From KFC founder Colonel Sanders’ white suit to Antiques Roadshow – the life of America’s second ever female auctioneer

  • Kathleen Guzman sold Sanders’ suit for US$25,000 and says she loves the customers who bid with their hearts not their heads, often for quirky items
  • Having worked for some of the top auction houses in the world, she enjoys her stints on Antiques Roadshow, where a valuation can change a person’s life
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 3:15pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 December, 2018, 3:15pm

Kathleen Guzman isn’t a household name in Asia, but she’s known in the auctions business, and is a small-screen star thanks to her work on the reality television show Antiques Roadshow, where she’s spent the past 23 years appraising people’s attic finds.

Guzman, who is the managing director of Heritage Auctions’ New York office, landed in Hong Kong for the first time in 25 years to preside over the house’s first luxury lifestyle sale in the city, held in December.

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The second ever woman licensed as an auctioneer in the United States has plenty of stories to share about her time on the block and in front of the cameras, as well as insights on the auction market.

Guzman’s trip to the podium came by accident, when she was working at Christie’s East, a division of auction house Christie’s. At the time, [auction house] Sotheby’s had nominated their very first female auctioneer, so Christie’s looked around and said, ‘Well, Kathleen has a big mouth – let her do it’. And that’s how I got to go down with the hot-dog vendors and the taxi drivers to get licensed to be an auctioneer in New York,” she says.

“I don’t look at myself as a trailblazer, but I certainly see how it’s paved the way for many other women in my industry to be auctioneers and art appraisers and heads of department.

“Certainly the high-end art sales are still predominantly British male auctioneers, but otherwise, category-specific, it’s pretty well-balanced,” she adds.

Heritage Auctions prides itself on being the third largest auction house in the world by turnover (behind Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but ahead of Phillips and Bonhams), and the largest auctioneer of coins and collectibles.

While it has held coin, currency and wine auctions in Hong Kong in the past, December’s sale was its first in the city to feature watches, jewellery and fashion items, from exotic-skin Hermès handbags to limited-edition Chanel necklaces and vintage Patek Philippe watches. Heritage Auctions does not have an art business in Hong Kong, but that could be on the cards.

It is less likely, though, to sell any of its sizeable collection of historical items and memorabilia in Hong Kong.

“We sell about US$100 million a year in sports [memorabilia] and about US$60 million in comics a year, and right now those two markets are primarily American-dominated. You have to think about the sports market in general – 90 per cent of the sports market is baseball, and 90 per cent of that market is [the New York] Yankees. So it really is a very insular market. That’s not saying there aren’t Asian collectors, but it’s fewer and farther between than luxury,” she says.

“There are certainly modern and contemporary art buyers here in Asia, and that is a burgeoning market that at some point we would love to have sales in.”

Since being licensed, Guzman has personally held the hammer on over one million lots, whose total value exceeded US$1 billion, and ranged from items in Marilyn Monroe’s estate to almost-priceless art.

“Entertainment memorabilia is the most fun,” she says. “For so many categories, people have preconceived ideas of what something is worth, [but] in an entertainment sale, there’s no benchmark for what Michael Jackson’s jacket should bring, or Vivien Leigh’s dress from Gone with the Wind. There’s simply not another one. So you get collectors that often have more passion than brains. And that combination is wonderful because they get wildly enthusiastic, and their taste outpaces their pocketbook sometimes.

“I love the people who bid with their hearts and not with their heads,” Guzman says, referring to people like the superfan who won a lot of Joan Crawford’s wigs, and promptly fainted on the auction floor from excitement.

That said, not much of Heritage’s business takes place on the auction floor any more. “One of the prescient things Heritage did back in 2000 was to invest in an internet platform. I happened to be at another auction house at the time, and everyone at Christie’s said, ‘We’ll never need to do that, people need to see things in person’.

“Fast forward to today, and the big auction houses are playing catch-up with their proprietary systems for auction,” she says.

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“At Heritage, people trust our platform so well that 80 per cent of the US$1 billion a year that we sell, sells to people online who never see it.”

But Guzman isn’t quite robbed of the face-to-face connection with buyers. Besides maintaining client relationships in New York – “it’s true, the maxim that eight per cent of your clients are 80 per cent of your business” – she still gets a kick out of appraising the random knick-knacks people show up with on Antiques Roadshow.

“In a lot of ways, being in the auction business, we often help rich people get richer. But Antiques Roadshow, in its purest form, is a reality TV show where someone who has no idea what their object is worth [comes to us to find out], and it could possibly change their lives. That’s a really touching place to be,” she says.

“The other thing that’s unique about Roadshow is [that] the auction business is not one in which there’s a lot of camaraderie. If you work for Christie’s, then Sotheby’s is the evil empire. And Antiques Roadshow is a melting pot of appraisers from auction houses, galleries, private proprietorships, and I have developed friends across the board just from being on the show. It’s like summer camp,” she says.

While on Antiques Roadshow in the US state of Kentucky, Guzman remembers a man who had Colonel Sanders’ white suit from KFC. “When he was a teenager, Colonel Sanders wanted to buy his parents’ house. And so there was a very short time when Colonel Sanders actually lived with them. This teenager wanted to dress up for Halloween, so he asked Colonel Sanders if he could wear his white suit. Mike, who came into the show, he had this white suit, and he had no idea what is was worth,” she recalls.

Guzman gave Mike an estimate of US$10,000-$15,000 for the suit “and he was thrilled”. “He then subsequently consigned it to me at auction and we sold it for US$25,000,” she says. “It went to the head of KFC in Japan and it’s now enshrined in the Ginza store [in Tokyo] as you walk in.

“I love those stories that are complete – and not only did it help someone’s life, but it was also a proud memento.”