Auction hero

Auction hero

Benjamin Doller’s path from Teaneck to Sotheby’s

It’s not that there’s any reason that the chairman of Americas for Sotheby’s, the huge, iconic art dealer and auction house, created in London in 1744, shouldn’t have grown up in Teaneck.

There’s no reason why that chairman, who is also a senior auctioneer and top expert in 19th-century British art, the Impressionists, and modern art, shouldn’t have been a member of an Orthodox shul and have been educated in part in a yeshiva.

It’s just that although there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be, you don’t expect it. Benjamin Doller’s logical path to the top at Sotheby’s confounds expectations.

Of course, part of being an artist, or of understanding art on the profound level that Mr. Doller does, is to confound expectations. It’s part of the job description.

Ben Doller’s parents, Samuel and Shirley Falk Doller, both were born in the Bronx to parents with roots in Eastern Europe. In fact, his unusual last name, complete with the ‘e’ toward the end that makes clear that we’re not talking about money, can be traced back to the 19th century, Mr. Doller said.

When his parents first married, they lived in Greenwich Village, but soon after he was born, in the late 1950s, the family, which also included his older sister, Shira — now Shira Doller Grosser, a beloved teacher at the Yavneh Academy in Paramus — moved to Teaneck.

“My father was an optometrist, and my mother was a women’s dress designer,” Mr. Doller said. “She was eccentric, and everyone knew her in Teaneck for always wearing hats.” Now, many Orthodox women live in Teaneck, and many of them cover their hair, often with hats, so that’s not a surprising thing to say. Then? Really, not so much.

Shirley Doller didn’t wear hats to fulfill a religious mandate. She liked hats. The crazier the better, her son said. She had fun with them.

His father had a great big moustache, Mr. Doller added, so his parents were visually striking, both separately and together. People in town knew them.

They became even more well known locally when friends invited them to a party. Those friends had another friend — Alan Funt, the friendly, avuncular, bear-shaped man, whose white hair framed his shining bald head, and whose specialty was setting people up in embarrassing situations on nationwide television and filming them as they made fools of themselves.

Alan Funt, that is, of “Candid Camera.”

“My parents were invited to a wrong-night party,” he said. “They were invited into a stunt.

“It was classic. They argued with each other about who was wrong. It was black-and-white ’60s TV, and they were like a comedy act. They were funny. They were good.” Eventually, the stunt was revealed — “You’re on Candid Camera,” Mr. Funt would crow. “I think they enjoyed it,” Mr. Doller said. Certainly they enjoyed the local fame it got them, he added.

Both Samuel and Shirley Doller loved art, and they took their children to museums and art galleries on Sunday afternoons. “When I was very little, I remember going to the studio of the artist Chaim Gross,” Mr. Doller said. (Chaim Gross was a well-known European-born Jewish sculptor who was born at the beginning of the 20th century and escaped the continent between the two world wars to flourish in New York. ) “He picked me up, and he held the hammer and I held the chisel. That was very exciting.

“It was also very exciting that at one of the first auctions I ever did as an auctioneer, he was in the audience, buying.

“At one point Sotheby’s sold part of his collection, and I was able to tell his daughter the story.”

Shirley, Samuel, and Ben Doller all cherished their museum and gallery visits.
Shirley, Samuel, and Ben Doller all cherished their museum and gallery visits.

As important as art was to the Dollers, it was not all that motivated them. They moved to Teaneck for the public schools; friends who lived there told them that the system was good. But once they got to town, their next-door neighbors, Janet and Hy Sainer, “told my parents that you should send the kids to Yavneh.”(Janet Sainer went on to be Mayor Ed Koch’s Commissioner on Aging from 1978 to 1989. New York City’s benefit was Teaneck’s loss, Mr. Doller said, because in order to take the job, the Sainers had to move to the city.)

When the Dollers moved to Teaneck, they had been Conservative Jews; they belonged to the Teaneck Jewish Center. But then Congregation Beth Aaron was created, in a local house, and “my parents were founding members,” Mr. Doller said. “I was at the first minyan at Beth Aaron.”

As Teaneck became more observant and Orthodox, so did the Dollers. Still, when he graduated from Yavneh, Mr. Doller went to Teaneck High School, where he felt more at home. “It was a really strong progressive liberal education,” he said. “We had about 20 Merit Scholars at one time.” The school also took advantage of being so close to New York. “I remember that we read ‘Cat On a Hot Tin Roof’ in one of our classes, and then we were taken to Broadway and we saw Elizabeth Ashley in it,” he said. “And Katherine Hepburn was in the audience that day.” (And, he added, “many years later, I was the auctioneer for her estate.”)

