Martin Willis: Hello everyone, this is Martin Willis with the Antique Auction Forum and welcome to episode number 110 with Leslie Hindman. I hope you enjoy today’s show. This podcast is sponsored by WorthPoint. Find out what your antiques are worth at WorthPoint.com.
Hi, everyone, I’m on Skype with Leslie Hindman. How are you doing, Leslie?
Leslie: I’m doing really well, great!
Martin: And we’re calling you at your Chicago office. Can you tell us, right off the bat; I want to know how you started because I saw that you opened your first auction gallery there in 1982. What’s your background prior to that?
Leslie: You know I started working for Sotheby’s in 1978 and they opened a Chicago office and I was the assistant to the woman who was running it. It was their first branch office that they started in America. So I started there working, and I didn’t know much about the industry and I loved it immediately.
Martin: Did you have an art background or something?
Leslie: I had somewhat of an art background, but you know, just a general art history background. I was 21, I think and the woman who was opening their office needed someone just to work with her just as her assistant. I actually went to shorthand school and learned how to type, back in the day when people typed letters, and just started doing all this general office work and then really fell in love with the auction business. And our office was very successful and grew.
We held two auctions in Chicago. One was at the Drake hotel in 1980 and one was in ‘81. And they were wonderful and I just really, really loved the industry and thought it was fascinating.
I ended up running the office, was manager of Sotheby’s in Chicago and then realized that there was no major auction house in Chicago and Sotheby’s decided not to do other auctions here, so I decided to open an auction house in 1982.
Martin: Isn’t Dunnings – where is Dunnings?
Leslie: Dunnings is a very good, was a very good company in Elgin and Terry Dunning who ran it is a great guy who still does appraisals. I’ve known him forever and you know he always had a terrific company but it wasn’t a major, sort of internationally known company – they weren’t doing a lot of major advertising internationally and when I opened I thought that Chicago needed someone to do upscale marketing. So there were a couple of companies in Chicago, there was a company called Hansel, I don’t know if you remember Hansel Gallery? They’ve been around forever and ever, and Dunnings, but I just felt that no one was really doing anything major. No one was doing great advertising or catering to clients all over, so I kind of kicked it up a notch when I opened.
Martin: Wow. And, what was your very first auction like? Because I know how that can be.
Leslie: (Laughs) It was full of BIs…
Martin: “Buy Ins”…
Leslie: Yes. Buy-ins, so what we did was, I called everyone I’d ever met in the world and got together a very nice auction, a lot of dealer property but it was very respectable property and published a catalog, and quite a few things didn’t sell but it was very successful. I’d say that 600 people probably came, it was a huge crowd and you could just tell through even our first auction that there was a huge demand for an auction house in the mid-west that would be very full service.
Sotheby’s was doing very well in the mid-west. They were sending major property to New York and London but our ideal was to say to be very full service and to handle great property.
Martin: At one point you sold your auction business to Sotheby’s, is that right?
Leslie: Right, in 1997, they approached me and said that they wanted to be more involved with, quote, the middle market and the acquired my company, yes.
Martin: That sounds like a really good pay day to me!
Leslie: Yes, it was a very nice pay day – it was great.
Martin: So how did that work out with your non-compete clauses and all that stuff, for you to actually reopen again?
Leslie: Well you know they decided after a couple of years of running what was my company, which they called, Sotheby’s Chicago, to close what they had opened. I left after a couple of years and they decided to close, so, not because I left necessarily but just in general, I think they decided not to focus on the middle market. And so I waited until my non-compete was up and just reopened. And Sotheby’s was wonderful and I’m good friends with a lot of people there and they refer a lot of business to us and we have very good relationship with them.
Martin: Oh, that’s great. So was it a little tough restarting once you had closed, not actually closed, but once you had sold out — the restarting of a company a lot of times is very difficult – how did that process go?
Leslie: You know, nope, it actually wasn’t that difficult at all – it was really easy. I intended just to open in a small space and to have maybe six auctions a year and thought I’ll just handle really good property, I’ll do you know maybe do two furniture and decorative art sales a year, an American painting sale, a contemporary art sale, I thought I would have just a couple of jewelry sales, nothing as busy as what I had done before. And we rented space first and hired some employees and immediately the phone was ringing off the hook. Right and left we were doing appraisals and we were handling property and we did you know, maybe 15 million dollars’ worth of business our first year.
