Redge Martin, MBA 77

President and CEO
Clars Auction Gallery, Oakland, CA

An Old Master painting for $600,000. Three thousand cow-shaped creamers. Merv Griffin’s banquet table. Redge Martin, MBA 77, has sold it all.

 

As owner of Clars Auction Gallery, the West Coast’s largest independent auction house, Martin takes stock of everything from the oddball collections of reclusive greataunts to works by famous artists. Clars gavels more than 2,000 auction lots monthly at its North Oakland Gallery, with prices ranging from $25 to a record $750,000 for a 1948 Tucker automobile sold last year.

 

“We see people’s lives—things you won’t see anywhere else,” says Martin, sitting in his office where paintings by abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning and pioneering cubist Georges Braque lean against a wall, awaiting authentication. A luminous Mojave landscape by Maynard Dixon—which fetched $110,000—is propped nearby.

 

Martin, who also acts as chief auctioneer and appraiser, has followed a career path as eclectic as his wares. An Oakland native, he’d planned to take over his father’s travel agency after graduating from Cornell University, but after a couple of years leading tours, he headed to Cal for an MBA.

 

He worked in finance for Ford Motor Co., and then switched to bananas, spending three years as Dole Foods’ controller in Costa Rica and Colombia. Back in the U.S., he opened two East Bay toy stores, but closed them after Toys “R” Us opened outlets next to both.

 

Grasping for direction, he sent out 2,000 résumés, landing a chance gig as a manager at San Francisco’s Butterfield & Butterfield auction house (now Bonhams & Butterfields). The work suited him, and after three years, he went to work for Harvey Clar, who had opened his gallery in 1971 and built it up to five employees and $1.5 million in sales. Martin bought the operation in 1996 and professionalized it by adding 10 specialist appraisers. He now boasts 22 employees and annual sales of $10 million.

 

Martin’s inventory comes largely from estates and individual consignors, as well as the occasional museum sell-off. With simultaneous online, phone, and live auctions, bidders can raise their paddles from around the globe—making it possible for Clars to handle pieces that previously would have gone to bigger shops like Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

 

“The Internet has been the biggest, most positive change to our business in 100 years,” says Martin. “If you have the right piece and the right promotion, it will get a top price.”

 

Best of all, auctions are recession-proof. “This industry will always be around, since we provide a service,” Martin says. “Even if the economy is in the dumps, if someone walks in here with a Warhol or a Picasso, I’m going to have a hell of a year.”



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