After high school, Mr. Doller went to college at NYU — but not in the liberal arts school. Despite his love of art, he enrolled in the undergraduate business school. “In those days, in the 1970s, if you were a Jewish kid you had three options for your major,” he said. “Pre-med, pre-law, or accounting.

“It’s not that my parents said that — they didn’t, they would have supported anything I did, but it was in our DNA.

“And one day I was sitting next to a friend in a marketing class, and he asked me if I had a summer job. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Why?’ And he said that he worked at the Frick Library, and ‘We need some part-time help this summer.’

“It was that one conversation, that chance conversation, that got me here,” Mr. Doller said.

“I worked at the Frick Library for two years while I was in college,” he continued. “I started taking more art history classes, but I wouldn’t major in art history, because there were no jobs. My major still was in business and marketing.”

Mr. Doller has fond memories of the Frick. “When I worked there, Miss Frick, the daughter of Henry Clay Frick, was still alive,” he said. (That was Helen Clay Frick, who established and directed the Frick Art Reference Library, to give it its full name. She died in 1984.) She would pay Christmas bonuses to employees from her personal account. “I do have the pay stubs,” he added. “One was for $10, and the other was $15.”

“When I graduated, I was going to go for an MBA, but again by chance somebody at the Frick had a girlfriend who worked at an employment agency, and he mentioned that he’d heard that there were some jobs at the accounting department at Parke Bernet,” Mr. Doller said. (Parke Bernet was an auction house that Sotheby’s had bought a decade or so earlier; Sotheby’s retained the name for some time.)

It turns out that Mr. Doller’s combination of business and art was a wise one. “I like to say that when I started working at Sotheby’s, I was walking around delivering paychecks,” he said. “I ran the payroll office. I got the job because of my accounting background — I do really like math — and then after two years, in 1979, I switched over to the client end, to accounting and credit, and then after a few years I landed a job as a cataloguer trainee in the 19th-century European paintings department.”

Before he made the move, Mr. Doller spent a lot of time challenging himself and questioning his knowledge and assumptions. “I spent every weekend at exhibitions,” he said, looking and absorbing and learning. “Even when I wasn’t sure if I would make the move, I knew I wanted to learn,” he said.

And then there’s the job he took. What does cataloguing mean in this context? “Cataloguing is when you look at the painting, you title it, you measure it, you research it,” Mr. Doller said. “Let’s say there is no specific catalogue on the artist. I would have to check it by writing to specialists, learning about the painting and about its context.

“By handling a work and looking at it, you train your eye.”

A young Ben Doller, as a Sotheby’s cataloguer, in the early 1980s, holds a work by the American painter Frederick Childe Hassam.
A young Ben Doller, as a Sotheby’s cataloguer, in the early 1980s, holds a work by the American painter Frederick Childe Hassam.

Why did he pick 19th-century Europe? Because it seemed to be a good place to start. “I always loved the Old Masters, but they scared me,” Mr. Doller said. “More often than not, they’re not signed. And I thought that because the 19th century is just 100 years, I could learn it and figure it out, and I could become a specialist in that one area. I felt that I didn’t have a strong enough background in art history.”

His plan worked. “I became a specialist in that area, and eventually I became the head of the department, and then worldwide head of the department,” he said. “When I was worldwide head, I was really coming up with selling strategies and overseeing staffing and business for the global 19th-century department.”

One of the many advantages of his job, Mr. Doller said, was the travel. “Join Sotheby’s and see the world,” he said. Some of the travel was exotic, but some was to small towns across the United States. If he was told about a painting — “if someone sent a photograph or emailed an image, I’d get on a plane if it seemed as if it might have value.”

Sometimes those images could come from home. “One day, in 1989, we got a photograph of a very interesting painting from someone in Teaneck,” he said. “It was from not quite five blocks from where my parents lived. So I called the people, and we chatted, and I said that I wanted to go to see it, so I went with a colleague.

“It was a painting that we thought probably was worth around $400,000 to $600,000. My colleague and I talked to them about the picture, told them what we could do with it, and they said, ‘That sounds great.’

“So I gave them a receipt and wrapped up the painting, and I said, ‘By the way, you probably don’t know this, but my parents live just a few blocks from here.’ And the woman said, ‘We know your parents from Beth Aaron, and this was a done deal before you got here.’”

In the end, the painting sold for about $800,000 dollars, “and we took my parents to dinner and a show,” Mr. Doller said. “My mother was the welcome wagon for Beth Aaron, and she had gone over to meet this woman immediately when she first came to town.”

