“I really had no life plan. This all just happened,” Laura King Pfaff says, still surprised by her unexpected ascent to the pinnacle of success. “After college, I traveled in Europe, playing a lot of tennis. Somehow I got hired by Avon to run their Women’s Professional Tennis Tour and now,” she shrugs, “here I am.”
“Here” is Bonhams & Butterfields, the third largest auction house in the world and the one with premier presence on the West Coast, headquarters in San Francisco. Although as a natural athlete always drawn to sports, she would never have predicted it—didn’t even imagine it until it happened, this lanky blue-eyed San Francisco native, has been its Chairman more than two years. And business is booming.
Actually, she was in her rookie season at Butterfields when privately-owned British fine art auction house Bonhams made the merger, turning her into an ambassador from one of Britain’s oldest (founded in 1793) companies to the Bay Area and the west coast north from it into Vancouver.
“Now, I know,” she laughs, “how doctors feel when they go out socially. People are always pulling me aside to ask how much I think this or that is worth. Also people ask: ‘What’s your specialty?’ It really surprises them when I say I don’t have one.” She pauses, then releases her gleaming smile. “I’m so lucky. I can call upon a wonderful staff of very competent people who know everything.”
As she says this, “here” happens to be her graciously old-fashioned Russian Hill aerie overlooking San Francisco Bay, a cheery cornucopia of mementoes, heirlooms and collected treasures. By other flashes of luck that still astonish her, she acquired the high ceiling eight-room apartment after returning sixteen years ago, as Miss Laura Knoop, from a series of major sports marketing jobs on the east coast (the US. Open Tennis and Golf Tournaments, the Triple Crown of Polo. Teamtennis for Billie Jean King) to become Mrs. Scott King.
“Scott and I were married two years when we found this place,” she says, waving from the fireplace to the picture window. Her radiant ivory colored home had been a forlorn fixer upper that had lingered unsold for years. “We cashed almost every-thing to buy it and went to the title company. That was the day in 1987 the market crashed! So we got this place but had nothing left to fix it up.”
Her husband worked as a stockbroker and she, not finding sports marketing on the west coast, found work marketing consumer goods like wine and real estate. Slowly the couple modernized the place: updated wiring and plumbing, a kitchen …”and we ripped the shag carpet off this beautiful hardwood floor!” That lustrous wood is now adorned with elegant Oriental carpets.
Her husband’s family shipped furniture from their home in New Canaan, Connecticut. Her family gave things from the house in Atherton where she’d grown up.
“That,” she shrugs, disturbing shoulder length blonde hair, “ is how we furnished.”
Bicoastal harmony remains the motif. A luscious Elizabeth Charleston oil provided by Pfaff’s mother, who was the noted San Francisco artist’s friend, presides over a dining wall that faces an antique curio cabinet sent by as a wedding present by a member of the King family. Traditional sterling rimmed cut crystal dishes share living room sunlight with a gilded Asian screen.
“It’s good you came,” she says modestly, “because it made me clean up!” Indeed everything sparkles and there is absolutely no sign anywhere of hired help. But then, Laura King Pfaff reached these heights she calls “here” as a good sport giving her all to be a can-do woman, whatever the job.
The huge black and white needlepoint pillow stuck smack in the middle of her nonstop bay view, with its couple dancing over a June 1995 date, is living room proof, for it represents what she could do in the worst of times. Those began in 1993 when Laura and Scott King’s charmed San Francisco life was rudely halted by the diagnosis of a brain tumor that soon ended Scott’s life at 47 years of age.
“I quit my job and nursed him for a year and a half,” his widow says quietly. “But everybody was so wonderful, so wonderful. Scott was very popular and there was this huge outpouring. But still…when it was over, I left. I traveled, stayed in the east and eventually came back to this place. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then Nancy Bechtle asked me to chair the Black and White Ball.
“That was out of the blue for me,” she confides, “so at first I thought: ‘Well I can’t do anything like that!’ But then I realized I’d done events in New York when I worked in sports marketing. They were totally different from this ball but I thought: ‘Well, okay, I can try it. I’ll just give it my very best and…then maybe something will come for me.”
