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Selling Art During Tough Times

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Selling Art During Tough Times

Leslie Hindman Auction House. (WBEZ/Gianofer Fields)

Whether to buy groceries or pay for a prescription is one of the main story lines of the rough economy. But for others—with more disposable income—the choices are not as stark.

Lane Steven owns Sandy Lane Estate sales. He’s been in the business for about 35 years. He says he can remember a time when people were willing to travel great distances for a sale. Now buyers shop close to home because they don’t want to spend a lot of money on gas. He says with so many facing foreclosures, the likely hood of a sale close to home is unfortunately improving.

STEVEN: We’re getting calls from single family homes in the South, Southwest side, South Side, East side and in the city. We’re getting condos that are in foreclosure we’re getting...as well as a you know, death in the family and the divorces. We’re getting calls on large, very large homes with very large inventories.

Steven says it’s better for his clients not to attend their estate sale. It’s too stressful and emotions run high. In the case of death, it’s hard for a family let go of a candy dish that mother or grandfather used to hold a favorite sweet. Saying goodbye to personal history is hard. For families facing foreclosure, an uncertain future is frightening.

STEVEN: They know the banks coming after them. They got a house full of items that they’d like to liquidate, get their hands on some cash. Because they know that the banks gonna be there sooner or later to you know take position of the property. Financial hardship can be embarrassing and some sellers like to remain anonymous.

Leslie Hindman has 30 years in the consignment and auction business. She says sometimes its’ the name that sells like John Belushi.

HINDMAN: His widow Judy, who’s darling, called us and said I’ve got all of John’s stuff, do you think anybody would want it. And we said, ‘Yeah, they would definitely want it.’ And we sold everything from Ray Band sunglasses, Blues Brothers suits, his old driver’s license and it was all worthless stuff, but because it was his it sold for a fortune.

The Hindman gallery is a huge warehouse. A Leroy Neiman hangs on the wall and a Miro rests on the floor as the Green Line train rumbles past the building. Precious gems are kept in a bank vault next to room full of Haute Couture. Hindman hands me a 15-caret diamond ring and says jewelry is selling big these days. She says it’s always a good time to buy art. But buying for reasons other than pure pleasure takes skill.

HINDMAN: You people who are in the business and serious about the business don’t like to use the word investment because it’s cheesy, to be honest with you. If you know what you’re doing, you can buy works of art as an investment, but you really need to know that you’re doing and you need to buy the best of the best. And you know just buying anything isn’t an investment. It’s not a term people like to use.

Robyn Farrell Roulo is a fine art specialist for Hindman Auctioneers.

FARRELL–ROULO: Good art is always going to sell and buyers, collectors of art are always going to buy. And that’s really what I think will stay true. It’s more than a decorative object. It reflects them, the status and I think that’s something that going to hold true regardless of the economy.

Leslie Hindman says interior design magazines may be filled with ultra modern layouts. But she sees a different trend on the horizon.

HINDMAN: I think that people, because of the economy, will start wanting more coziness in their lives. And will be home more and won’t want this totally chic modern look. They’ll want some comfortable sofa and some old things around that are charming and cozy.

Leslie Hindman says it too early to tell how her business will fair in the current economic climate.

But another auction house says it seems this economy will have some effect on their market. Christies’ is based in New York with offices and sales all over the world. To get to Christies’ Chicago office in the Hancock Building, a security guard uses a magic key to unlock the elevator going to the 38th floor. Stock market numbers crawl across a video screen. The elevator goes up slower than the market numbers go down.

According to Christies’ Steven Zick says there are certain benefits to dealing art, no matter what the ticker tape says.

ZICK: It’s an old saying that in the auction world. Our market is founded by death, debt, downsizing and divorce. And a new one I just heard recently that makes a lot of sense is desire. So there really are five D’s that fuel the auction market.

Like many auction houses, Christies’ allows prospective buyers to see the items up for sale sometimes weeks befor the sale. Earlier this month they had a small pre-view in London. Zick says the economy may change what people buy.

ZICK: There will be more selective bidding, there’ll be more discerning bidding. There won’t be perhaps the bidding frenzies we’ve seen in years past. People are going to be attracted in this sort of market to very Blue Chip, very fresh, very important works that haven’t come up before for a very long time and might not again.

Zick says no matter the market, stellar pieces of contemporary art will always bring stellar pieces. There’s a reason why Blue chip artists like Van Gogh, Picasso and Basquiat will always sell for millions.

ZICK: What we are selling has a tangible value. It has…it stirs the emotions unlike intangibles like stocks and bonds and derivatives and that sort of thing.

Zick says it’s not always the wealthy that reap the benefits of a successful auction.

ZICK: The proverbial little old lady called from Minneapolis-St. Paul in connection with an historical society that needed a new roof. And she wanted to sell a donated sapphire and she thought it was worth about $60,000 and she wondered if we would be interested. The testing revealed it was a flawless sapphire, internally flawless. It had never been heat treated to improve its color and it was from a rare extinct mine in Kashmir. And so at the end of the day it should for $3.7 million and became the most expensive sapphire ever offered at auction in the history of auctions.

Leslie Hindman and Steven Zick both say that some clients may put off buying luxury items at least until the market improves. Not because they are worried about money, but because extravagant purchases may be seen as garish. Then again…

ZICK: The Monaco Yacht Show last month had a huge stellar year. People were fighting for the 500-foot yacht as opposed to the 300-foot yacht. So that tells us that there are still plenty of buyers with plenty of money still around.

Another name for money is currency. For some, the flow is torrential and 500-foot yacht suits them just fine. Others staying inundated with debt may have to sell their life preservers to say afloat.

I’m Gianofer Fields, Chicago Public Radio.

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