Fred A. Bernstein

eBay and Taliesin

The fight for photos of a Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece

Published in The New York Times, February 14, 2004


On the night of Monday, Jan. 24 Jack Holzhueter learned that 32 photographs of Taliesin - Frank Lloyd Wright's home and studio in Spring Green, Wis. - were for sale on eBay. Mr. Holzhueter, on the board of curators of the Wisconsin Historical Society, looked at the Web site and realized that the photos were exceedingly rare. "They're a Rosetta stone for the building," he said: they were taken in 1911 and 1912; Taliesin burned in 1914 and was rebuilt in different form. Mr. Holzhueter, a retired writer and, he says, "full-time patsy," told his colleagues, "We've got to do something about this." The auction would end at 9:17, Central time, on Friday night, Jan. 28.

JAN. 25

Mr. Holzhueter, 69, began working the phone at his home in Mazomanie, northwest of Madison. He learned that the seller was an 82-year-old retired doctor in Alabama who did not seem to realize what she had on her hands; she had obtained the album from a friend who had been active in the arts in Wisconsin, and expected to get about $200 for it. Mr. Holzhueter knew better and pledged $2,000 to get the fund-raising ball rolling.

JAN. 26

He began to receive pledges from Wright aficionados. "By the end of the day, I had about $5,000," he said, "and realized I needed to do better."

JAN. 27

Mr. Holzhueter talked to a friend in California who was an expert on Wright, and they determined that while the bidding was still under $5,000, they would need $22,000 to $23,000 to win. "That was a real stretch," Mr. Holzhueter said. "I had about $10,000 by the end of the day. I realized I would have to involve institutions."

JAN. 28

At daybreak Mr. Holzhueter contacted Georgia Snoke in Tulsa, Okla. She sent an appeal to fellow members of the Lloyd-Jones family (Wright's mother's clan); it drew close to $5,000. Mr. Holzhueter also called the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in Chicago and asked it to send out an e-mail appeal. "By noon I was close to $17,000," he said, "and we were talking to people at the Getty. But they didn't have enough time to mobilize their bureaucracy. So then Getty staff members began making pledges themselves. It was very touching. There was nothing in it for anyone - they just wanted to be part of the effort." He worked the phones and e-mail all day, toggling between them because he has only one phone line. "Once a friend managed to break through, and I said to him, 'I can't talk now; I'm trying to do this thing,' " he said. "He doesn't have much money, so I never asked him, but he gave $500." By then Mr. Holzhueter had $28,200 in pledges ranging from $50 to $2,500.


Over the last hour, as clusters of Wright fans watched on computers across the country, the price leaped from $10,000 to $20,000. The historical society had not yet bid. "Andy Kraushaar, the photo archivist at the society and a very experienced eBay bidder, had access to what is known as sniping ware - special bidding software and a high-speed connection to eBay," Mr. Holzhueter said. "With 20 seconds to go, Andy put in his bid of $28,200, which trumped all the other bids. In the end, the eBay price turned out to be $22,100. So we prorated the pledges; everyone is going to save 26 percent."


The album was expected to arrive at the historical society in Madison this past week. The only problem was shipping: "FedEx wanted something like $2000, with all the insurance on the photos. So a guy from the society is going to fly down to Alabama and get them."