She flashes that shiny white smile. “Nancy was so clever about getting me out of the house again. I wasn’t really ready for regular work, but she got me a cubicle at the Symphony office. The next thing I know, Nancy and I were off with our black and white balloons marching into the offices of Chuck Schwab and Don Fisher. Every day I was on the job. It turned out to be fun.” Although she’s too modest to say so, it was also such a grand success she was asked to chair another Black and White Ball, in 1997.
Still, when the party was over, with summer looming, Laura King left her life in San Francisco to go east to Watch Hill, Rhode Island, a special seaside community she’d discovered during her working girl days in New York. As she’d done then, she rented a house and settled contentedly with tennis racquet and golf clubs into the New England summer.
“That’s when I got a phone call from Korn Ferry,” she says, referring to the corporate recruiting firm. “They said my name had been mentioned in conjunction with a marketing job for the city of San Francisco and asked if I would be interested.”
After some consideration, she packed up, flew back and went through the inter-viewing process. “In the end,” she says graciously, “I didn’t get that job. The person who did was far more qualified—there were parts I hadn’t handled before where that person had experience -- so it worked out for the best.
“And I got to go back to Rhode Island. The next day I got a call from a friend who worked at Christie’s. She was running their San Francisco office but, she said, her husband was being transferred in his job to Hong Kong and she was going with him. She wanted me to take her job.
“’Me?!’ I said. ‘I haven’t taken an art history course since high school!”
“’That’s not important,’ she said.
Indeed it wasn’t, for Laura King got the position. Everyday she went to her office upstairs in a small building on Sacramento Street between Locust and Laurel. “It was just great for me because all my friends lived in that neighborhood so they would stop by to see how I was. I loved that job.”
It meant she had to travel the West Coast, from Monterey where she’d spent her high school years at the prestigious Santa Catalina School to Vancouver. “But so many of my Santa Catalina classmates are living in this region,” she says, recrossing her long legs in the easy chair, “I got to visit them all and keep in better touch.”
And as promised, she didn’t need to be an art history expert. Christie’s sent its top specialists to her and she introduced them to people considering Christie’s services. Following the experts around, she also began to learn. “I’d been in and out of people’s homes all my life but I’d never looked before,” she laughs. “It was amazing what I saw now!”
Probably the most amazing sight was Richard Pfaff of Burlingame. She married the divorced corrugated box manufacturer three years ago and now shares her beloved apartment not only with him, but with a prominent mantel top picture of the two of them surrounding his older daughter, Kelly, on her wedding day, and his collection of coffee table books on sailing.
Richard Pfaff is currently Chairman of the Board of the Saint Francis Yacht Club and happy owner of a 47 ft. Sparkman and Stevens sloop which he’s been known to race around the bay, not necessarily with his wife aboard.
“I raced against my husband actually,” Laura Pfaff laughs. “I’m still learning and the first regatta I was in was offering a prize for the boat with the most women crew. So I went with the women. That crew was just phenomenal. We didn’t come in first but we did win the prize for the boat with the most women!”
The Pfaffs were sailing together one day, a former New York City boss of Laura’s on board as a guest with her husband. “He’d been recruited by eBay to run Butterfields for them,” as she tells it. “He was British and having a tough time so asked me to come over to Butterfields. ‘Please!’ he pleaded and my husband said: ‘Go for it!’
As it happened, Butterfields was looking for an ambassador to the San Francisco community, someone with a sterling reputation. Laura King Pfaff fit that bill.
“It’s so exciting for me to actually be at the sale location now,” she says. “Christie’s was just a regional office so we had to ship all the stuff we were offered to the actual auction house. But here my office is next to the jewelry department and right above the sales room! Every time something wonderful comes in, I get to see it, especially the jewelry. And I take great pride in following property from the house it lived in to the sale on our floor, which usually takes about three months.
What’s even more exciting, thanks to automobiles and the amazing grace of her timing, is this year Laura King Pfaff made Bonhams & Butterfields as bicoastal as she is. Because some of its ‘property’ was antique cars, which her prestigious company could handle with unique experience, she won an east coast estate, then had to stage a tent sale in May in Brookline, Massachusetts. “Cars are property we can only sell off-site,” she says with a twinkle in those magnetic blue eyes.
