The Haussner collection boasts marble busts of Roman emperors, saucy nudes from the Stag Bar, landscape, seascape, pastoral and sporting paintings, bronze busts and Meissen figurines, charming and delicate bisques and porcelains, dark weighty Victorian furniture and three panels from "the world's largest painting."
But the great big ball of string is still the star of the 502-lot sale from the collection, which goes on display today at the Richard Opfer Auctioneering house in Timonium.
"The ball of string is the single item we've had the most phone calls about," says Richard Opfer, the auctioneer. "Or I'll meet somebody on the street and they'll say, `Who got the ball of string?!' It's the single most requested item in the whole sale."
When this second sale of stuff from the idiosyncratic restaurant that graced Highlandtown for 75 years begins at noon Dec. 18, the ball of string will be the first item auctioned. "It epitomizes the diversity of the sale," says the entry in the handsome sale catalog.
The label from the mid-1970s declares that the ball of string measures 337.5 miles and weighs 825 pounds: "It was saved from bundles of napkins, which total 19,799,950 and at today's rental would cost $779,623.03."
And it has got great provenance. Francie Haussner George, whose parents founded the restaurant, rolled up lots of the string herself.
Her mother, Frances Wilke Haussner, came up with the idea of saving the string to remind the staff not to use the linen as cleaning cloths. Napkins came 24 to the bundle, tied with a string, and they were expensive.
"They rolled the string into small balls," George says. "Then they rolled the small ball onto the big ball.
"They knew the length of the string and they knew how many went into each small ball. They weighed each ball and that's how they knew exactly how long the string on the big ball was."
They kept winding up the string until sometime in the 1970s when napkins started coming wrapped in plastic.
George has a story for practically every item in the sale.
She says the pert, busty, black-haired nude who looks like Ava Gardner in the painting that is Lot 230 was the wife of the painter, Fried Pal.
She recalls that one late night in the Stag Bar a structural engineer staring at the painting through the mists rising from his martini declared that her "structure" made it impossible for her to stand up.
George thinks the three nudes in lots 154-157 are also Pal's wife, viewed from a different, but no less sensual, perspective. Pal was a versatile journeyman who painted everything from these "Vargas Girl"-style nudes to bullfighters and ballerinas. Even two rodeo scenes that Pal, a Hungarian, painted are also in the sale.
"The nudes weren't great art," George says, "so they weren't out in the dining room."
Opfer's favorite is a slightly naughty Pal nude with a maidservant lacing her corset, titled "American at the Moulin Rouge."
"I just love that painting," he says.
But in 30 years as an auctioneer, he's learned to appreciate almost everything that comes under his hammer.
"After a while your eye sees things," he says. "So much stuff passes through here. It's kind of nice to see it, hold it, kind of nice to sell it. Unfortunately, when your eye develops, your taste also develops, and usually the thing you like the most is the most expensive and you can't afford it."
He admires numerous things in the Haussner catalog, but he thinks probably the Meissen and early German figurines will be among the best sellers.
"I love the kind of thing [Frances Haussner] loved," he says. "She was obviously very astute. I'd be a dummy to say I think she wasn't.
"She was obviously buying what she liked. Which is the key to all of it. If you're going to live with it, you better like it. I think she had a great eye. And I'm sure she was a very smart buyer and bought things that were a good buy."
That certainly seems to have been proven by the $12 million or so the Haussner collection has earned so far at sales conducted by Sotheby's in New York over the last four weeks.
Sotheby's skimmed off the top 20 percent of the Haussner collection, Opfer says, and he got 80 percent.
"They creamed the milk bottle, but the milk's real good. It is an outstanding group of merchandise to sell for anybody. Any auctioneer would be extremely happy, and honored, to be able to sell this."
In fact, there's plenty left over for a third sale that Opfer has tentatively scheduled for Jan. 15 and 16. That sale will include more "souvenir-type" items, such as old menus, Frances Haussner's cookbook collection, 40 or 50 beer steins, not to mention Oriental porcelains and glassware.
On Dec. 18, he's selling all the furniture, including three grandfather clocks. The second item he'll sell after the ball of string will be an "important" walnut mantel from the German Orphan's Home, highly carved by German craftsmen in Baltimore.
"Rumor has it," Opfer says, "she paid $100 for that from the Walters [Art Gallery]."