track player and both internal speakers and external auxiliary ports. It flew past its $300-500 estimate to settle at $7,800.
An unusual advertising piece, a nearly 2-foot tall cast-iron figure of the Michelin Tires mascot “Bibendum” had come from the personal collection of a prominent SoHo (New York City) art gallery owner. It sold for $2,080, more than six times its high estimate.
A sleek Vladimir Kagan “Serpentine” sofa in deep royal blue, with provenance from DeLorenzo50 in New York, topped its estimate range with a winning bid of $16,900. Midcentury art put in a strong performance, as well. A small 1971 acrylic-on-wood artwork by Ilya Bolotowsky titled Miniature Yellow Tondo, artist-signed and measuring a mere 7-3/4 inches in diameter, sold for an above estimate $9,100.
The UCA team enthusiastically pitched in to make the auction premiere, with its urban circus theme, a light-hearted, fun event. The gallery’s ceiling was decorated with red-and-white ropes and inflatable monkeys, flowers, lips, aliens and unicorns, while the front of the building dazzled auction guests with its mural painted by “The Bird Artist.” Throughout the event, those in attendance were treated to a hot dog bar, popcorn, homemade pretzels with assorted dips, animal crackers, Cracker Jacks and IPA beers.
“We were very happy with the way our first pop culture auction turned out. It was especially exciting to see how many young people were bidding via the internet, since they are the future of our business. We’re already receiving consignments for our next auction and can’t wait to start planning the follow-up to what was a fantastic debut,” Baca said.
All prices quoted are inclusive of 28% buyer’s premium.