Most would say a sunset on Nantucket is priceless, but if you ask Rafael Osona, it’s worth $17,000. Alongside his wife Gail, Osona is the fast-talking, third-generation antiquarian of Nantucket’s only auction house on 21 Washington Street. Over the past thirty-three years, he’s traded well over 180,000 items, ranging from a whaling captain’s walking stick that sold for over $71,000 to a Nantucket basket that fetched a handsome $115,000. Osona has also used his auctioneering skills to raise millions for local nonprofits, sometimes auctioning off items that you’d never expect to find for sale. Ten years ago, he raised $17,000 for Hospice on Nantucket by selling a sunset at Galley beach. Working the crowd, he then sold a lock of his hair. It went for five grand.
When Osona mounts his auction stage every summer, bidders call in from as far as London and Hong Kong to get in on the action. More than half of the items the Osonas sell have been acquired on-island, thus keeping some of the most interest- ing and valuable heirlooms circulating within the Nantucket community. A set of table and chairs once belonging to the Kennedys, for instance, is used every day by a local family, while chairs from ships in the Boston Tea Party were sold to the Whaling Museum. The Osonas travel coast to coast in search of 18th- to 20th-century art and antiques that will keep connoisseurs from around the world bidding year after year.
Each of his sales has a tale behind it. He recalls the story of the “cigar-store Indian” from Ohio. The proprietor of the smoke shop talked him and Gail into auctioning off his “cigar-store Indian,” the signature wooden carving of a Native American in full headdress that welcomed tobacco buyers in the 18th and 19th centuries. “The owner was ill and she need- ed money,” Osona remembers. “For the next three days, we carried this Indian on our backs from the rental car in and out of the hotel room because we didn’t want it to get stolen. It looked like we were carrying a dead body.” Osona sold the Indian for over $50,000 and “made the storeowner’s life.”
A similar story belongs to Rebecca Davidson Packer, an English professor at NYU who inherited her aunt’s island home and two-bedroom apartment in New York City in 2011. The apartment was brimming with antiques: silver trays, tortoiseshell boxes, Paul Revere silver, brass candlesticks, and at least eight hundred pieces of blue and white china. “There were silver platters piled on the beds,” Packer says, “imported chinaware piled in the closet and stuffed into the bookcases, all covered in dust. My aunt was a bit of a hoarder and that is how I came to rely on Rafael.” Osona put his antiquarian eye to work, cataloging the myriad of items with auctioneer efficiency. “He’s like Antiques Roadshow on steroids,” Packer laughs. When the last gavel came slamming down, Osona had sold the entire collection, allowing Packer to not only buy her aunt’s house on Nantucket, but also to fully renovate it.
Even for a man who can sell a sunset for the price of a car, there are some items that Osona simply can’t sell on Nantucket. He’s passed up at least two shrunken heads that rolled across his desk, which he says some collectors elsewhere will pay upwards of $50,000 for. He also owns an old prison-issue straight-jacket that he can’t find the right fit for amongst his usual clientele.
In recent years, Osona has seen a dramatic change in taste and acquisitions, which he sums up as less is more. “Before, there were six 18th- century chests of drawers in a typical house, now there are only one or two,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be an antique lamp on an antique dresser on an antique rug anymore. Now there might be an acrylic lamp on the same chest.” He chuckles, “Antiques can be a little busy.”
Many of Osona’s auction guests come just for the experience, citing his ease of entertaining the audience and working the crowd. When Osona worked at the William Doyle auction house in New York City, he would sell 130 to 140 items per hour, but on Nantucket he elects to sell only sixty per hour. “I do a thirty- second spiel and we joke around, we laugh,” he says.
Osona is a third-generation antiquarian. His father was a museum conservator of Old Master paintings, while his grandfather was a connoisseur of antiques and art in Spain and then Argentina. Now as his two boys, Rafael and Erin, enter the family business, it looks like Osona’s auctions will never be just a thing of the past. You can bid on it.