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An Opening Bid for Chicago Art

Leslie Hindman's Made in Chicago auction aims to build the local brand.



Last week, as Damien Hirst's end run around the gallery system—an auction of more than 200 of his latest so-called artworks at Sotheby's in London—had many in the international art world quaking in their Guccis, a much smaller experiment with a potentially bigger local impact was taking place in Chicago. For the first time in her 30 years in the business, auctioneer Leslie Hindman was putting a group of pieces on the block in a distinct category she called Made in Chicago. "There hasn't been a strong identity for Chicago work in the secondary market," Hindman said just before the auction in her new headquarters at 1338 W. Lake. "We want to build it. However things go today, this is a beginning."

The 112 lots by 55 Chicago artists weren't the main attraction. The two-day sale included about 400 other pieces, European and American, from old masters to contemporary. And while prices at Hindman's regional house don't approach those at Sotheby's—where a Hirst piece went for $19 million last year—they aren't chump change, either. A 1938 Robert Delaunay tapestry, Rhythm, expected to sell for about $15,000, wound up going for $84,400 (including a 22 percent buyer's fee); a Dürer engraving, The Knight, Death, and the Devil, went for $66,400; and a bronze bench by contemporary French artist Claude Lalanne brought $60,400.

Nothing in Made in Chicago went at those prices, but Hindman devoted 36 pages to it in her printed catalog (viewable at and tried to seed interest with a lunch for local collectors of Chicago artists at the Arts Club several weeks before the sale. She says the collectors were enthusiastic. Dealers might not be expected to feel the same about auction houses moving into gallery territory, but the reaction from those I spoke with boils down to "the more interest in the work, the better for everyone."

Held at noon on a sunny Sunday, the auction drew fewer than 100 live bodies. They sipped coffee and cruised an expansive preview room before settling into folding chairs in front of the podium. But these days the crowd you see is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of the action comes from remote bidders, and the scene is both more profitable and less exciting than it used to be. A line of eight black-suited Hindman staffers manned a bank of phones along one wall and another team sat at computers.

The pace was rapid. An initial group of 63 lots of post-World War II and contemporary work was dispatched in less than a minute per item. Blink and you could miss a Bob Thompson painting change hands for $20,000 or a Harry Bertoia sculpture move for $40,000.

The first Chicago work was a Raoul Varin engraving of Chicago, circa 1871, that went for its low estimate of $300. The next four offerings—all vintage oils with relatively high reserves—failed to rouse a single bid. But then Gypsy Children by Adam Emory Albright fetched $8,000; a large oil by William Samuel Schwartz, Nature Vs. Man, brought $19,000; and five of Gertrude Abercrombie's starkly surrealistic images sold easily, mostly above their highest estimates.

Someone scored a Seymour Rosofsky pastel, Backyard in Winter, for a mere $300. But Roger Brown's Devil's Surprise—in which churchgoers roast in hell while lovers cavort in heaven—commanded $24,000. And two small pieces by Christina Ramberg elicited some of the category's most active bidding, selling for $1,200 and $1,800—double and triple their estimates.

In the end, about a third of the Made in Chicago work had failed to find buyers. But Hindman says her only disappointment was that two bovine statues from the city's 1999 Cows on Parade show (both decorated by Terra Museum staff and estimated to be worth $4,000-$5,000) were among the leftovers. She maintains that demand, especially for contemporary art, continues to be strong, and "it's just going to take time to build the market for the Chicago school."

The Hirst caper notwithstanding, Hindman doesn't see auction houses displacing galleries anytime soon. "Artists' reputations have to be developed in the primary market," she says. "Damien Hirst has been represented by really good galleries for years. That's the only reason he could risk this."

Hindman says she'll conduct another Made in Chicago auction on May 3. Next week—September 21 and 22—her gavel will be coming down on vintage couture, jewelry, and watches.

Getting Teen Opera Buffs Off the Streets

The skies were threatening at the start of the annual, free Stars of Lyric Opera concert, September 6 at Millennium Park, and tenor Jonas Kaufmann was a no-show. But it turned out to be a glorious evening. Fifteen-year-old Alexandra Kurtz and her grandmother, Doris Lapporte, happened to be sitting next to me. Kurtz said she was thrilled to see Natalie Dessay, who looked like a pop star but sounded like the crystalline diva she is, singing an aria from La Traviata, which Kurtz "loves."

A sophomore at Glenbrook North High School, Kurtz is a theater and opera fan and aspiring voice student. She's had lead roles in park district productions of shows like Oliver! and Grease, and once saw Phantom of the Opera twice in the same day "and cried both times." The doubleheader was possible, she said, because Broadway in Chicago offered student tickets at $20 each. She's never seen a full Lyric Opera production because Lyric offers no discounts for high schoolers; she'll have to wait three years to qualify for a Lyric college student ticket.

That's surprising, given the chronic fretting about where classical audiences of the future will come from, but Kurtz is right. Lyric offers a number of neighborhood and school programs for younger kids, a classroom program for Chicago high schools that includes attendance at dress rehearsals, some backstage tours, and a matinee in the spring for school groups. College students can get e-mail notification of short-notice ticket availability at $20 per seat. But there's no option other than full price for high schoolers who want to attend on their own.

Kurtz says she'll be checking out Chicago Opera Theater, which has sold half-price tickets and subscriptions to anyone under the age of 18, as well as to full-time college students, for a decade. Last spring COT also started offering $15 rush tickets—available a few days before the performance and announced by e-mail—to the college contingent. According to a COT spokesperson, they're going to make the $15 seats available to younger students too.

When Lyric opens its season next week with Manon, Dessay will appear as the title character: a girl of about Kurtz's age. As things stand, Manon could be the only 16-year-old in the house.v

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