- - Thursday, November 10, 2011

While the rest of America grapples with economic uncertainty, Washington remains largely insulated, thanks to an employer that hires but rarely fires, and dispenses lucrative contracts: the federal government.

As recent census data reveals, the nation’s capital has nosed past California’s Silicon Valley as the richest metropolitan area in the U.S., with a 2010 median annual income of $84,523 (versus $50,046 nationally). If that sounds unlikely, ask Martin Gammon, who last week formally opened the Washington office of Bonhams, one of the leading international auction houses.

“The Washington area is a rich and vibrant market,” said Mr. Gammon in his new M Street office. “Seen from outside, the town’s all about government, but there’s a large undercurrent of collecting that you don’t necessarily see — and the money to pay for it.”

Bonhams decided to come to Washington because there was too much potential business to be serviced from its New York offices. Mr. Gammon — a manuscript specialist — said his main purpose was to establish closer contact with both buyers and sellers; but while most objects would be shipped back to the Manhattan salesroom, Bonhams also would hold occasional sales in Washington and — for example — wealthy towns like Middleburg, Va.

“The Washington market is a complicated patchwork,” Mr. Gammon explained. “You have museums wanting to de-access works and needing other expert servicing and advice, customers from the hi-tech related industries in Northern Virginia collecting contemporary art, but it’s also a market for rare books and manuscripts. The world’s greatest collection of illuminated manuscripts in private hands is right here in D.C.”

He said the Archimedes Palimpsest — the oldest manuscript containing work attributed to the Greek mathematician Archimedes — is owned by a private Washington collector who paid $2 million for it at Christies. The collector paid for years of restoration work carried out by scores of experts at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, where the document is now on display.

Bonhams, established in London in 1793, opened in Manhattan in 2000. Two years later, the company acquired Butterfields in San Francisco as its West Coast presence.

Washington’s two long-established auction houses are equally upbeat about the area as a fine-arts market.

“Washington is in a bubble, sheltered from the rest of the country,” said Karen Weschler, scion of the downtown Adam Weschler & Son, which holds a sale of major items every two months. “The new condos in town are attracting younger people who want to furnish them, and the baby boomers are downsizing and moving into town and buying new things. If you have the good objects [to sell], they’re going to spend the money.”

As for Bonhams moving in, “We’re used to the New York auction houses moving here, but we have a strong clientele.”

Stephanie Kenyon — one half of the Sloans & Kenyon auction house in Bethesda — was slightly more guarded. “We’re doing well, but it’s uneven,” she said. “People often don’t realize that this is a very rich city, richer than New York, with more depth. We certainly attract the high end buyers, but the choices are dictated by fashion. Younger buyers want the mid-century modern — the ‘50s and ‘60s look, very streamlined — and pay for originals.”

For openers, Bonhams is bringing to town a newly discovered portrait by the Spanish painter Diego Velazquez to show to potential clients in advance of its sale in the London salesroom Dec. 7. The painting (of Juan Mateos, King Philip IV’s master of the hunt) was discovered in England and only recently declared a Velazquez by experts in Britain and Spain. The catalog estimate for the work is between $3.2 million and $4.8 million, which Mr. Gammon calls “relatively conservative.”

At that price, it’s not what you’d call an impulse buy — not even in D.C., which perhaps isn’t completely immune to the more deliberate spending habits imposed by a tanking national economy.

“The recession has changed the market,” Ms. Kenyon said. “Living large isn’t in, as it used to be.”

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