Freeman's, the venerable Center City auction house, is coming under new ownership, as the family that founded the Philadelphia institution 211 years ago sells a controlling stake in the business to the industry veterans who make up its management team.
The new owners plan to expand the business globally with more locations and greater reliance on international sales, said Alasdair Nichol, Freeman's vice chairman.
"We're all quite ambitious for the future," said Nichol, who appears regularly on public television's Antiques Roadshow as an appraiser of paintings and drawings. "We're going to be looking at expanding the company nationally and internationally."
Agreements have been signed to transfer the majority ownership of Freeman's to Nichol, chief operating officer Hanna Dougher, and president Paul Roberts, according to Samuel M. "Beau" Freeman II, the 79-year-old head of the auctioneering clan.
The transaction, which includes the company's 1808 Chestnut St. headquarters, should close within several weeks, Samuel Freeman said in a statement.
"I decided I was getting older, and I was trying to think about succession," he said this week. "I didn't see anybody in the family taking hold and developing it."
The expansion that Freeman's new owners have in mind is consistent with how the auction industry is responding to the same online influences that are disrupting other sorts of commerce, said Jonathan Neil, director of the Center for Management in the Creative Industries at Claremont Graduate University in California.
Mid-size auction houses with broad specializations such as Freeman's can no longer depend on a regional market that has access to auctions around the world through the Internet, Neil said.
"If you're a sort of generalist auction house and you're just a regional player, you're going to be fighting against the trend of technology and the fact that your clientele can find anything they're looking for with the click of a button," he said.
Founded in 1805, Freeman's bills itself as the oldest auction house in the United States. One memorable lot during Beau Freeman's tenure included a broadside version of the Declaration of Independence that sold for more than $400,000 after it was found among the inventory of Leary's Book Store when the Philadelphia bookseller closed in the late 1960s.
Nichol and Roberts, both veterans of New York-based auction giant Phillips, joined Freeman's as part of a business restructuring that began in 1999. Dougher, who had previously worked at the Philadelphia auction house, returned after their arrival.
The trio worked to shift the business away from its strategy of selling large lots of art and antiques from nearby estates to local buyers, to an approach that favored curation over quantity.
With the help of a growing corps of specialist appraisers, Freeman's began earning more revenue by selling smaller lots of higher-end goods to a farther-flung audience, with regional outposts in Boston; Richmond, Va.; and Beverly Hills, Nichol said.
An alliance also was formed between Freeman's and Scottish auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, which Roberts had helped acquire and reinvigorate.
Major sales in recent years have included artworks from the New York, Boston and Delaware offices of the defunct investment bank Lehman Bros., which included prints by pop artist Roy Lichtenstein and LOVE statue designer Robert Indiana.
Upcoming auctions include a 20th-century art and design event this month in Philadelphia, with works from modernist craftsmen Carlo di Carli, George Nakashima, and others, and a Chinese art sale in Hong Kong in May.
Still, as the business moves to expand - with possible acquisitions of other auction houses - it will stay true to its Philadelphia roots, Nichol said.
"There's still a lot to be done here," he said. "There's a lot of very good collectors - very astute collectors, a lot of very good collections - and we want to be able to serve them well as an international auction house."