All Bets Are Off

When owners of two famed modernist houses recently decided to sell, they both turned to fine-art auctioneers—with surprising results.

In May, Christie's sold Richard Neutra's Kaufmann House for $16.84 million, but the sale was terminated by the owners days later. The same week, Wright auction house tried to sell Louis Kahn'sEsherickHouse for $2million, but found no bidders.

"We were trying to make a broad statement about the importance of the KaufmannHouse as awork of art," says JoshuaHoldeman, senior vice president of 20th-century art at Christie's. Nevertheless, offering even the finest residences does not guarantee profitable sales. "It's hard to assess the value of these signature properties," says Richard Wright, wholspentmore than six figures putting EsherickHouse on the block.

Both auctions attracted widespread media attention and interest froma large pool of potential buyers. That may enable Christie's andWright to arrange post-auction private sales. Alternately, the owners of the homes could sell them independently. (At press time, the fate of both houses remained uncertain.)

In either case, preservationists hope that auctions may help inspire renewed appreciation for a once-maligned architecturalmovement.