Martin: Wow. That’s really good
Leslie: Yeah. So it’s grown since then, but we opened and had an onslaught of consignments. It’s been great.
Martin: So how many auctions a year are you currently doing?
Leslie: You know I think we have maybe 50 scheduled this year.
Martin: You have auctions also in Denver, is that right?
Leslie: You know we opened an auction house in Naples, Florida, two years or so ago, that has been extremely successful, we have three sales a year there and we ship property from Florida to Chicago through our Naples auction house and then we opened in Denver last year and that’s been extremely successful. And we’re also shipping a lot of property from Colorado and the west to Chicago and we’ve also opened in Milwaukee where we’re holding a couple of auctions a year and shipping property from Milwaukee and Wisconsin to Chicago.
We also opened in Palm Beach.
Leslie: So what we’re doing now is seeing that there are a lot of markets that are underserved and opening auction rooms in these places and holding regularly scheduled sales that are growing and also shipping more major property to Chicago for sale.
Martin: Wow. That is quite an operation you have going. Good for you.
Leslie: Yeah, it’s going really well. It’s good.
Martin: Can we talk about…you found an undiscovered Van Gogh still life. Can you talk about that? That’s amazing.
Leslie: Right. And we found that actually in Wisconsin, there’s a lot of property in the mid-west and we find that the two major auction houses don’t have the time to you know, go to Iowa and Wisconsin as much as we do.
And we got a call once from a nice couple who lived in Milwaukee and they had some Victorian furniture they wanted us to look at so we went up and took a look at the furniture and in a hallway there was a floral still life that wasn’t signed, it was signed with a “V” and they said that in their family they’d always called it their little Van Gogh.
So we did some checking and we spent, you know, several months doing research and finally sent it to Amsterdam to the Van Gogh museum and anyway, it turned out to be right, it was actually a work by Vincent Van Gogh – one of the only undiscovered paintings discovered in 20 years and we sold it for $1,434,000 to a Japanese collector.
Martin: Wow – that must have been very exciting! Now I know occasionally they’ll discover a Van Gogh that is painted over by other artists because you know, as canvases were sold as canvas they were repainted a lot of times, so what a feather in your cap for that one.
Leslie: Yeah, that was fun; that was fun.
Martin: Now can you talk about any other, in the history of the company, some other really interesting finds and sales over the years?
Leslie: You know, we’ve done a lot of specialized sales and on-site sales that I have loved. For example, we did the last event ever held at the Chicago Stadium which is the building that was torn down where the Bulls and Blackhawks played forever. So we had a huge auction there before they tore the stadium down and sold everything in the Chicago stadium, from the championship banners, to the toilet signs to the…you know, absolutely everything. It was so much fun and thousands of people came and bought Bulls and Blackhawks memorabilia and that was just terrific. I love things like that.
Martin: Wow, yeah…
Leslie: We also handled the auction of Comiskey Park when they tore the park down. We handled John Belushis’ estate – and you’d like that, and that was a huge amount of fun, so we did that. We’ve done all kinds of things. And you know a great Elvis Presley collection a couple of years ago from a man named Gary Pepper who started his first fan club.
We’ve done everything. What’s really fun now is the Asian market.
Martin: Oh, yes.
Leslie: And so we’re having three Asian works of art sales a year that have been unbelievable to watch. Prices are crazy.
Martin: They are. I can’t even…I mean if you could only go back in time a few years and buy up a bunch of the things that nobody wanted, of course the very fine things, they always did want.
Martin: But the pieces are…it’s very hard to appraise anything like that.
Martin: We did a podcast with one of your workers a while back and a cohost that a lot of people really, really loved on my show, Phyllis Kao is now working with you.
Leslie: Yes, she’s wonderful, she’s terrific. She’s working with Asian. She speaks Mandarin, thankfully.
Martin: Yes, I think she speaks something like four or five languages.
Leslie: Yeah, she’s very bright.
Martin: She is, she’s wonderful. A lot of people miss her on this pod cast and I get emails from people every now and then, “where’s Phyllis?” so…she’s found a good home out there.
Leslie: Why don’t I have her come in and chat with you?
Martin: Yeah, that’d be great.
Leslie: OK, I’ll find her.
