Like a conductor moments before he raises his baton, Jeremy Wooten—gavel in hand—looks out over the auction house filled with treasure, chatter and buyers from across the country. He glances at Rebecca, sees his wife’s happy sparkle. For months, they’ve worked toward this moment of nervous excitement. Jeremy booms out a welcome and the room falls perfectly still.
The two-day auctions of Wooten & Wooten, scheduled quarterly in their 1895 former mercantile in Camden, South Carolina, are the most visible side of a young firm that’s quickly staked an international reputation among serious buyers and sellers of art and antiques, especially Southern Americana.
Yet the long hours behind the scenes offer just as much potential for excitement. There’s always the thrill of discovery.
For example, “Several months ago, we were handling a very notable collection of Southern stoneware,” recounts Jeremy. “Several pieces sold for record prices to both museums and private collectors. At the sellers’ home, we noticed a fine Federal walnut tall case clock. Its top was raised and beaded. I asked the husband if that was something he might consider offering at auction.
“At the time, we knew only that the clock was likely Southern and would probably bring $3,000 to $5,000. What we didn’t know was that the interior was signed—no common thing to find in furniture of this period.
“With extensive genealogical research, we discovered that the maker’s name was James Mattison, a sawmill owner and skilled cabinet maker of Anderson County, S.C., which is exactly where the modern-day owner found the clock 15 to 20 years ago.” It auctioned for $22,800 to a collector.
At a plantation in Camden, the Wootens were picking up two engravings for auction when Jeremy spotted a 4-inch carved jade phoenix on a wooden stand. The owner was willing to auction it for at least $100.
“We advertised the piece well,” says Jeremy, “and exposed it to the correct audience in both Asia and Europe. It was purchased by one of the top collectors of jade in London for $26,400.”
In yet another case, a hand- painted New England family registry, originally marked $400 by a tag sale company, auctioned to prominent collectors of Americana for $25,800.
For Jeremy, the passion struck in middle school when he started collecting coins. At 18, he became intrigued with Southern stoneware, which was rising dramatically in value. Veteran collectors “took me under their wing,” he says, and taught him the ropes of buying and selling. At 19, he graduated from auctioneering school and, with his grandfather, opened a small auction house in Lugoff, S.C. From there, he moved to Charlton Hall Galleries in Columbia, a long-established firm that he describes respectfully as “auction boot camp.”
By 26, the young man had developed such an eye that he was elected to the advisory council to the board of the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, serving as chair of the Collections Committee. Rebecca Phillips joined the staff of Charlton Hall in 2010, bringing what Jeremy affection- ately calls her “pedigreed background.” As an undergraduate at Columbia College, Rebecca had briefly studied abroad in England, where—entranced by the collections in the British Museum—she set her sights on the decorative arts as a profession.
In the Winterthur Museum’s prestigious graduate program, she studied American furniture, textiles, silver, pottery and the other decorative arts. At Charlton Hall, where Jeremy researched pottery and Rebecca researched furniture, love and mutual interests led to a double partnership: They were married in September 2012 and six months later, opened Wooten and Wooten in Camden.
Their four large auctions per year are energetic events. Roughly 100 items an hour pass under the gavel. Bids stream in from four directions: the floor, the Internet, the phone and the roster of absentee bidders.
Excitement from the floor runs high, especially when something like a large Edgefield pot sells for $90,000.
“I hope people can see our enthusiasm,” notes Rebecca, the company’s managing director. “It’s not just our passion for these objects but for the relationships we develop with the clients we work with—people from all over the world!”
“We personally visit each client,” adds Jeremy, “and we’ll look at everything from attic to crawlspace, if the client desires.”
The couple believes that it’s important for people to realize that an enormous amount of research, skill and knowledge goes into handling the objects that they sell. “We’re here,” Jeremy says, “to help people realize the greatest profit for their items.”
Margaret Locklairis a Lowcountry
freelance writer. Contact her at email@example.com