By Marsha Shyer, Co-Owner, Brandes House, Chair, Homeowner Committee
Both my husband John and I often get emails from friends and acquaintances with news from the Frank Lloyd Wright world. I am sure that all Wright homeowners do. ‘Have you heard about this Wright home for sale?’ ‘Did you see this cute Gingerbread Fallingwater?’ Usually we have, but are always happy to have connections with friends and are pleased to respond. It is all, we think, part of that strange and amusing phenomenon of Wright home ownership: before we purchased the house we were “Mr. and Ms. Shyer”; now, we are “Mr. and Ms. Brandes House.”
However, this email was different. It was titled “Frank Lloyd Wright 1952 Table Lamp, Brandes House.”
“Marsha,” my friend stated in the email, “I imagine you know about this lamp coming up for auction,” followed by the link.
No! I knew nothing about this. I reflexively looked at the lamp that was lighting my desk, which had been in the same position since the house was finished in 1953. Then I clicked the link.
There, under the heading “FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT – Brandes House,” was a lamp for auction. From appearances, it was an old, Wright-inspired lamp. Potential buyers had already placed two bids on the lamp, even though there were several weeks to go before the online auction closed.
The story of Brandes House and its furniture is generally straightforward. But there is a glitch. The furniture we now have has always been right here, inside Brandes House–with one exception. At some point before our purchase of the house, there was a break-in, and two of the living room chairs were stolen. Under Larry Woodin’s supervision, those two chairs were later replicated so exactly that we are now unable to discern which are the originals and which the replacements.
Larry was the source for that information, and much of the verbal history of the house. Unfortunately, Larry suddenly and shockingly passed away just weeks before we learned about the auction. Another stab of grief for Larry went through my heart. He had seen us through several downright weird situations involving Brandes House, its name and the legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright in the public realm since we bought the house.
Was my recollection correct? Could the burglars also have taken a lamp which somehow ended up at a gallery in another part of the country?
John and I looked carefully at the online photo of the lamp for sale. While it bore some resemblance to the lamps on our desks, it was different in obvious ways. To confirm that the lamps we now have were the originals, we delved into our fairly extensive file of historic photos. When we bought the house, we discovered (to our delight) an archive of old photos in a partially-collapsed shed on the property. In addition, we received digital versions of other old photos from Larry. In little time, I found a photo of Mimi Brandes, taken shortly after the house was completed, sitting at her desk in front of a Brandes House desk lamp. We found several other photos to confirm. It was easy to see that the lamp in the photos was the same as the ones we have now, and easily distinguishable from the one at auction.
We then proceeded to consult our copies of the original Frank Lloyd Wright blueprints. Although the prints do contain drawings for the furniture, we couldn’t remember seeing any design for a lamp. Our review confirmed our recollection–Wright did not design any lamp specifically for Brandes House.
The original Brandes House lamps were almost certainly provided by Milton Stricker, a Wright apprentice who helped Ray Brandes during the construction of the house, and while not specific to the plans, are typical of similar designs by Wright.
John (who as a retired lawyer has been designated as in-house counsel to Brandes House) then proceeded to write an email to the gallery that had placed the lamp at auction (which I will not name here).
“…the drawings of the house (which include plans for the associated furniture) do not include any drawings of lamps. …
Second, we are fortunate to have two Wright-designed table lamps in the house, neither of which looks like the lamp pictured in the photo of your item…. We have several photos of the lamps from shortly after the house was finished, and it is clear that they are quite different from the one in your listing….
…In light of the facts detailed above, we respectfully request that you remove the name "Brandes House" from the listing for this item.“
We did not know what to expect from our e-mail, but in fact received a prompt and congenial response from the gallery owner, who said that he wanted to do some research on the lamp. After trading several more emails with him, during which we provided copies of our documentation, he sent his: a 1986 receipt from another (now defunct) gallery. This so-called “provenance” stated that the lamp was originally designed and built for “Brandes House” in Issaquah, Washington in 1952 (Issaquah was the correct city name at that time). The price in 1986 was $3,500. The receipt stated FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT (all caps) on the top.
Meanwhile, we heard from another source, Stuart Graff, President and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation (which holds the intellectual property rights for Frank Lloyd Wright designs). John had CC’d Stuart on his original email, not seeking assistance but simply to advise the Foundation of what was happening. On his own, and with the help of the Foundation’s experts, Stuart reviewed the matter and replied:
“I had our team do some digging and we see no records of any lamps designed for the house, and we also see no records of this lamp being designed at Taliesin…”
Once the Foundation weighed in, the gallery acceded to our request to remove the “Brandes House” attribution from its listing. It was now certain that the lamp was not designed for Brandes House, and likely not even designed by Wright. The gallery owner, who could appreciate this as well or better than the rest of us, immediately responded:
“We have removed the attribution to Brandes House in our online auction catalogue…We decided we'll share the original invoice with potential buyers but advise them that we no longer believe or have any supporting documentation to attribute the lamp to the Brandes House.”
The gallery continued to display the lamp, without the name Brandes House, on the auction website as a Frank Lloyd Wright design. We assume that the gallery provided as “provenance” the 1986 receipt to whomever bought the lamp. The starting price was $1,200. The estimated value (according to the website, and based on the suspect attribution) was $1,500-2,500. The lamp gaveled down for $7,500. As they say, “Buyer Beware.”
Posted April 1, 2022