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Up for bid: Dealing antiques and art at Cleveland's Gray's Auctioneers

What do an English gold-plated sewing kit, an Edmund Culpeper monocular microscope and a Gregorian chant manuscript have in common?

All are items recently sold by Gray’s Auctioneers, an auction house in Cleveland’s Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood.

In business for nearly 20 years, Gray’s is an ever-evolving gallery of antiques, collectibles and fine art.

President and co-founder Deba Gray, a Cleveland native, got her start at Wolfs Gallery in the mid-1980s. From there, she went on to work for large auction houses, such as Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago and Sotheby’s in New York City.

“In New York, it felt time to start my own,” Gray said. “And [Cleveland] was the perfect decision because it was my backyard, it was my hometown.”

Although it was an easy decision for Gray to return to Northeast Ohio, her wife and business partner, Serena Harragin, needed a little convincing.

“Deba and I were sitting at our kitchen table in New York City, and she said, ‘How about we set up a fine art and antiques boutique auction house in Cleveland?’” Harragin recalled. “And I said, ‘I’ll move to Cleveland over my dead body.’”

Two years later, the pair relocated and Gray’s vision of opening her own auction house came into view.

For Harragin, Northeast Ohio became a place she could call home.

“I’ve come to love Cleveland,” Harragin said. “Very much so.”

A woman stands in front of the building that houses Gray's Auctioneers.
Gray's Auctioneers
President and co-founder Deba Gray stands in front of the Detroit Avenue location of Gray's Auctioneers in 2009.

Taking the auctions online

Since opening Gray’s in 2006, the business has evolved from in-person auctions at its location on Detroit Avenue to auctions taking place completely online.

“The internet revolutionized our world, not only in being able to research objects but also in how we reach the audience,” Harragin said. “We used to have a local audience, but with the internet we now have a global audience.”

Before being able to research objects online, Gray said she’d spend several days going through books and catalogs to find the history and value of an object. Now, she can typically find that information in minutes.

“I can see what sold in Paris yesterday, and so can everyone else,” Gray said. “That information is accessible to everyone, which means more people can play in the world of fine art and antiques. It’s not scary anymore.”

On average, bidders from up to 50 different countries sign up to participate in Gray’s auctions, which take place once a month and feature between 200-300 items.

“We get inquiries on our website from all over the world and we ship all over the world,” Harragin said, recalling a modular sofa from the Swiss manufacturer de Sede that she shipped to Venezuela. “It’s been a really exciting development.”

A live art auction takes place online with several employees waiting for bids on computer screens.
Jean-Marie Papoi
Ideastream Public Media
A web stream connects Deba Gray to bidders around the world in live time as she auctions off items lot by lot. The rest of the Gray's team waits for bids to arrive through three different online portals.

Where items come from

Building an auction is based on items already consigned to Gray’s. Fine art, antiques and many more items make their way to the auction house every day through a variety of circumstances.

“We get our items from all of the Ds: death, debt, divorce, downsizing, dementia, deaccession and dealers,” Gray explained. “These are all really tough situations for our clients, and we're the island that they swim to for help.”

In some cases, Gray said, clients come in with a treasured family heirloom passed down through generations with no one left to pass it to again. Gray’s steps in to get the treasured piece in front of a large audience to find a new owner to enjoy it.

“We’re like an adoption agency for heirlooms,” Gray said. “I have this saying that you never really own art, you just take care of it for the next generation. And that’s what we help our clients do.”

A platform for local art

While their knowledge and interest of global art throughout history is vast, Gray and Harragin are also proponents of the Northeast Ohio art scene.

“There are all these artists from Cleveland that are worthy of auction,” Gray said.

A recent auction featured several original paintings from the estate of Cleveland artist James Massena March, who passed away in 2021. A number of other featured paintings were by Shirley Aley Campbell, who won the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1986.

Gray said it’s extremely rewarding to see the work of local artists sold to buyers all over the world.

“I’m introducing new art that people didn’t know about,” she said. “That’s a huge honor and an important job.”

Jean-Marie Papoi is a digital producer for the arts & culture team at Ideastream Public Media.