Martin: You really are?
Leslie: Sure, I’ll tell Gretchen. (to Gretchen) Martin thinks it would be fun to have Phyllis come in and say hi. Grab her. She’s here – I saw her this morning.
Martin: Well hello, Phyllis!
Phyllis: Hi, Martin.
Martin: I was just saying to Leslie how much our podcast listener’s miss you as a cohost and here you are!
Phyllis: Hi everyone (laughing)
Martin: Yeah, it was great. For the people who are just starting to listen to us, Phyllis was on the first 56 podcasts
Leslie: Wow, 56 of them? Wow! I can’t believe that.
Martin: Yeah. So Phyllis, why don’t you tell us a little bit about what you’re doing at Leslie’s?
Phyllis: I am doing a lot of things, it’s great. Business is great. I’m in the Asian Works of Art Department. I’m an Account Executive, so I’m essentially the assistant to Andrew Lig, the Director.
Leslie: You do more than that.
Phyllis: I assist him but I’m learning a lot from him. I get to catalog, I get to auctioneer, I get to meet all of our clients, work with everyone, I do a little of everything.
Leslie: She gets to speak Mandarin with people we’re having trouble collecting from.
Martin: Always a fun job, right?
Phyllis: (laughing) I get to yell at people in multiple languages – always fun.
Leslie: She does a lot of bidding in Mandarin, on the phone.
Phyllis: That’s always fun.
Martin: Yeah. Now do the items generally come in to the Gallery, or Phyllis, are you out on the road a lot?
Phyllis: I get to stay in house most of the time. Occasionally Andrew and I will have to go out and, you know, if we feel like we owe someone a visit and there’s just too much to ship and it depends on the person. Last week – or the week before, we were in Kansas City just for five hours – just went, met the guy, took all of his stuff, got on the plane and came back (laughing).
Martin: Wow that sounds like fun. Hey, Phyllis, did you start right away in that department or did you do…I know you were doing actually silver when we worked together years ago. Did you start right in the Asian department?
Phyllis: I didn’t. I started doing some cataloging for F and D which is what we call the Furniture and Decorative Arts department. But then there was an opening all of a sudden with Asian and I jumped at the chance.
Martin: Alright – that was a very smart move, especially in today’s market.
Phyllis: Yeah, No regrets. I’m having a great time. I’m learning so much.
Martin: Well that’s it, I’m sure you have to get back to work.
Phyllis: I’ve got tons of work to do.
Martin: Well, thanks so much for coming in and saying, “hi” Phyllis.
Phyllis: Thank you!
Martin: Alright, I’ll talk to you soon.
Leslie: Phyllis is wonderful.
Leslie: Very smart.
Martin: Yes, she was a real pleasure to work with over the years. OK, so getting back to your auctions, besides Asian, what is really hot today, in today’s market as far as your auctions go?
Leslie: You know the jewelry market is so strong now. We’ve never seen such a strong jewelry market and we’ve been selling a lot of major diamonds for really premium prices and colored stones as well so we’ve been doing extremely well with jewelry and it’s one of our strongest categories.
Martin: You know I bring this up and it’s kind of redundant in other podcasts, but do you think that people are actually taking their money and putting it into the high end tangibles like this instead of other things like stocks and real estate?
Leslie: Yes, I absolutely do. I think that people don’t know what to do with their cash, and a lot of people are buying jewelry. Absolutely; they’re also buying contemporary art and everything else. I mean, I think that people are putting their money in tangible assets. And the other thing that’s also been fantastic, obviously, is that it’s such a global market now. So we’re in Chicago and at least 70% of our business — our buyers are outside of Chicago.
Martin: 70% — wow.
Leslie: And when we sell Asian works of art for example, about 80% are actually Chinese people, so it’s really, really become a very global market and people, for jewelry, for example, we just sold a pearl for $388,000 and had people bidding from all over the world, including China, India, you know, obviously people from the States, people from England…it’s very global now and it’s really been wonderful to watch.
Martin: Could you describe that pearl? It must be something amazing.
Leslie: You know, yeah, I actually am not our jewelry specialist. To me it was just a big pearl. I have our catalog description here. It was beautiful and actually, the man who gave it to us for sale was a dealer from a small town in Illinois and had no idea that it was valuable. It was quite large – let me find the description. But, he had been offered $8,000 for it and we had had it tested and looked at and we thought quite a bit about it but thought that it should be in really conservatively because, let me find it, it’s lot 353, hold on…
Martin: There’s really something to be said about being really conservative.
