Sumptuous N.Y. feast for the art world

Some art snobs laughed at them. But the collected works from Haussner's bring delicious prices at auction.

November 07, 1999|By Jacques Kelly

ON TUESDAY, Kimberley George Brune walked into the airy New York exhibition gallery that held the cream of the art collection amassed by her collector grandparents, William and Frances Haussner. .....The artworks hung on meticulously lighted white walls and were cataloged in a lavishly printed book that cost $27. As I gazed at the scenes of bunny rabbits, children with pink cheeks and collie dogs, they no longer seemed to be the paintings that Baltimoreans associated with the restaurant at the corner of Clinton Street and Eastern Avenue in Highlandtown.

"This is bittersweet," Brune said, as she surveyed a very New York scene, where the emphasis was on style, presentation and selling. Her family's collection, finely groomed and separated from the restaurant and its platters of pot roast, was about to pass through a long gantlet where it would be judged on aesthetics and purchased for big money.

A few hours later, in a sales room several floors below the Sotheby's exhibition gallery, the works that some art snobs laughed at were smashing selling records. Throughout the sale, Brune and her husband, Craig, sat quietly on folding chairs.

The painting of a little girl standing by her Saint Bernard -- the same picture that graced the Haussner menu cover -- brought $673,500, a record price for artist Arthur John Elsley.

These so-called Victorian sweet pictures lived up to their name. Virtually all commanded very delicious prices. Only five paintings failed to meet minimum bids -- and therefore didn't sell. At the end of the two-day sale, the art fetched more than $11 million.

What did sell -- and at exuberant prices -- were paintings such as Arthur F. Tait's pair of pictures of little chickens, which brought more than $26,000.

Another canvas, that of a boy dressed in scarlet fox hunting attire entering an English dining room filled with adult riders, brought about $150,000 in spirited bidding. The painting, "His First Meet," was the work of artist Frank Moss Bennett.

"These aren't the paintings that museums want," said Sotheby's Nancy Harrison. "These are the pictures collectors want because they like the subject matter."

Her comment wasn't entirely true. The Haussner collection is classified as 19th-century academic art, and staff members at the Walters Art Gallery wanted to add some of it to the museum's large collection.

"We couldn't afford the objects that interested us," said the gallery's Ann Wilson, adding that the value of Haussner's art might bode well for the Walters. "One of the strong points of our collection is 19th-century academic art. If it's coming back, that's good for us."

On Wednesday, the morning after the sale of the paintings, there was a bidding frenzy for the marble, bronze and porcelain sculptures that sat around the edges of the Haussner restaurant. Many diners probably overlooked the heads of the Roman emperors or the dark bronze sculptures of horsemen and wild boars. New York art dealers saw these works differently. They paid and paid.

Ted Julio, owner of the Della Notte Ristorante on Eastern Avenue, took the Metroliner to New York in hopes of acquiring some of the marble heads of Roman emperors. He bid on several dozen and emerged with three that, once cleaned, will go on display at his Little Italy restaurant.

"I wished I could have bought more," he said. "They were all fine pieces."

Another successful bidder was former congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley, a friend and confidante of the Haussner family for five decades. She emerged with a small painting, "The Sewing Lesson," by Giulio del Torre and a bronze by Merculiano of two German shepherd dogs. Both will be added to the inventory of her husband Bill's art and antiques store in Cockeysville.

"It was an interesting and successful auction. I was impressed by the banks of phone callers," she said, a reference to the numerous calls taken at the sale from bidders in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

It was not for lack of preparation that the Haussner collection brought what it did. Employees of Sotheby's, the New York auction house that conducted the sale, had been courting Frances Haussner George, the daughter of the restaurant's founders, for many years. They visited the restaurant, took photos on Sundays when the restaurant was closed, and discussed the possibilities.

A deal was signed last summer -- almost two months before it was publicly announced that the restaurant would close. Sotheby's experts decided which paintings would do well in New York -- they didn't include too many lest they overburden the market -- and left the rest to be sold in Baltimore at an auction Dec. 18. The sale would be over two days -- the paintings at night and the marbles and bronzes the next day.

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