An auction house owner’s secret stash
The living room wall features original Audubon quadruped prints next to a five-by-seven-foot mirror in a 19th-century handpainted frame; 1920s Adirondack chairs flank a 1930s suitcase covered in vintage travel stickers.
Photos by John Gruen and Randy O’Rourke
Entering Arlan Ettinger’s Sugar Hill Farm in Salisbury is comparable to entering an eclectic museum curated with a very discerning eye. As founders of Guernsey’s Auction House, he and his wife Barbara Mintz have conducted hundreds of famous sales over the 40 years since they opened the business, and they have souvenirs from many of them.
Enter the front hall of their home and one is face to face with two enormous bronze deer—part of a landmark auction of Soviet artwork. Continue on into the living room and discover a rare ship model. And that’s only the beginning.
The Ettingers’ house is reached via a half-mile-long driveway that culminates in an expansive courtyard. The property, which abuts the Appalachian Trail on three sides, encompasses over 110 acres, a 9,000-square-foot, French-style country main house, a 2,400-square-foot barn, a workshop, and a guest cabin. The property sits atop one of the highest private hilltops in the area.
“I’ve always loved this area,” Ettinger explains. “I went to camp in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and when the train would stop in Kent, I’d look out the window and think what a beautiful area this is. Years later, when I started racing at Lime Rock, we were living in Tuxedo Park and decided that this part of Connecticut would be a better place to raise our children.”
After a real-estate agent approached him at the track one day, the Ettingers began to look at properties in the area. They settled on two places that they liked, but both of them were sold to higher bidders. While brokers had been showing them the house in Salisbury the couple hadn’t really considered it. “It bore no resemblance to what it looks like now,” Ettinger says.
“There were no stone walls, the driveway had no courtyard, and there was no landscaping. The color of the house was different and it looked like a big, ostentatious house built in the 1970s with no character or patina. When it was first shown to us, we didn’t even get out of the car.” But then they did.
The house had only had two prior owners and at the time was inhabited by a woman and her daughter. The husband was being sought for insider trading and had disappeared, leaving his wife with no money. The Ettingers sat down by the pond and realized how beautiful the property was. After a pleasant dinner with the owner, they made an offer that was accepted. But then the trouble began.
“The owner wouldn’t let the house inspectors in,” Ettinger says. “There was an in-ground oil tank that by law had to be removed. She wouldn’t allow us to do anything. So we had to accept her terms because we really wanted the house. We kept scheduling closings and she would choose not to show up. Just as the house was about to go into foreclosure, our lawyer tried one more time. And it worked.”
Ettinger loves what he does and has dozens of stories to tell.
“Barbara and I were both in advertising, at different agencies. We weren’t earning much money, but we managed to eke out enough to put a down payment on a house in Remsenburg. We started going to local auctions in the Hamptons, and we liked the feel of that business,” says Ettinger. “So we started running our own auctions.
A couple of years into this new venture, a man came up to us and said he liked our style. He needed to raise money for his daughter, who had been in a car accident and had no insurance. He had been collecting wooden carousels since he was a young boy. Now he wanted to sell them to raise the necessary money.
They were from old amusement parks and were relatively worthless. Raising the necessary $30,000 was going to be a challenge. I wound up on the ‘Today Show’ and brought four or five of the animals and talked about what I had learned. Instead of $30,000, the sale brought in a million dollars. I quit my job the next day.”
And so Guernsey’s became a force in the world of auction houses—producing some of the most interesting and unique auctions in the business. From the definitive sales of memorabilia from major United States presidents to pop stars like Elvis Presley, Jerry Garcia, and the Beatles to baseball great Mickey Mantle, Guernsey’s keeps breaking its own records.
“We’ve done a lot of sales for jazz musicians, one of them being John Coltrane,” Ettinger says. “I visited the home of his elderly cousin in Philadelphia who was barely getting by. During the course of our conversation, she goes and retrieves a beat-up cardboard box that contains a thick roll of paper.
Coltrane had stayed at her family’s house for a few years and this bundle was all the handwritten music he had composed during that time. She offered it for the auction, thinking it might be of interest. We held that auction at Lincoln Center, filling the room to capacity. The woman and her family were there and received a standing ovation. And the material brought close to a million dollars—an amount that would serve her the rest of her life. That’s what makes this business so rewarding for me.”
Here’s another one of Ettinger’s favorite stories. “The SS United States was about to be retired. The largest ship ever built in America, third-largest ship in the world, was going to be turned into a slow-moving, love-boat cruise ship. All of its contents were going to be thrown overboard—hundreds of thousands of items. I went to the owners and pleaded to have an auction.
They liked the idea and contacted my competitors, thinking it needed to be handled by a larger firm. The other houses said it would take at least ten years to assemble and catalog all the items. So they came back to me and said I could have three months.”
The ship was in the water in Norfolk, Virginia, sealed in tar, but the interior was intact and its contents pristine. Ettinger hired ex-convicts from a local halfway house and had them count and inventory all the items. The seven-day sale still stands as one of the world’s largest auctions.
Guernsey’s has been in business for 40 years and Ettinger show no signs of slowing down. The Ettinger house serves as a treasure-trove of all that its owners have created and achieved in the auction world. But now they have decided it is time to move on. The grand house and its property are for sale, listed with Sotheby’s International Realty in Kent.
“Our children are away at school, and we live in New York during the week,” says Ettinger. (Pictured left with Rascal.)
“ We have to think of the future and a big property like this might take years to sell. I will cry big time when it happens. But hopefully we will find a smaller place in the area or build one.”
In any event, one hopes that Ettinger will retain his enthusiasm for auctions and continue to collect great pieces as well as great stories.