When Mr. Doller was 29, at just about the same time that he began to learn how to catalogue, he also learned how to lead an auction. When he realized how much he wanted to stand at the front of the room and use his intuition and theatrical flair to cause huge sums of money to flow from one owner to another, with some diverted toward Sotheby’s, he met with the auction house’s John Marion, “one of the greatest auctioneers ever,” he said. “I told him that I wanted to be an auctioneer, and he said okay, but first go get a haircut, and then we will go to lunch. I got a haircut, and the next day we went to lunch, and he said to me, ‘I think you will be a good auctioneer, because you really want to be one.’

“He also told me that you have to give the last lot the same gusto as the first, and I remembered that when I sold an estate and was on the rostrum for five hours.

“Being an auctioneer is like conducting an orchestra,” he continued. “And sometimes there are great surprises. I had a painting by Alma-Tadema,” a once-storied Victorian painter whose work has had clockwork turns from adoration through disdain back to adoration. “It was estimated to sell for $3 million and sold for $35.9 million.” That, parenthetically, was the painting that had belonged to Alan Funt.

“It took about eight minutes to sell,” he said. “It was wonderful. I remember not looking over to one particular colleague, because I knew that if we caught each other’s eye, I didn’t know if we would laugh or cry, it was that exciting.”

“We used to have more auctions than we do now,” he said; the internet has cut into that business, as it has so many others.

Benjamin Doller, far left, leading an auction; above, at right, he stands with a museum director in 2011 as they discuss a work by the Belgian painter Charles Hermann. It sold for $1 million and now hangs in an Asian museum.
Benjamin Doller, right, stands with a museum director in 2011 as they discuss a work by the Belgian painter Charles Hermann. It sold for $1 million and now hangs in an Asian museum.

Mr. Doller no longer lives in Teaneck, or anywhere else in New Jersey. He now lives in the Dakota, the massive, dark late 19th-century quintessentially Central Park West Gothic Revival apartment building that looms over Central Park. It always has housed — and continues to house — large numbers of wealthy celebrities, and was the backdrop to Rosemary’s Baby and John Lennon’s murder.

Mr. Doller’s home is the apartment once owned by the actors and art collectors Ruth Ford Scott and Zachary Scott. Ms. Ford’s brother, Charles Henry Ford, was a writer, artist, and the partner of another artist, the French Russian Surrealist painter and set designer Pavel Tchelitchew. When Ms. Scott died, she left the whole vast trove, combining all four collections, to her butler. It fell to Sotheby’s, in the overseeing form of Mr. Doller, to sell the collection.

As he spent time in the Scotts’ two apartments, coming to know their art, Mr. Doller fell in love with the space. Eventually he bought one of the apartments, and he now sits on the building’s board.

Mr. Doller’s work does not keep him from outside activities. He is an avid supporter of tennis, and is on the board of the United States Tennis Foundation. He is also on the board of the American Friends of the Musee d’Orsay.

A serious player and fan, here Ben Doller stands with tennis great Pete Sampras.
A serious player and fan, here Ben Doller stands with tennis great Pete Sampras.

And Mr. Doller still is an active member of the Jewish community. He is a member and supporter of Manhattan’s LGBT synagogue, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah — the shul’s rabbi, Sharon Kleinbaum, who comes from Bergen County, graduated from the Frisch School in Paramus. “I helped raise funds for the new building” — the shul moved to its new home in a landmarked midtown building earlier this year — “and I had Butterflake,” a kosher bakery in Teaneck, “make cookies for it that said CBST,” he said.

“I do tons of charity auctions too,” he added. “I once did one in Israel for Betzalel,” the Jerusalem-based art institute.

He is championing the work of a Viennese Jewish artist, Isidor Kaufmann, “who is the best Judaica painter of the 19th century,” Mr. Doller said. “He is so good that I’ve sold some of his paintings to non-Jewish clients,” including the theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Kaufmann’s subjects included rabbis, chasidism, and other stereotypically Jewish scenes, presented non-stereotypically.

Although it was not his project, Mr. Doller was both struck and moved by the public reaction to the Valmadonna Library Trust, a great private trove of about 13,000 Jewish manuscripts that Sotheby’s displayed in Manhattan in 2009. The exhibit drew enormous crowds who waited to see all those riches, together in a few small rooms. The show, which was more or less a gift to the public, was a huge success. “We never advertised the collection anywhere, but there were lines around the block as word got out,” Mr. Doller said. “Whenever I went up in the elevator to the 10th floor, inevitably someone waiting on line or in the exhibit would say, ‘Benjy? Benjy Doller? Is that you?’

“I was with our CEO one day, and he looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to start calling you Benjy.’”

All in all, Mr. Doller said, his background and education positioned him perfectly. Now that he’s chairman — what does that mean? “More work,” he said — he continues to love his work, which he feels suits him perfectly. “I am a very visual person, and I love doing deals.” The perfect combination.

And it all started in Teaneck.