we live here (now): deba gray and serena harragin, gray's auctioneers

Stepping into Gray's Auctioneers and Appraisers is like walking into a collector's dream. An army of Japanese netsukes -- miniature carved accessories – sit in formation before a vintage wedding gown. Ornate wooden canoe? Check. WWII propaganda poster? Got it. Also on hand: antique porcelain dinnerware, a bevy of rare books and manuscripts, even a four-poster bed, all waiting for their next home.
Sale prices at the regularly held auctions here range from the hundreds of thousands to mere pocket change. Case in point: Founder and president Deba Gray displays an elaborate set of silverware embossed with a Knights Templar insignia from the 1700s, which she expects it to go for $15,000 to $20,000. Then she turns to a loyal ceramic dog that will be included in the next no-reserve sale.
"A dollar might take it home," she says of the eternally forlorn looking pup. Quite the contrast to John Koch's 1971 painting The Party, which fetched $204,000 last month after a starting bid of $150,000.
Since 2007, Gray and co-founder and Serena Harragin have been offering all things rare, funky, divine and collectible in their monthly auctions. The live events attract bidders on site, online and on the phone. Gray's also provides formal appraisals to clients and free informal valuations on "What's it Worth?" Fridays, when they offer Antiques Roadshow-style estimates by appointment.
Suitably, the odyssey that led the couple to Cleveland is as fascinating as what they do every day.
Gray, a Rocky River native, made a name for herself in the industry despite dropping out of the Cleveland Institute of Art. Educational malfunctions notwithstanding, the now bonded and licensed auctioneer started out at the famed Wolf's Gallery in Cleveland before moving to Key West in 1991, where she opened the Oneofeachee Café and Gallery. There she met Harragin, who hails from Kenya. The two began dating and have been life partners ever since, recently marking 18 years together.
Harragin fused her international acting career with the production end of the business in the mid-90s. Her work spans both the commercial and humanitarian realms and has played out from Europe to eastern Africa to the United States, representing clients from General Motors to British Airways to the American Cancer Society.
In 1995, the couple migrated north, from Florida to Chicago, where Gray worked for Leslie Hindman Auctioneers and Sotheby's, while Harragin worked in television ad and program production. Gray's eventual burnout on the auctioneer circuit and a writers' strike that dried up Harragin's docket propelled the couple to New York in 2000.
"I loved the auction work, but I was stretched very thin," says Gray. "That's when Serena said, 'Why don't you come over to the dark side of the filming world?'"
Gray took her advice and began working in set and art direction for the film industry, eventually joining the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE Local 52 for short. She worked on dramatic special effects, including pyrotechnics.
"It was fabulous and very creative, and such a big shift -- to go from Sotheby's to blowing a car up in New York City."
So it went until September 11, 2001.
Emergency crews couldn't do anything without light. They also needed control over the horrific dust problem. Who could make it rain on cue? Who could turn night into day?
Movie people.
So it was that IATSE Local 52, with its klieg lights and massive rain heads, was one of the first crews called to Ground Zero.
For six months, Gray toiled on clean up, including the recovery of human remains. The work took its toll. New York started to feel small. Then on Mother's Day 2002, the bottom fell out.
"I'm in the pit and we were on the last pile from a part of a building that had been evacuated," recalls Gray. "We knew there were no more victims in there." While on break, a woman approached her.
"This mom comes down on mother's day and says, 'You're gonna find him, right? That's the last pile. You're gonna find him?'" The woman was still looking for her son. Gray pauses and swallows hard against the difficult memory.
"It was time to come home and start my own business," she says. "It was time to get back into the auction world."
It took a few years, but Gray and Harragin eventually made their way to the North Coast. Considering Harragin's attitude, that was no small feat.
"I had told Deba that we'd move to Cleveland over my dead body."
But as locals know, this town is a place that can change minds and win hearts. So it went for Harragin. Of course, she was bowled over by the Cleveland Museum of Art and MOCA, but our more subtle gems charmed her as well. She cites the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument, CPL's Main Library, the Fountain of Eternal Life, the Artcraft Building, and the "incredible opulence" of the Huntington Building.
"I just thought, wow, this city's actually quite beautiful," recalls Harragin.
To prove her assimilation is complete, Harragin serves on the Board of Directors of the Cleveland Play House. And although the move was a homecoming for Gray, it's not without irony. She also serves on a Board of Directors -- at the Cleveland Institute of Art -- the very school she dropped out of years before.
Gray's return to Cleveland brims with renewed local-girl pride. Among her favorites are the 78th Street Studios, Wolfs Gallery, Shaker Square Antiques, the studios at Lakewood's Screw Factory, Corcoran Fine Arts (particularly for it's "great Cleveland art"), and the "fabulous" Tremont scene.
Cleveland also delivers plenty of entertainment for the ultra-cosmopolitan couple. They practically trip over one another listing their favorite venues: Beachland Ballroom, Happy Dog, Brother's Lounge, bela dubby and the Grog Shop. "Favorite Restaurant" goes to Tartine Bistro in Rocky River, with Michael Symon's Lola Bistro coming in at a close second.
Having lived in frenetic cities such as New York and Chicago, Gray and Harragin appreciate things that many Clevelanders take for granted: easy driving and parking, the low cost of living and doing business, the simple concept of space. They live in Lakewood, which Gray calls "Mayberry," on account of the eclectic small businesses, walkability and tidy neighborhoods.
"Nothing can compare to the quality of life you have here in Cleveland," says Gray.
Harragin lauds area organizations such as CPAC, the City Club, the Cleveland Foundation and the Greater Cleveland Film Commission.
"We're talking about organizations that love Cleveland and want to promote Cleveland," she says. "They're doing things that are making Cleveland so attractive and so dynamic. It's great to feel that we're a part of that."
"That's what we're doing as an auction house. We feel we’re contributing to putting Cleveland on the map in the world’s eyes," says Harragin. "I’m loving that."

Photos Bob Perkoski
- Image 1: Deba Gray and Serena Harragin
- Image: 2: Deba Gray
- Image: 3: Serena Harragin
- Image 6: Deba's 9-11 hard hat
- Images 8 & 9: Japanese netsukes

Read more articles by Erin O'Brien.

Erin O'Brien's eclectic features and essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and others. The sixth generation northeast Ohioan is also author of The Irish Hungarian Guide to the Domestic Arts. Visit erinobrien.us for complete profile information.
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