From Dumpster to auction: Police determine Wright chair not stolen from SC Johnson

RACINE, Wis. – Police have ended the investigation into whether a Frank Lloyd Wright chair being sold at auction had been stolen from SC Johnson, and determined no theft was involved.

It turns out that the particular chair being offered online by an auction house was rescued out of a Dumpster, had been sitting in a Waterford garage for years and was passed up at two rummage sales with a $25 price tag.

“I do not see that a theft of the chairs had occurred in this case,” the investigator wrote in his report, released this week. “It appears that all of the parties involved did obtain these chairs in good faith.”

From exhibit to auction

According to the investigator’s reports, police traced the Wright chair — one of hundreds originally made for the SC Johnson headquarters at 1525 Howe St. — from a Chicago auction house that had put it up for auction back to a Milwaukee antiques dealer. The antiques dealer told police he had bought the chair and two others just like it from a Waterford man who had listed them on eBay.

Investigators tracked down the Waterford man, who asked The Journal Times not to use his name. He reportedly had rescued the chairs from a Dumpster and had been using them in his garage for two years.

The report says the man worked for an exhibit building company that did work for SC Johnson in the 1980s. Some of the famous Wright chairs were part of an exhibit they built. When the exhibit was no longer being used, its contents were put into storage in a Racine warehouse.

In 2003, the Waterford man and co-workers were asked to clean the warehouse out. Police said about five or six of the chairs were tossed.
“(The Waterford man) described the chairs as being dirty, molding, bent and beat up,” states the police report.

The man allegedly called his boss a few days later to ask if he could take some of the chairs, and was given permission.

There is reportedly no record of the permission and the man has asked that The Journal Times not identify him because he is afraid of losing his job.

For two years he used the chairs when doing repair work in his garage. The Waterford man said he had no idea what the chairs were or what they were worth.

“I couldn’t even sell them at a rummage sale,” he told The Journal Times. “They’re not that attractive.”

According to the police report, the man had put $25 price tags on the three chairs he had in his garage. They sat unsold during two rummage sales.
In 2005, the man decided to sell them on eBay and asked a friend with an account for the online auction to list them for him. Reports say they agreed to split the profits.

In April of 2005, the three chairs were sold to the Milwaukee man for $500, who then sold them to Wright Auction House in Chicago.

Bought and sold

When one of the chairs showed up on eBay last month, an SC Johnson employee saw it. The company started looking into whether the chair had been stolen.

In order to stop the online auction, SC Johnson contacted police. Officers called eBay security and requested the auction be stopped because the chair was part of a theft investigation.

When the auction ended, four bids had already been placed. The chair was ultimately bought by the owner of a design company in California for $12,000.

However, the investigation stalled the transaction until recently.

Richard Wright, the owner of the Wright Auction House, said the sale of the chair will now go through. He said he never doubted it would.
“I knew it wasn’t stolen,” Wright said. “The buyer knew it wasn’t stolen. A lot of this material has been on the market.”

During their investigation, police also learned that the recent sale of the Wright chair is not the first time such pieces have been put up on the auction block. Investigators spoke with three different auction houses that had documentation of selling similar chairs.

A piece of history

“These chairs are a part of a very important culture here,” said SC Johnson spokeswoman Kelly M. Semrau. “We want them to always be here for generations to come.”

She said they are very grateful that the police department did such a thorough investigation. “It’s important to understand how this happened, so it can never happen again,” she said.

The office furniture that H.F. Johnson Jr. asked Wright to design for the SC Johnson administration building in 1936 is a part of the company’s culture and history.

For many years, every employee in the building sat on the Wright chairs and the late Sam Johnson sat on one for 40 years, according to a newspaper story he was interviewed for in 1994.

The metal chairs have simple circular pads on the seat and back. The back support pivots up and down and casters on the four legs allow the chairs to roll across the office.

The 1994 story says the chairs were thought to be the most innovative office furniture in history until ergonomic designs surpassed them. Some still believe it’s the most beautiful office furniture ever made and art collectors covet the furniture.

Much of the furniture is still in use at SC Johnson.

During an audit of the company’s collection for the investigation, it was determined that four chairs out of nearly 500 were missing. Semrau said they are looking for the missing chairs, checking other storage areas and facilities.

Source: Reprinted by permission.

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