Leslie: No kidding. I wish that all consigners understood that and felt good about it.
Martin: That’s right. People involved in the bidding, and the prices can go anywhere if it’s a good piece.
Leslie: Well that’s it and this was an art deco platinum and onyx natural pearl necklace. The pearl was 16.50 by 12.36 millimeters, so it was big and it had a gemological institute of America certificate with it and it was a really beautiful large natural pearl but, you know, we thought it might bring $30,000-$50,000. And in fact it brought $388,000. And the man who sold it almost sold it for $8,000, which once again, proves that the auction process is the best process, so…
Martin: Absolutely. It’s always very exciting to sell something like that, when it just takes off, too.
Leslie: Yeah, it was great fun.
Martin: So when you’re talking about jewelry, you’re mostly talking about estate jewelry, older pieces, or, does it really matter?
Leslie: No, no, we sell everything. We sell estate jewelry, and modern jewelry, and a lot of people, actually we’re seeing a lot of people who need money selling jewelry that they own – just new jewelry. Lovely things that have been recently acquired we sell everything.
Martin: Now, I remember when men’s watches were pretty hot for a little while. Are they still going well?
Leslie: Yes, they still are, and we have large sales of watches – that’s a very strong market.
Martin: And I was speaking to Lee Keno a few weeks ago about contemporary art. He was saying that market is just escalating as well.
Leslie: Yes, absolutely. We sell a lot of contemporary art, it’s one of our strongest categories and we’re finding that prices have never been so strong. And we do a lot of business in modern paintings also 19th century European and American paintings.
Martin: Now, do you do a hard catalog for each auction?
Leslie: Yes, unfortunately, we do.
Martin: (laughing) Very intense work, I know what you’re saying.
Leslie: Well you know, I think that the catalogs are lovely and they’re beautiful and they’re great for consigners because most of our consigners are older people and value a tangible something to hold in their hand but in reality so much of our business is done on the internet now and they’re really not important to do, I mean people don’t really wait to get the catalog to look at what we have for sale, right?
Martin: Yes, it’s a really impressive sales tool.
Leslie: Right. It means something to the consigner but I don’t think that it means very much to the buyer anymore because not everything is illustrated in the catalog, and everything is illustrated on line. Online catalogs are searchable in a number of different ways. You can zoom in on photographs and there just so much better than printed catalogs.
Martin: I think one of the appeals of the printed catalog is for a buyer of something, say a cover lot in an auction is really nice to have that catalog with the piece. Always a nice thing.
Leslie: Yeah. I agree. It’s nice, but we’d save a lot of money if we didn’t have to print them.
Martin: It costs a fortune to print a catalog. So you were on the Home and Garden Network for a number of years. Can you tell us a little bit about what you did on that?
Leslie: Yes – I hosted two shows – one was called At the Auction with Leslie Hindman, and it was a really fun, you know, half hour show that was on at least once a week where we talked about objects that were coming up for sale and then sold them and the viewer could watch the auction take place of something they’ve heard about.
And then the other was called the Appraisal Fair and we had a team of people that did appraisals on site, so people brought things in and we looked at them.
Martin: So you wrote a book called Adventures at Auction – can you talk about that? It sounds like a great book – I think I want to read that.
Leslie: Really, I don’t think you need to read it, really, Martin, but it’s a book that I wrote that’s a very good sort of, “How-To” auction book. I found over the years that novices really would like to understand the process and it’s just sort of a “how to” book.
Martin: Oh, I got it, OK. Well thank you so much and I hope you have many great years of wonderful success, Leslie.
Leslie: Well thank you very much, fun talking with you.
Martin: Yes. So this is Martin Willis, with Leslie Hindman, and we’re signing off. And that was today’s show with Leslie Hindman, you can get to her website, that’s LeslieHindman.com.
You can follow us on Twitter at Twitter.com/auction_podcast. You can like us on facebook and that icon is on our website, which Is antique auction forum.com. You’re welcome to contact me or if you’d like to you can leave a comment on our podcast. My contact information is email@example.com. Thank you for listening, and we’ll be back real soon.