Melissa Harris’ Chicago Confidential – By the end of the year, Chicago auctioneer Leslie Hindman will open two more auction houses, in Milwaukee and Palm Beach, Fla., as her eponymous firm expects to reap a second year of record sales.
Multiple trends are working in Hindman’s favor: Stubbornly high unemployment is driving people to sell their possessions; art is transforming into a valid investment class; and the Internet is providing Hindman easy access to a growing number of global art consumers, particularly in Asia. Last week, she hired her first Mandarin speaker in her Asian Works of Art department.
“The Chinese have become very aggressive and passionate about buying back their heritage,” Hindman said via phone from her office in Naples, Fla., where she hosted a party for about 100 bankers and estate lawyers Thursday night. “If we’re auctioning a Chinese jade item, we’ll probably sell it to someone in China.”
With macroeconomics seemingly on her side, now would be the time to break into Palm Beach, a market flush with New Yorkers as well as connections to New York auction houses.
But Sotheby’s has abandoned and Christie’s receded from — not exited — the lower end of the market, where Hindman specializes. Prices at Hindman’s May auction of American and European modern and contemporary art, for instance, ranged from $183 for a Frances Foy watercolor to $134,200 for a Roy Lichtenstein silkscreen.
Hindman said she expects to do $25 million to $30 million in business this year. She has 50 employees.
“It is the enigma of the current recession that no economist ever discusses,” the International Herald Tribune wrote in fall 2009. “Every analyst worth his salt will tell you that people are holding back as much as possible on expenses. Yet, this is not happening at the bottom end of the auction market, which is precisely the area that one would expect to have been worst hit.”
Hindman said the market has held up because more people can afford a $50,000 work by late Chicago artist Ed Paschke than a $20 million Monet. And she’s now capable of reaching Paschke fans around the globe quickly and cheaply via the Internet.
“We really are a marketing firm; that’s all we are,” said Hindman, who founded her company in 1982, sold it to Sotheby’s in 1997 and reopened in 2003.
A former host of two HGTV shows, she is a regular on the charity and event circuit: Art history “degrees aren’t as important as being around, and I’ve been around forever.”
To illustrate the importance of marketing, a 19th-century illustrated wood block book on falconry — in Japanese, no less — owned by the estate of avid falconer George Kotsiopoulos is set to be sold at an Aug. 9 auction of rare books. Kotsiopoulos died in 2003 and owned a crepe restaurant in Chicago and Evanston.
His collection of books on falconry is among the world’s “most extensive,” Mary Williams, Hindman’s director of books and manuscripts, said in an email.
One would think few would be interested in such a book, valued at $6,000 to $8,000, but not so, Williams said.
On the list of groups to alert about the sale: U.S. falconry associations; the Idaho-based Peregrine Fund, which holds the most comprehensive English-language falconry library in the world; the Japan Falconers Association; the National Conference for Japanese Falconry; wood block collectors; and then ornithology and general natural history book collectors, dealers and institutions.
“So our market is quite large,” Williams said.
Hindman, who collects gavels, began expanding her firm last year with an auction house in Naples, describing the city as “the Midwest of Florida.” A Milwaukee location follows that Midwest-centric logic; the office will be one block from the Pfister Hotel and open Sept. 1.
A lease on a Palm Beach office has not been signed yet. She is opening an auction house there because one of the leaders of her Florida operations, Maura Ross, has moved to Palm Beach.
She hopes customer service will set her apart. Since the financial crisis, Hindman said her company has lent about 20 consigners money against the sale of their property. Other firms, she said, “might not have done that for people who need $20,000.”