A bit of Baltimore going, going, gone

Auction: Nearly 140 pieces from Haussner's art collection were sold by Sotheby's, bringing more than $10 million.

November 03, 1999|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK -- The paintings that in the minds of Baltimoreans will forever be associated with the dumplings, knackwurst and crab cakes of Haussner's restaurant sold yesterday for $10.1 million -- at least $3 million more than experts at Sotheby's auction house had estimated.

Several paintings in the collection, which for decades covered nearly every inch of wall space in the Highlandtown restaurant, brought record amounts for works by the artists. Among them were two paintings by British artist Arthur John Elsley and one by Dutch painter Josef I. Israels.

The highest bid -- $1.4 million -- was by a private collector from the Middle East for painter Jean-Leon Gerome's "After the Bath." Initially valued at about $700,000, it depicts three voluptuous nudes, the white of their skin set off against the white marble of the walls in a Turkish bath by brightly colored fruit and jewel-mosaic.

Estimates by Sotheby's had set the total proceeds from the auction at around $7 million. Earnings from last night's auction do not include prices for a handful of paintings that did not sell, including a large work by John William Godward titled "A Roman Patron" that was expected to bring in just under $400,000. The Haussner collection, which was amassed by restaurant founders William Henry and Frances Wilke Haussner, hung in the landmark dining establishment until it closed in September. The Haussners' daughter and current owner of the collection, Francie Haussner George, is selling her art in a series of auctions at Sotheby's and in Baltimore.

"I thought it was great fun," said George, who did not attend the auction but listened to the results by phone from Baltimore. "And Rod Stewart was there, waving his umbrella, whoever he is. Who is he?"

Subdued excitement

A discreet hum filled the auction room as dark-suited men and women vied sedately for the 136 19th century European and American paintings by flicking pens, gently waving blue auction paddles or merely arching their eyebrows. The hum dropped to an excited hush as bidding for "The Venetian Flower Vendor" by Eugene de'Blaas -- the first painting purchased by the Haussners -- rose to $805,500, the second highest amount paid for a single work last night.

As the paintings were sold one by one, Kimberly George-Brune, granddaughter of the collectors, watched intently. "I adore these paintings, every one. I love them," she said. "I think I'm almost numb."

Accompanied by her husband, Craig Brune, George-Brune had come in her mother's stead to oversee the proceedings. In the last two days the couple had attended a round of parties held by Sotheby's to mark the occasion -- festivities that made the event exciting but no less emotional, she said. "I grew up with these. I'm used to seeing them all together, all on top of each other, stacked up," George-Brune said.

As a child, she invented nicknames for the paintings. For example, Elsley's "I'se Biggest!" which was purchased by an American private collector for $673,500, the third highest sum, was known as "Izzie."

For years, "Heinrich Heine and the Muse of Poetry," by Georges Moreau de Tours, terrified her. In it, a gossamer-robed woman appears to be haunting a man as he sits in a dimly lighted parlor. "Then I realized the man was just dreaming, and I wasn't scared any more." Henceforth the painting, which was purchased last night by Rod Stewart for more than $100,000, was known to the family as "Dreamer."

"I was woken up at 4 this morning by a collector calling from Tel Aviv who wanted to talk about `Bashful Love,' a painting by Dutch artist Israels," said Benjamin F. Doller, Sotheby's worldwide director of 19th century European paintings, drawings and sculpture, who was also the auctioneer. "I don't mind being woken up for that."

The work, a moody scene of two young lovers in a field, with an estimated value of $100,000 to $150,000, was sold for $145,500, a record amount for a work by the artist.

Worldwide attraction

Earlier in the day, an exhibition of the paintings drew about 100 would-be owners and dealers from around the world, including rock star Jon Bon Jovi, who prowled the galleries clutching a Haussner's catalog.

"The collection was pretty widely known in the trade," Doller said. "Haussner's had lent [the works] to museums and they had been included in catalogs. Francie was an excellent custodian."

The Sotheby's installation included floor-to-ceiling black-and-white photographs of Haussner's restaurant, complete with hungry diners munching baked goods and quaffing beer. In the background of the photographs art can be seen lovingly crammed into every nook and cranny.

The Haussners married in 1935 and bought their first piece of art in 1940. Over the years, their collection grew to include nudes, which formerly were displayed in the restaurant's bar, ascribed to artists such as James Bertrand and G. Dalla Noce. And there are paintings depicting red-robed cardinals, Victorian children, horses, landscapes and still lifes.

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