SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO – Stephen Turner, founder of Turner Auctions + Appraisals, hails from Canada and spent the early years of his career in the auction business working as an appraiser and specialist with auction houses in Vancouver and Victoria. After relocating to San Francisco in 1991, he worked for Butterfield & Butterfield, one of the country’s oldest auction houses, before and after it was acquired by eBay and then Bonhams. In 2004, Turner opened an auction and appraisal consulting firm, and, seven years ago, the company began hosting online-only auctions. His namesake firm specializes in fine arts, decorative arts, Asian and Southwest arts, toys, photography and prints, jewelry, militaria and books and manuscripts. Here is our recent conversation with Stephen Turner.
How did you go from collecting Japanese woodblock prints, starting in your late twenties, to working as a specialist for auction houses?
I had a show of my collection in Vancouver at one of the galleries and my name got put out there. At the time, my passion was collecting Japanese art, so I got called up by auction houses in Vancouver and Victoria [to work] as a specialist. I enjoyed it so much, I changed careers and decided to go into that full-time. I became an appraiser of fine art and antiques and specifically Asian works. Lunds is a small, family-run auction house in Victoria that I worked for for about four or five years. I then reconnected with a lovely lady whom I knew many years ago in Greece, Jill, who is my wife now. I came down to San Francisco and started working for auction houses there, specifically Butterfield and Butterfield.
Your firm is known for its variety of merchandise. Did that happen organically or was it a function of your San Francisco Bay Area location?
I attribute it to being in the business long enough, as well as my association with a lot of people in the business. My staff all really come from companies I used to work with. The organic part was when a lot of the Bonhams staff became available [when eBay sold its brick and mortar auction business to Bonhams] … and I could grow different departments.
Among your dedicated departments, you have one that is unusual to see on the West Coast …
I have a toy and train department here. That is kind of fun. Very few auction houses specialize in that, especially on the West Coast. On the East Coast, it’s different, as you guys have a strong train and toy train culture.
Tell me about a noteworthy item you have sold.
One was from the Peck family, which was a local family in the San Jose area. They happened to have one page of a Lincoln letter. It was an unsigned Lincoln letter, but it was authenticated and brought over $53,000 [in June 2019], which was nice because it was only page two of a letter. It did refer to slavery in that part of the letter, so it was historically important. I believe it was the University of Miami that purchased it.
I also hold the record for artist Ira Yeager, who unfortunately just passed away [January 5, 2022]. Ira was well known for being flamboyant and quite the character. He used to live just up in the Napa Valley. He was in his early eighties. We hold the record for most money paid for an Ira Yeager artwork at auction, which was $38,000 [in December 2020].
Describe a typical day or week for you.
Always fun. I like coming to work because you never know what you’re going to see. I’m on my way now to Monterey, California to take a look at a collection of cartoons, and the Snoopy character is part of that collection. There is a collection of Ansel Adams photographs I am going to look at this week. He was an important photographer all over, but particularly in California for his Yosemite photographs. I’m going to look at costume jewelry on Thursday in Santa Rosa, and I am off to Nevada on Friday, which is about an eight- to nine-hour drive to look at an art collection up there, specifically related to Midwestern artists, cowboys and Indians and Native American works. In my job, I get to see something new almost every day. That’s the fun part.
Like most auctioneers, you spend a lot of time on the road and making house calls. Do you enjoy that?
That is the most enjoyable part of the job for me, because you are only as good as your next auction. If you’re sitting in your office, you are not doing your job and you are not going to have an interesting auction any time soon. Looking at things is the most enjoyable part.
To contact Stephen Turner or to discuss a future consignment to Turner Auctions + Appraisals, call 888-498-4450 (toll-free) or 415-964-5250. Click to visit Turner Auctions + Appraisals online.