In near-perfect condition, the storage unit, created post-World War II by influential American designers Charles and Ray Eames, was one of only four or five left in existence.
When the Allen family reached out to upscale consignment shop Le Shoppe Too with a handful of pictures of furniture pieces that were purchased in the 1950s, neither the Allens nor the partners of the Keego Harbor-based business knew the rarity of one particular item in their possession.
Sitting at the home of 98-year-old Franklin resident Nancy Allen was a first-edition Eames Storage Unit, which her late husband, Maurice, bought for $100 nearly 70 years ago. Still in near-perfect condition, the storage unit, created post-World War II by influential American designers Charles and Ray Eames, was one of only four or five left in existence.
Made of plastic-coated plywood, enameled masonite and steel framing, these extraordinarily rare storage units were marketed by Herman Miller furniture company in 1950, just before then-newlyweds Maurice and Nancy Allen discovered one while shopping for apartment furniture.
“When we first saw the cabinet, it looked so new,” says Deborah Slobin, co-owner of Le Shoppe Too and the corresponding Le Shoppe Auction House, which she runs alongside fellow Jewish businesswomen Leslie Weisberg and Julie Sundberg. Together, they work with Terri Stearn of Detroit Fine Art Appraisals to appraise and sell iconic 20th-century furniture, artwork and estates.
“It was so prestigious and in such great condition,” Slobin, 56, of Farmington Hills and a volunteer for the Shoah Foundation, explains of the cabinet. “For things that are that old, they usually have some wear-and-tear, but this thing looked like it was right off of the showroom floor.”
A Surprising Discovery
The Eames Storage Unit was a cherished family possession that the Allens took good care of over the years. Children weren’t allowed to touch it, and it was kept in excellent shape since its 1950s purchase. “The family loved the piece,” Slobin says.
Yet neither the Le Shoppe Too partners nor the Allen family knew how much the heirloom was actually worth. In doing research and reaching out to other experts in the field, Slobin determined the piece was, in fact, a first-edition Eames creation.
Through Le Shoppe Auction House, a branch of Le Shoppe Too that appraises and sells pieces that people bring to them, Slobin and her colleagues set aside a reserve of $15,000 to begin auctioning the Eames Storage Unit.
“Right away, it started bidding up and bidding up,” Slobin recalls. “We knew this was really special, really rare and needed to go to the right home.”
Rather than sending the cabinet straight to retail, Slobin advised the Allen family it would go for more money in an auction. As bids opened — jumping from $25,000, to $35,000, to finally selling for $48,000 to a private institution — the Eames Storage Unit sold for more than triple its reserve.
“We were not surprised. We were shocked,” Slobin says. “The family was [also] in complete shock. When I told Nancy Allen, she fell back in her chair in sheer delight and awe.”
Hidden Heirlooms are Everywhere
Allen initially wondered who would be willing to spend $15,000 or more on a cabinet her husband bought for just $100 in the 1950s, Slobin recalls. Yet upon receiving the good news, Allen exclaimed that her late partner would be proud to see how much it sold for and that it would go to a good home at an institution planning to make the piece available to the public.
Stearn says this sale set a world record for the most money ever paid for an original Eames Storage Unit at a public auction.
“We were blown away,” Slobin adds. “We didn’t expect that.”
Their advice: Don’t throw away items you find in grandma’s attic. “If people don’t want to donate, they’ll bring it here to make sure it’s not worth anything,” Stearn explains. “Then we can tell them, ‘OK, this is nothing’ or ‘this is a really good piece, and it can probably sell for $10,000.’”
Le Shoppe Auction House’s next auction will take place on Sunday, Dec. 5. Rare items up for grabs will include a War Pony sculpture by prominent Native American painter and modernist sculptor Allan Houser, among others.
Yet whether or not another first-edition Eames piece will come their way is impossible to predict.
“These pieces are very in-demand,” Slobin says. “They’re the hot buzzword for collectors.”