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ATL Field Trip: The Heller Ehrman Art Auction

Heller Ehrman art auction 3.jpg
Last month, we reported that bankrupt law firm Heller Ehrman would be selling some of its art to raise money for its creditors. Heller hopes to raise $1 million (or more) through a series of sales, in New York and California.
The first of several Heller art auctions took place yesterday at Bonhams & Butterfields, at 580 Madison Avenue in New York. We attended, both to cover the proceedings and in the hope of making a purchase or two. (The most important works from the Heller collection will be sold next year, but those pieces — by artists like Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, and Serra — are a bit beyond our price range.)
Upon arrival at Bonhams, we checked in with a receptionist. We were asked to provide our driver’s license and credit card for photocopying, which we did. Buyers can pay for purchases with either a credit card or a check, but the auction house still copies your credit card for its records.
(There is a slight discount for using a check or cash over a credit card. The buyer’s premium, a commission paid by the winning bidder to the auction house, is 22 percent of the purchase price for credit cards, but 20 percent for cash or check.)
After supplying the requested documentation and filling out a short form, we were given a paddle for bidding. We were hoping for something wooden; the word “paddle” conjures up images of spanking — fun! Instead, we received a laminated card of gray and white plastic, printed with the number “238” (our bidder number).
Did we make any purchases? How well did the Heller Ehrman art sell? Find out, plus check out pictures of the art, after the jump.

Bonhams Butterfields auctioneers appraisers.jpgWe were able to inspect the art prior to the auction, in the downstairs gallery and auction room. Our photos of the Heller Ehrman lots appear in the slideshow below, with identifying captions.
The Heller works were just a small part of the overall sale, which was devoted to contemporary and modern art. The auction went from noon to 1:15 p.m. — an odd time, but perhaps designed to lure people in during their lunch hour. Or perhaps the types of people who buy art at auction don’t have to worry about that pesky thing called “work.”
There were about thirty of us seated in the room. The crowd was an odd mix of elderly people and cute, perky young women — “art consultants,” we’re guessing. We all faced the auctioneer, a husky man in a dark suit with a purple tie. He had a British accent. He was named Malcolm.
Malcolm stood at a podium, auction hammer in hand. To his left (our right) was a flat-screen television showing the item up for bids. To Malcolm’s right was a phone bank, where about a dozen operators each took bids over the telephone, generating a constant low murmur as they spoke with prospective bidders.
As each item came up for bids, Malcolm announced a starting point for the bidding, then looked around the room for bidders — both live bidders, in front of him, and telephone bidders, off to the side. To our disappointment, he did not utter the phrase “going once, going twice…. sold!” But he did employ little bits of auction lingo here and there. (E.g., “against the room,” to signify when the highest bid was from a live bidder in the room.)
We all had bidding paddles, but people were able to make bids with tiny gestures — a slight nod here, a raised finger there. Petrified of making an accidental bid on a $70,000 Matisse drawing or a $200,000 Rosenquist painting, we sat on our plastic paddle and buried our face in our notepad, avoiding the slightest eye contact with Malcolm.
Alas, we weren’t the only underactive bidders. These are trying times for auction houses as well as law firms. As Martin Gammon, director of business development for Bonhams, told the New York Law Journal when discussing the Heller items, “the art market is somewhat down from its highs of 2007,” and the world of post-war and contemporary art “has seen some deflation.”
So it was tough going for much of the auction. Many items did not sell because the highest bid fell short of the reserve price (the lowest price a seller at auction is willing to accept). There were approximately 80 lots, but only 41 sales.
Some of the most expensive items did not move. The bidding for a Rosenquist, estimated at $200,000-$300,000, stalled at $95,000. A DeKooning, estimated at $400,000-$600,000, couldn’t attract a bid higher than $310,000. As a result, neither sold.
Only two items sold in the six figures. One was a rather small Calder mobile, estimated at $150,000-$200,000, that went for $170,000 (or $206,000 with the buyer’s premium). The other was a painting by Pierre Soulages — kinda hideous, in our humble opinion — that went for $220,000 (or $266,000 with commission). This was well above its estimate of $80,000-$120,000.
Heller Ehrman small logo.jpgDespite the overall weakness of the auction, though, the Heller Ehrman art sold like hotcakes. If only the Heller lawyers were as good at collecting bills as they were at collecting art….
All the Heller lots sold, some for well above their estimates. The eight lots were estimated to fetch between $19,500 and $28,000, but ended up selling for $29,800 in total. Should more law firms think about selling off their art to shore up their finances or to save jobs?
The first Heller Ehrman item up for bids, lot 8017, was a handsome bronze sculpture by Julie Speidel (see here, on the right). Due to heavy interest, the bidding opened at $5,000 — well above the estimate of $2,000-$3,000. After brisk bidding, the piece was purchased for $6,500 by a highly attractive, slender, middle-aged blonde, dressed all in black. (Think Heather Locklear.)
Next up were three red-and-off-white paintings — lots 8018, 8019, and 8020 — by the American painter Robert Kelly (view them here, on the right). Once again, the blonde hottie in black jumped eagerly into the bidding.
This time, however, she lost out to a phone bidder. On the first painting, the Lady in Black stopped at the $4,250 mark, muttering, “This is getting rich.” She bid less actively on the next two R. Kelly paintings, which seemed to go to the same phone bidder. The three works went for $4,500, $4,250, and $3,500. (The Lady in Black explained to us after the auction that, after losing out on the first painting, her enthusiasm for the other two flagged, because “I wanted the bunch.”)
Then there was an interlude of non-Heller works. The Lady in Black did not bid on any.
When the next Heller item emerged — lot 8055, a painting by Suzanne Caporeal called “Night Time” — the Lady in Black roared back. This time she faced little competition, snapping up the work for a mere $1,300, well below its estimate of $2,500-$3,500. (This painting was within our price range; alas, we found it rather bland — see here — so we didn’t bid.)
We readied our bidding card for lot 8064, regarded by Artnet as a Heller highlight:

The most notable name in the Nov. 10 sale is probably the hip Canadian cartoon artist Marcel Dzama, represented by a set of four drawings in his child-like style (est. $4,000-$6,000). One of these, of a boy contemplating a Frankenstein monster made of what appear to be squirrels, led the AboveTheLaw blog to quip, “when I look at that, I see a Heller Ehrman attorney thinking, ‘Yes, I definitely think this business model can still work’.”

Despite Elie’s gently deprecating quip, we were quite interested in these whimsical, colorful drawings (see here). Alas, the bidding started at $2,500 and rapidly escalated, ultimately going to a telephone bidder for $4,250.
Heather Locklear in black.jpgWe planned to bid on lot 8070, a gigantic canvas by Andrew Spence entitled “Thin T.V.” — from 2001, when flat-screens weren’t all that flat. It was estimated at $1,500-$2,000, well within our price range. Check it out here (on the left).
Alas, our hopes were dashed by the Lady in Black. The bidding opened at the high end of the estimate, $2,000, and concluded with her taking the item for $5,500 — roughly three times the estimate.
The final Heller item, lot 8073, was “The Mirror,” by the British painter John Monks. It was estimated at $2,000-$3,000, something we could also afford to lob in a bid for.
But we didn’t find it that attractive — see here (large painting in the middle, looking badly abraded). We were not heartbroken when it sold to a bidder in the room, a man in jeans and a blazer, for $5,500.
After the auction ended, we caught up with the two successful in-person Heller bidders — the Lady in Black, who snapped up almost half the Heller lots, and the Man in the Blazer.
The mysterious Lady in Black — a thin blonde, clad in black pants, a black blouse, and a black leather jacket, with not one but two black handbags (one in patent leather, the other black with gold trim) — claimed to have no Heller connection. We expressed surprise at this, since she bid exclusively on Heller items, and paid well above their estimates for some of them. Maybe she was acting on behalf of a former Heller attorney, nostalgic for the trappings of his or her former office?
But the Lady in Black insisted she was motivated purely by artistic motives. “I see something I like, I buy it,” she said. “Art has been a part of my life since I was nine years old.” Her grandfather took her to her first art auction at that tender age, and since then she has been a collector.
(“But I’m disciplined,” she said, pointing out how selective she was in her bidding. Yes, she was choosy — she bid only on Heller stuff!)
We asked the Lady in Black to tell us more about herself — we were entranced by her beauty, her stylishness, and her keen interest in Heller Ehrman art — but she was coy. We asked for her business card, but she said she didn’t have one on her. She said she was a lawyer by training, but left the practice of law to work on start-ups. In addition, she said, she used to build and sell spec houses on the side (although we suspect that this sideline isn’t what it used to be).
The Man in the Blazer, who bought the John Monks painting, did have a Heller connection. He identified himself as a Heller alum, who collects art together with his wife, and who actually served on the Heller art committee once upon a time — so he played a role in acquiring some of the works sold at auction. He said he was very pleased with his one purchase for the day, noting that John Monks is an important British painter.
The Man in the Blazer gave us his first name, but asked that we not publish it. He expressed concern that his purchase of a Heller Ehrman painting might not sit well with his former colleagues. (We didn’t really understand his reasoning; his purchase is contributing to the bankruptcy estate, right?)
We asked the Man in the Blazer for his business card, but he did not have one. He is currently unemployed.
Earlier: Anatomy of a Dissolution: The Heller Art Auction
Prior ATL coverage of Heller Ehrman

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