The Brookline sale was such a rousing success it led to a second off-site car auction, this one of vintage Rolls Royces. With a nod from the boss, it took place in August under a tent on a rolling lawn by the Atlantic Ocean on Goat Island, Rhode Island. And two weeks later it was followed by a vintage car sale at Quail Lodge in Monterey on the Pacific.
Having broken the ground, Bonhams & Butterfields Chairman lights up at the thought of doing more business in New England. She and Rick Pfaff now own their own place in Rhode Island, “a small, hidden place with Crate & Barrel stuff. We would like to be able to spend more summer time there,” she confesses.
They only got two weeks this year. Laura was too busy juggling supervision of the San Francisco auctions for 2003, co-chairing the upcoming biennial World Wildlife Fund evening benefit on October 18 at the Ferry Plaza and, of course, preparing for Bonhams & Butterfields Collector’s Circle Luncheon which launches the legendary Fall Antiques Show at Fort Mason.
She also opened the company’s doors to charity events, providing premier premises as her company’s donation to the cause. “I’m encouraging this. I love seeing the transformation of our warehouse for these parties!” She grins widely, perhaps because having vaulted from a traveling tennis player to a respected international company’s chairman, transformation has become Laura King Pfaff’s specialty.
1. Laura King Pfaff in her dining room, watched over by an antique chandelier that came, “according to legend,” she says, from a cathedral in France. It came to her and her late husband Scott King, with whom she bought and furnished this Russian Hill apartment, as a gift from his Connecticut family. Each crystal supports an angel with wings, and they’ve watched over her through the tragedy of losing her first husband to the triumph of becoming Chairman of internationally acclaimed Bonhams & Butterfields.
2. The bedroom was one of only two rooms Laura King Pfaff “had help with,” she admits. But like all eight rooms in her eighth floor home, it combines east with west. The armoire came from her husband’s family in Connecticut, the mirror from Regency House Imports in San Francisco. When as a widow she married Richard Pfaff, they both decided this apartment was so comfortable they didn’t need to start over in another but they did create a special den for him.
3. The Pfaff’s bedroom faces the sunny south, toward Richard’s manufacturing plant in South San Francisco and Laura’s Bonhams & Butterfields’ headquarters at 220 San Bruno Avenue. Light peach walls set off glowing pastel chintz, creating here what visitors to the rest of the apartment keep telling Laura King Pfaff is “a cozy feeling.” The light fixture is one of hundreds hanging in older luxury buildings across the city. It was designed by the late socially prominent Michael Taylor.
4. Her foyer is as bi-coastal as Laura King Pfaff who also maintains a home on the coast of Rhode Island. The antique sofa descended from her grandmother’s San Francisco apartment. She bought the five prints above it with her late husband Scott King at a bookshop in Connecticut, his home state. Being a collector herself helps her to understand and satisfy Bonhams & Butterfields customers’ needs.
5. The huge 18th C. Korean screen on the living room wall was purchased in Europe by her late husband Scott King’s mother. The rug came from Laura’s parents, the Knoops, in Atherton. But joining these family heirlooms is the Italian design monkey leg coffee table she purchased herself at Luciano Antiques in Carmel. The sofa’s needlepoint pillows, all three stitched by her, have a crown motif as a reference to what was her longtime married name, King.
6. Across from her grandmother’s sofa in the entry foyer is this bouille chest that came from her late husband’s family in Connecticut. The pair of sterling silver candelabras were a wedding gift when she was the bride Laura Knoop marrying stockbroker Scott King. As Laura King she added the mirror which she found at Gumps. The porcelain dogs, she says, “have no story. They’re my pets.”
7. The dining room is the other room Laura King Pfaff admits she had help with. Its pale yellow walls reflect the light from the big bay view picture window to the north and the sunset window to the west. But like all the rooms in her home it’s a treasure chest of heirlooms and memories. The clock was her late husband’s, the chandelier his mother’s and the antique curio cabinet between the windows a wedding gift from his family. Out of view on the east wall is an Elizabeth Charleston oil painting given to Laura King Pfaff by her mother.