On a dreary day in mid-April, a crowd gathered in a street-level space in an old brick building. A mix of youngish, middle-aged and even elderly visitors tuck white, numbered paddles under their arms. Some nose through a thick, glossy catalogue of items. Others wander, gazing and touching items in the room. Eventually, Leslie Hindman, 58, steps to the auctioneer’s podium, her emerald ring catching the light. After a brief introduction sprinkled with her dry wit, she begins with a pair of upholstered Danish armchairs, her voice remaining even-pitched as she rolls through bids. When one bidder remains, the sale is punctuated by the slam of her gavel, and it’s on to the day’s next item up for bid. Hindman has been in the auction business for more than 30 years. She got her feet wet at Sotheby’s in the late 1970s and opened her own eponymous auction house in Chicago in ’82. Her Midwestern-based business grew into one of the biggest such endeavors in the country, so her former employer snatched it up in 1997. But Hindman couldn’t do without auctions for long, reopening in 2003. She’s since added locations in Naples, Fla., Palm Beach, Fla., Denver and, in March of this year, Milwaukee’s Third Ward.
Why did you choose the Third Ward?
We’re headquartered in Chicago, but we’ve always done a lot of business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin. We’re up here all the time, so we thought, “We should open an auction house in Milwaukee.” We originally opened on Mason Street in 2011 across from the Pfister, and we were doing very well, so we thought we needed more space. We could get a lot of space in the Third Ward. People are here all the time. And it’s got easy highway access.
What do you auction?
There’s a market for everything. We sold a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair. We had a sweat-stained T-shirt that had an “EP” on it, and we had a photograph of Elvis in it. Provenance is important. Guess how much that sold for? $52,000. Can you imagine?
Definitely not. Do you have a favorite type of auction?
I like big, special sales. We sold the Chicago Stadium, where the Bulls played, when they tore it down. There were probably 7,000 people there, and we were selling all of these championship banners and locker room doors. Collectors of anything, whether it’s Wisconsin artists or Bulls memorabilia, are passionate. We sold the Schwinn family bicycle collection when the company was sold. They had kept 160 bicycles made by Schwinn over the years. We met bicycle collectors from all over the world.
I imagine some sales are emotional as well.
It’s often estates where someone has lovingly collected for many, many years, or when we deal with families who are selling their things for various reasons. We say that our supply comes from the three D’s: death, divorce and debt. It’s important to be nice to them and for them to understand we’re here to help.
How has the Internet changed the business?
When I sold my business in 1997, I still was involved with the art business, but I wasn’t actively running an auction house. When I reopened in 2003, the world had changed. Once, we conducted an auction, and we had a contemporary sculpture estimated at $6,000 to $8,000 by an artist we’d never heard of. I’ll never forget this. We put all of our auctions up on the Web, and all of a sudden, all these people are emailing me saying, “Please take a photo of the bottom corner of the sculpture.” How do these people even know we have this? Now, everyone in the world knows everything.
I’ve heard you collect taxidermy. Why?
Are you saying you don’t like taxidermy? You know, the giraffe head I have is fantastic. It’s darling. It sits on the ground because it’s a shoulder mount. I also have a really nice zebra head. I have a stuffed skunk. Animals are beautiful, but I don’t collect new taxidermy, only old. Plus, I think zebra rugs are chic.
Did you get them at auctions?
What’s your favorite piece in your personal collection?
When you’re in our business, you see so much stuff. And it’s all interesting – 19th-century European paintings, contemporary paintings, Russian works of art. I love to learn about different things, where they came from and why people made them, but you don’t get attached to anything. At all. I just sold this farm that I’ve owned for several years, furnished. I care about my grandfather’s clock. There’s a little crummy desk that was my grandmother’s. There’s a sculpture a friend made. But none of it matters to me personally. I sell probably 45,000 things per year. I don’t really get attached to anything.
What is the most impressive piece you’ve sold?
We got a call from someone in Milwaukee who had some furniture. So we went to their house, and it was just normal, nice Victorian furniture. On the wall, there was a painting, a floral still life. They said, “We’ve always called it our little van Gogh.” Family lore was that it was a van Gogh and that it was signed with a “V.” He usually signed with “Vincent.” We ended up spending a huge amount of time doing research, but it was eventually authenticated as a work by Vincent van Gogh, done in 1882. We estimated it at $400,000 to $600,000, and in 1991, it sold for $1,430,000. [pauses] We like Milwaukee.