DuMouchelles

Nearly 100 years before today’s entrepreneurs were twinkles in their mothers’ eyes, another visionary set his sights on Detroit, and never looked away.

In 1924, 18-year-old Joseph N. DuMouchelle, a native of the tiny town of Maidstone, Ontario, immigrated to Detroit with his wife Charlotte, a one-room-schoolhouse teacher. Within three years, this farmer, who once sold tomatoes door-to-door, opened “DuMouchelles Art Salon”, and before too long, Joseph became known as one of Detroit’s best-known authorities on art. Today, nearly a century later, DuMouchelles remains one the Midwest’s leading auction houses.

But don’t let the French surname, or the words “fine arts auction house”, conjure up images of grandmotherly patrons who overuse the word “indubitably” whilst conversing with their butlers and purse-dogs. In fact, the biggest growing demographic at DuMouchelles is millennials . . . and male millennials at that!

Mon Dieu!

With the enormous return of businesses and residents to the city of Detroit, DuMouchelles is seeing a commensurate swell of interior designers, property rehabbers, business owners, and loft dwellers coming through its doors. Even bridal registrants are eagerly turning to DuMouchelles for one-of-a-kind furniture, artwork and collectibles (including items ideal for restoration such as period lighting, knobs, doors, stained-glass windows, and telephones, to name just a few). The number of groups visiting the gallery has increased as well, including women’s groups, senior citizen groups, and university classes (e.g., Art History, Architecture, Retail Design, etc.). And most exciting, they have seen a bigger surge in foot traffic over the past two years than they have in the past 50, as curious Detroit newbies venture inside while en route to/from work, restaurants, or sporting, concert and theater events.

Upon entering the 116-year-old building, it takes only a few minutes for novices to realize that what may have seemed mysterious or intimidating from the outside is actually quite non-threatening on the inside. And although DuMouchelles has had its share of high-ranking politicians, judges, lawyers, and bank presidents (and quite a few “first-name-only needed” celebrities), there are no butlers in sight – just lots of folks of all ages, in comfortable clothing, looking for treasures that are surprisingly accessible to everyone.

What undoubtedly strikes visitors next is the sheer magnitude of resources that must go into setting up a new auction every month. Virtually every square inch of the walls and non-aisle floor space is covered by artwork, furniture, sculptures, crystal, glass, chandeliers, rugs, silver, and other memorabilia/collectables. Therein, approximately 1,500 pieces (which have all been appraised, cleaned, photographed and cataloged over a 30-day period) are methodically arranged and labeled with their estimated price ranges ‒ based on each item’s appraised market value ‒ which can start as low as $100.

And if you’re a vintage jewelry enthusiast, no visit to DuMouchelles would be complete without chatting with Luda, their resident jewelry expert. Luda means “love of the people” in Russian, but it might as well mean “love of the jewelry”. Luda describes every piece in her showcase with a contagious fondness and enthusiasm ‒ accentuated by just a hint of her native Russian accent.

All told, the expression “there’s something for everyone” easily earns the award for “biggest understatement” at DuMouchelles.

If you venture into DuMouchelles during their Preview or Auction Days, a wonderful (and often competitive) spirit of “If-nobody-else-has-even-noticed-this-piece-I-could-get-it-for-a-steal” quickly takes over, as you fantasize about how perfectly it would complement your décor or wardrobe or who would appreciate it as a gift. And suddenly, newcomers and veterans alike are drawn into the auction process without knowing what hit them.

Finally, it’s auction time, and that’s when the live theater begins. The unremitting sound of ringing telephones suddenly stops, while bidders take their seats, dog-ear their catalog pages, and ready their bidding paddles.

The first item up for bid is projected onto two screens in front of the auction room. The auctioneer briefly describes the item: For example, an Asian porcelain beaker, and the “auction chant” begins. Herein, the auctioneer resembles a conductor and an instrumentalist both ‒ speaking with a repetitive cadence and lyricism that is surprisingly comparable to the rhythms of hip-hop music – all the while deftly keeping eyes and ears on bobbing bid paddles (or the more elusive bidders who may signal via brushing their eyebrows or subtly lifting their chins to expose paddles that were tucked underneath), as well as the online flat-bid sheets, in addition to the waves/shouts from staff members on phones throughout the room who are acting as real-time surrogates for bidders that have pre-arranged for DuMouchelles to call them when selected items go up for bid:

“FIVE hundred dollars to start from there . . . five hundred, five-fifty, six hundred, six hundred, SIX hundred, six-fifty . . .” 

And so it goes until just minutes later, the item is sold for a thousand dollars.

The auctioneers then move immediately to the remaining lots, until all 500 items up for auction that day are gone. Regardless of whether you ever raise a paddle, the experience is more than just engaging, it is addictive, and it takes place on three consecutive days (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday).

Every. Single. Month.

But excitement generated by DuMouchelles isn’t limited to buyers. DuMouchelles also provides expert appraisal services, as well as one of the most internationally renowned platforms for successfully selling consigned antiques. That means that they have been responsible for turning unsuspecting, and often unassuming, collectors into millionaires. And while some would-be sellers are convinced that they have the Mona Lisa, or the original Declaration of Independence (they don’t), there are breathtaking stories to the contrary.

