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L.A. Catches a Touch of Auction Fever

June 21, 1989|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

The result was a low-key affair with a clandestine flavor. Thrills and disappointments melted into a quiet hum of business, and artworks were for the eyes of experts only. For Christie's, such events are a public-relations gesture as well as a means of finding auction material. "People can get to know us and not feel shy about calling us in the future," print specialist Elisabeth Hahn said.

For clients, free estimate days offer a way to avoid Christie's standard $225-an-hour appraisal fee while picking the brains of specialists. "I came to have my suspicions confirmed," said Gary Chafe, who calls himself "a sharpshooter." The Santa Barbara artist said he scours estate sales in search of treasures as a means of living in an expensive community "without paying the price."

One woman brought a landscape that she had bought at a thrift shop and hoped would turn out to be the work of American 19th-Century painter Albert Bierstadt. Debra Force, head of Christie's American paintings department, assessed the would-be Bierstadt along with works by Maxfield Parrish and what she called "a mixed bag" of material. One find, to be offered in upcoming auctions, was a collection of 20th-Century drawings and pastels by such artists as Arthur B. Davies and Joseph Stella.

Hahn's station proved to be the busiest, reflecting the current boom in the print market. She had to deliver bad news to people who brought reproductions of paintings that they thought might be valuable prints, but she had good news for a client who has an early Louise Nevelson etching, worth about $4,500.

Christie's public day pointed up the fact that the major auction houses scour the country for treasures and consider Los Angeles a prime source. The eight experts who offered counsel on Monday and three more are spending the rest of the week making home visits, doing appraisals and planning future sales.

Though what Christie's officials call "the Los Angeles blitz" lasts for only one week in June, New York auction experts travel frequently and California is often their destination. At the same time, the level of sophistication has risen with publicity about the art market.

"There are still some discoveries, but people are more aware of what they have" than they were a few years ago, Force said.

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