Nov 19, 2023 - Culture

Inside D.C.'s most powerful auction house

The Potomack Company showroom. Photo courtesy of the Potomack Company

Ruth Bader Ginsburg's Picassos. Lace from George and Martha Washington. A Warhol whose owner mistook as a poster. These are just a few rare treasures sold through Alexandria's small-but-mighty auction house, the Potomack Company.

Why it matters: Regional auction houses don't typically have the buying power — or VIP clientele — of a Sotheby's or Christie's, but owner Elizabeth Haynie Wainstein (who worked at both) has built a power-bidding house that's coming off a record-breaking year.

Driving the news: Potomack set record prices this fall for art, jewelry and antiquities, including a $530,000 oil painting from renowned surrealist Max Ernst, a stunning $60,000 Colombian emerald necklace, and an ancient Roman marble torso once belonging to a discerning British lord (hammer price: $295,000).

  • That's on top of high-profile estate sales from the likes of novelist Tom Clancy, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, or Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose prized belongings recently collected over $800,000 for charity.
The Potomack Company founder Elizabeth Wainstein holding an auction item
Founder Elizabeth Haynie Waintstein. Photo courtesy of the Potomack Company

How it works: Wainstein, who opened Potomack in 2005 after running Brockett's Row Antiques in Old Town Alexandria for over a decade, credits strong word-of-mouth connections — and an even better team — for her success.

  • Items from private owners, museums, and historic homes come through Potomack's 15,000-square-foot facility in Old Town, where they're exhaustively researched, professionally photographed, and some displayed for pre-auction perusal.
  • Wainstein's Rolodex of super-specialists guarantee authenticity and quality, whether they're a former museum curator who's the word on Russian icons or a trained eye at the Gemological Institute of America who can back that 8.2-karat diamond ring for $100,000-plus.

Yes, but: Not all that sells high is inherently valuable. Provenance — the ownership history of a piece — plays a big role (as does having the right team to research it).

  • Take a home drawing from Bader Ginsburg's then-school-age grandson that fetched $12,000, or the Justice's Stella and Dot collar (estimated retail price: under $200) that didn't make its $200,000 reserve.
An underwear waistband signed by Andy Warhol
Up for grabs: underwear waistband signed by Andy Warhol. Photo courtesy of the Potomack Company

Zoom in: Wainstein is also a savvy trend-spotter. What she's watching now: the Washington School of Color, a group of abstract expressionist D.C. artists from the '50s "who are finally getting their due recognition and gaining value," she says. Especially the women.

  • "Women artists from the period are really going to take off because of the power of the female buyer," Wainstein tells Axios. "More women are graduating from college, women are making more. I think they're going to support a lot of these female artists and find them interesting."
A painting of Ivan the Terrible that was returned to Ukraine after being stolen in WWII
Painting of Ivan the Terrible before it's repatriated, pictured with Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly (center) and others. Photo courtesy of the Potomack Company

The intrigue: Potomack finds treasures in unexpected places. A George Nakashima table being used as a client's footrest. Or a John Graham painting stashed beneath a desk. Or a giant painting of Ivan the Terrible that Wainstein's team determined was stolen from Nazi-occupied Ukraine during WWII. They repatriated it with the help of the FBI and art policing organizations.

  • "As soon as we realize that something is stolen, we call the client immediately," says Wainstein.
  • In Ivan's case, its owner was a Holocaust survivor who was unaware of the painting's origin and helped send it back.

What's next: Just because Potomack deals in Renoirs and Tiffany tea sets doesn't mean they're too serious.

  • Coming up on the auction block: Someone's underwear band signed by Andy Warhol during a '75 exhibition in Baltimore. Provenance, TBD.
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