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Auctioneer Rico Baca: he’s strictly a ‘modern’ man

Palm Beach Modern Auctions
Rica Baca, auctioneer and co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Actions, calls a bid. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Rico Baca says his former job as a hairstylist in Palm Beach helped prepare him to run auctions. Already an art and design aficionado, Baca’s job afforded him access to many area homes and gave him an understanding of what made his future client base tick by seeing what they collected. As auctioneer and co-owner of Palm Beach Modern Auctions (PBMA) in West Palm Beach, along with his husband, Wade Terwilliger, he now conducts a handful of highly select auctions per year, specializing in 20th-century furniture, fine and decorative arts. Notable genres with which PBMA has scored impressive results include Karl Lagerfeld fashion sketches, quirky Picasso ceramics, Le Pho paintings, Studio 54 memorabilia and Wendell Castle furniture. Auction Central News chatted with Rico Baca to learn more.

How did you and Wade get started in the auction business?

We got started in the gallery business first. A few years later we realized a lot of the really good stuff was going to auction houses and we started looking at what it would be like to own or run an auction house. We did off-site auctions first until we got a facility.

Palm Beach Modern Auctions
This Sam Francis painting from 1987 sold for $579,500, including the buyer’s premium, in a May 2017 sale conducted by Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

What did your gallery show?

We focused on three genres: Arts and Crafts pottery and furniture; modern design, which was becoming the thing at that point [circa 2003]; and then vintage rattan and reed furniture, which is a Florida thing.

How soon did you expand your auction into other fields?

When we first started doing auctions, we simply did what we knew and focused on modern furniture and design. As the years have gone on, we have focused more on art, sculpture, glass, luxury items, jewelry, handbags, Hermes scarves and things of that nature. That is more exciting than pushing sofas and chairs around.

Palm Beach Modern Auctions
A Tom Wesselmann steel drawing sculpture, 86 by 61 inches, designed to hang on a white wall, sold for $338,000, including the buyer’s premium, in February 2020 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

What auction or genre has been most exciting for you?

The most exciting so far has been the Studio 54 sale [January 2013]. I was referred by a gallery to a guy in New York who had this portrait of Steve Rubell’s 35th birthday [Studio 54’s co-founder]. I called him and said, “I’m in, I’m a disco freak so I love this portrait, but do you have anything more?” and he said, “Well, I was Steve’s last lover and I do have more things.” I said, “Great, I’ll see you in four days.” It was very exciting and not only because of the merchandise. It was also because the consignor was incredibly open to my ideas about what we could do with this … he was 100% on board. He let us do our thing and we got great results for him. The other thing was that it was a bonanza of publicity. The New York Times did a front-page Style section on us and CBS sent out a film crew that filmed all day. It went all over the country so we were getting calls from all different stations for interviews, and then it went worldwide. It was a very exciting time for our business.

In your own home, what do you collect?

Wade still loves the Arts and Crafts stuff. I am more drawn to vintage Italian stuff. We have a Gio Ponti cabinet from the 1960s out of Iran, a large Alessandro Mendini “Soli” dining room table, a Fornasetti coffee table in the living room, and we also collect contemporary art. So it is a little eclectic, it’s not hard-core modern.

Palm Beach Modern Auctions
Rico Baca is greeted by his dog, Sasha. He is sitting at one of his favorite pieces in his home, an Alessandro Mendini ‘Soli’ dining table. On the shelf in background are Ettore Sottsass ceramics, William Accorsi erotic puzzle sculptures, and Jamie Hayon vessels. Photo courtesy of Rico Baca

When it comes to modern and contemporary art, what do collectors care about?

There are different kinds of collectors that we experience. One is the collector that walks in the door during the preview and only wants to buy the most expensive stuff. They are not interested in looking at emerging artists, they just want the best … Then it’s people who are like in the middle market looking for value and they will earmark certain items, whether it be contemporary photography or art, as a good investment. The third kind of person who comes in generally is the beginning client, who is very much an interest of ours, and it’s the reason why we have editions and prints. Most of the time they are people in their 20s and 30s and they don’t have $5,000, $10,000 or $50,000 to invest in art, but they do have $500, $800 or $1,200, and the prints that we have are really beautiful with great graphics.

Palm Beach Modern Auctions
These two Francois-Xavier Lalanne ‘Mouton’ sculptures fetched $247,000 and $221,000, including the buyer’s premium, in November 2019 at Palm Beach Modern Auctions. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

From going out on house calls to doing research, holding meetings, working up estimates and often coming up with a property schedule the same day as a house call, your typical day is pretty busy.

As we all know in this particular business, the sooner you get this merchandise out of your hands, the better off you are. I work very quickly with this kind of stuff.

Regarding 20th-century art and design, is there much left to learn?

There is so much to learn. If someone collects good things, it is usually reflected in the whole apartment or house. I can walk in and know they have a great eye. It challenges me to keep my mind open, as there is so much to know in the world of art. Everyone knows the big names, but there is a great deal to be learned.

Palm Beach Modern Auctions
Studio 54 photographs by Richard P. Manning were displayed at the gallery in February 2017. PBMA’s 2013 sale of Studio 54 memorabilia from the late Steve Rubell’s collection, garnered worldwide publicity and was a particular favorite of Rico’s. Photo courtesy of Palm Beach Modern Auctions

Final comment?

I had no idea that this business would be so fulfilling in the sense of meeting people and the experiences of finding stuff and selling stuff. I had no idea it would be this exciting, and 99% of the time, the people I experience are just fun to be with and nice, so I am really happy. I love doing this, and it’s a great business.


To contact Rico Baca or to discuss a future consignment to Palm Beach Modern Auctions, call 561-586-5500. Visit PBMA online at  

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Palm Beach Modern Auctions