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    Consignors still without money, items as Ritchies's doors remain closed

    Date: 14 Aug 2009 | | Views: 3177

    Auctioneer unexpectedly closed its doors last week following its split with Sotheby's

    Source: The Globe & Mail (Canada), by James Bradshaw

    Three nervous consignors congregated in the Ritchies Auctioneers parking lot in Toronto yesterday, hoping to collect unsold items and money owed to them from the auctioneer, which unexpectedly closed its doors last week following its split with Sotheby's.

    The consigners and a company delivery man left empty handed. A handwritten sign posted last week that told visitors to check back after Aug. 7 was soon replaced by a new typed sign stating that the company is on "summer holiday" until Aug. 17, and that a sale scheduled for today has been postponed.

    Meanwhile, a new account of the company's difficulties has surfaced. Gabrielle Peacock, Ritchies's former senior vice-president and director of fine art, said she and 26 other employees were laid off without notice on Friday, July 31, on authority of Ira Hopmeyer, the company's chairman, CEO and sole shareholder.

    Ms. Peacock said the reason she was given was that there were insufficient funds available to make payroll.

    Two days earlier, president and chief operating officer Stephen Ranger had resigned after 22 years with the company, citing differences with management.

    Mr. Hopmeyer confirmed the layoffs yesterday, but said he, too, was blindsided by the news, saying that on July 31 staff were told they would still have jobs the following week, but were laid off on Monday, Aug. 3, without warning and without his authorization, and that he has "no idea" how they were dismissed.

    "I found out [Aug. 4] that senior management had laid off staff. For the record, I did not lay anybody off," he said.

    Mr. Ranger said he was not involved in the lay-offs.

    Another wrinkle emerging yesterday was information about a bid to buy the company. Ms. Peacock said that prior to being laid off, she had been approached about joining Mr. Ranger and anonymous investors to purchase control of the company from Mr. Hopmeyer.

    Mr. Hopmeyer confirmed that he had agreed to a bid to buy him out, but said that the bid was withdrawn.

    The company's sudden divorce from Sotheby's took the auction world by surprise. For nearly eight years, the firms had partnered to hold two joint auctions each year. Their agreement expired on July 31 and will not be renewed, according to a Sotheby's statement.

    Shortly before the split was announced, Mr. Ranger and Fraser Elliott, the son of the late lawyer and philanthropist of the same name, travelled to New York to meet with Sotheby's. Soon after, Sotheby's severed its ties with the auctioneer.

    "We have recently heard from a number of consignors and from Ritchies management that Ritchies has not yet paid them for the paintings that were sold in the auction of Important Canadian Paintings that took place in Toronto on May 25th," a statement from Sotheby's said.

    The auction in question comprised 141 lots of Canadian art, including works by various Group of Seven artists as well as Emily Carr, Alex Colville and Jean-Paul Riopelle. The lots were expected to sell for between $4-million and $5.5-million, not including the buyer's premium, but grossed just $3.5-million, including the premium.

    Sotheby's also said in the statement "we are voluntarily ensuring that all payments due with respect to that sale will be honoured." Two sources told The Globe and Mail that Sotheby's has paid all the consignors for their paintings, though a New York-based spokeswoman for Sotheby's would neither confirm nor deny the payments, nor whether there are outstanding debts between the two auctioneers.

    Mr. Hopmeyer declined to comment yesterday about the relationship between the auctioneers.

    One private consignor outside the Ritchies building yesterday, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had decided to sell some items she inherited from her mother after she lost her job this spring. Most of the items sold at a June 9 auction for a total of $5,000 but she said she has yet to be paid or have other unsold items returned to her.

    Several Toronto dealers told The Globe and Mail they had attempted to retrieve consigned items from Ritchies. Some succeeded on July 31 and early last week, while others have found the shop closed.

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