For example, in 2007, Larry DuMouchelle (Joseph’s oldest son) discovered what he thought to be one of the lost Thomas LeClear paintings at a DuMouchelles free Appraisal Clinic. The owner believed the unsigned painting had been rescued from a fire, but was pessimistic as to its value. Nonetheless, Larry convinced him it could possibly fetch close to $50,000, so the seller agreed to give it a shot. By the end of the auction (following a bidding war between multiple museums), the painting had fetched $3.75 million, and when Larry finally reached the consignor to report the sale, he was certain Larry was calling to tell him it had not sold. Larry responded by first making sure that the seller was in good health and not home alone, lest a cardiac arrest spoil the celebration.

In a similar example, another of Joseph’s sons was doing an estate sale appraisal for a widow who, unlike her deceased husband, had little interest in art. As the estate appraisal was wrapping up, she mentioned that there was a locked attic in which she believed her husband had stored some additional items of little to no value. She was eventually persuaded to pry open the lock, and inside the attic they discovered nine Frederic Remingtons. Overnight, she too became a millionaire ‒ thanks to another descendant of Joseph DuMouchelle.

Finally, DuMouchelles is known for selling out 99 percent of every major estate in the Detroit metropolitan area (such as those of Matilda Dodge Wilson, David Whitney, and Henry Ford) from the 1920s until they stopped hosting estate sales in the early 2000s – a remarkable track record even by Sotheby standards. Some of the more famous items sold at DuMouchelles over the years include: Dozens of London Chop House menus autographed by sports, music and movie legends; Tiger Stadium seats; a 1935 baseball bat from the Tigers’ first World Series Championship (signed by Ernie Harwell); 273 architectural documents for The World Trade Center; a vintage collection of Olympics memorabilia; a painting (commissioned by Buffalo Bill Cody) by Henry Ford’s personal artist/illustrator, Irving Bacon; the “Founder’s Week” Cup from Philadelphia’s 1908 maiden run of The Fairmount Park Motor Races; and the personal art collections of James and Ruth Keene, Michigan Governor G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams, Russian Prince Alexander Obolensky, Dr. John & Rose M. Czuj (pronounced Shuey), and Detroit broadcaster icons Rita Bell and David McElroy.

But this isn’t just a business story. It’s a love story: Love of art, love of family, and love of Detroit.

DuMouchelles Art Salon began its romance with the city of Detroit at the corner of Woodward and Forest Avenues, until the widening of Woodward in the early ‘30s prompted a move to their first Jefferson Avenue location, followed ‒ in 1936 ‒ by a move to their current site (an Albert Kahn building, originally built in 1901 to serve as Michigan’s first automobile showroom) at Jefferson and Brush Street.

When asked why any business in the city of Detroit would choose to stay put through the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the Detroit Riots, an urban blight epidemic, the housing crisis, and the Great Recession, Nanette Poole, director of marketing for DuMouchelles, answers: “Detroit has always been a member of our family.”

And Nanette knows a little something about family. The Auction House is still called DuMouchelles because it is still owned and operated by DuMouchelles – currently three generations of them ‒ and counting. All five of Joseph’s children went on to run DuMouchelles, and all but one, who has passed away, still do, including Nanette’s father, and current president, Larry DuMouchelle.

Larry’s fondest childhood memories are of making his way down Woodward any way he could in order to spend time with his Dad at “the store”. By age 14, he became a stock boy, and 69 years later, at age 83, he still works full-time doing estate appraisals and swinging a gavel.

Three of Larry’s children, including Nanette, have each worked at DuMouchelles for 27-30 years, and General Manager Bob DuMouchelle, much like his father before him, began working there at age 11. Additionally, three of Larry’s nephews and one niece have also worked there and 12 (count ‘em!) of Joseph’s great-grandchildren also work there full-time, part-time or seasonally.

Nanette Poole (seated) with Susan Lynch (left) and Bob DuMouchelle

Larry’s other daughter, Laurie DuMouchelle, has vivid memories of some tough times in Detroit as she was growing up. Regardless, she says that her father never stopped echoing his father’s unwavering passion for, and gratitude to, the city of Detroit. According to Laurie, “My Dad would always say ‘I believe in Detroit. It’s going to come back’. And, ‘What do you know? I just read a book that said Detroit is expected to be ranked the fourth best city to live in within 10 years’”.

Laurie’s son, Ryan McCarron, logistics and operations manager since 2008, also quotes his grandfather with pride: “In order for any family business, which consists of all different kinds of people, to survive as long as we have, you have to have unity, and you have to want it.”

Ryan’s Aunt Nanette chimes in, “And my father has always wanted it for the city. We feel everything the city feels.”

Nanette summarizes the DuMouchelle legacy as follows: “My father was always invigorated and excited to go to work, and that’s what he instilled in all of us. He learned his work ethic from his father . . . and from Detroit.”

For more information, call (313) 963-6255 or go online at www.auctiondetroit.com. You can also preview items and/or attend auctions in person at 409 East Jefferson Avenue (corner of Brush Street), across from the Renaissance Center.