Everyone's fretting about that troubling tide of U.S. dollars flowing into China, but no one's figured out how to pull the bucks back.
No one except Vern Halcomb.
Tuesday, in a coup of antique savvy, Halcomb lured $1.38 million, plus tax, back from China.
And he restored a piece of history to its homeland.
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He did it all with a 250-year-old gilt bronze censer that, for a brief, sunny period in its existence, had served as a planter in the sculpture garden Halcomb and his late partner, Robert Kongsli, created around their Lakewood home.
For half a century, Halcomb and Kongsli worked among the elite of antique buyers, lovers and sellers. Each had an eye for quality. They were gracious and trustworthy, and connected exquisite pieces with people who could afford them.
And they had perfect timing.
Take the villa in Cannes.
When they moved to the French Riviera, they spent $95,000 on a spectacular home even the rich might struggle to maintain.
Over the seven years they lived there, they divided it into five units with gardens, views of the Maritime Alps and the blue, blue sea.
“We did a lot of the work ourselves,” Halcomb said.
Their reinvented home was a perfect fit for the real estate market when they sold it for $5 million.
Or consider the Tiffany lamp Halcomb bought from a woman who was delighted to get $2,500 for it. Twenty years later, a collector was equally pleased to spend $200,000 for it. They brought similar timing to the censer.
Bank of America founder A.P. Giannini had it in his San Francisco home, and willed it to his great friend Joseph Toschi.
“Joe was our mentor when we started out in the business in San Francisco,” Halcomb said.
He smiled on their success as Hollywood stars joined their clientele. He visited them in Cannes. And he admired their taste.
“I asked him to put our names on it,” Halcomb said of the censer.
When their friend died, Halcomb paid his estate $25,000 for the piece.
In 1999, they returned to the United States from France, bought a mansion on American Lake and began work on a sculpture garden. Kongsli, who had grown up in Tacoma, wanted to come home. Halcomb, an accomplished gardener, saw the plants and antiques as natural partners.
Five years ago, they moved to a smaller home and set to work on the grounds.
Halcomb chose and planted each tree. He indulged in hydrangeas. He succumbed to the charms of hostas with their bold shape and variegated greens.
A gardener with a less refined eye might have planted anything in that censer – roses, geraniums, or streams of nasturtiums. But Halcomb studied the elephant-head feet, the bowl studded with lotus leaves, and knew it deserved the simple dignity of a hosta.
There’s one other thing. Bronze contains copper. Slugs, which adore hostas, can’t abide copper. Hosta and censer were the perfect couple.
In February, after 55 years as half of another perfect couple, Robert Kongsli died.
Halcomb, who uses “we” in the present tense, continues to tend the garden, and the friendships and connections he and Kongsli developed over the life of their partnership.That included putting the censer up for auction through Bonhams & Butterfields in San Francisco.
The timing, as usual, was perfect.
Flush with fortunes, the market for Chinese art in China is thriving. The wealthy are eager to bring the treasures of their past home again.
Tuesday, their agents were on their phones to the auction floor.
“Fresh objects of Chinese taste are an irresistible magnet, drawing our international buyers to flock to bid at auction,” Bonhams and Butterfields Asian art director Dessa Goddard said after the auction.
Off the market since A.P. Giannini owned it a century ago, the censer was as fresh as a 250-year-old object can be.
“Bidding opened at $40,000, with private collectors and Asian art dealers pushing the value far beyond the million-dollar mark,” said Levi Morgan of Bonhams.
To the $1.38 million mark, to be exact.
Vern Halcomb’s done his share, and more, to bring those U.S dollars home.
He might even spring for a hosta for the censer’s new owner.