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How the West Was Won for Christie's

Elizabeth Goldberg's first L.A. auction followed a voyage of discovery that became a labor of love.

April 19, 1998|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

The slim, colorful volume published for an upcoming sale of California, Western and American art at Christie's Los Angeles may look like a run-of-the-mill auction catalog. But to Elizabeth Goldberg--an American art specialist who moved from New York to Los Angeles in August 1996 to establish Christie's West Coast paintings department and organize the department's first sale--the publication is both the document of her introductory journey through the Wild West and the public announcement of her California debut.

"I sent a copy of the catalog to my parents with a note saying, 'This may not look like a grandchild, but it's my baby,' " Goldberg said.

The sale--given the code name GOWEST--will be held April 29 at 6 p.m. at Christie's West Coast headquarters, 360 N. Camden Drive in Beverly Hills. A preview exhibition is scheduled Wednesday to April 28, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The auction of 96 paintings, drawings and sculpture is expected to bring $1.2 million to$1.8 million in sales. Works range from tiny paintings, such as William Louis Otte's "Eucalyptus at Sunset" and "Carmel Dunes," valued at a mere $1,500 to $2,000 apiece, to George Gardner Symons' 3-by-5-foot painting of the Grand Canyon and Henry Merwin Shrady's 2-foot-tall bronze likeness of an elk buffalo, each of which is expected to command $50,000 to $70,000.

That's a relatively low price range in an art market where long-ignored American paintings are now in demand. Prime examples routinely command $1 million or more at auction, and New York's big sales of American art rack up totals of $20 million to $30 million.

California art, which has played minor accompaniment to American art's second fiddle, also has risen to new heights. Dealers say that works by Guy Rose, one of California's best-known Impressionists, bring up to $1 million in private sales. His auction record is $442,500, for "Lady Sewing Amongst Trees (In the Garden)," sold in 1997 at Butterfield & Butterfield.

"We wanted to start small," Goldberg said of Christie's April 29 auction. "In this first sale, we want everyone to feel they can bid on something."

Even so, she has spent a great deal of time and energy in finding "fresh" works--from private collections that haven't been on the market for many years. Christie's is banking on the sale as the first step in building a market through a program of semiannual auctions.

Goldberg confesses to awaiting the April 29 sale with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. At the same time, she's pleased to have survived a crash course in West Coast art and culture.

A graduate of New York University, she had chalked up six years of experience in the painting department of Christie's New York before she came to Los Angeles. But she arrived here without an essential tool: a driver's license. Her mission was to ferret out art all over the Western states, so she learned to drive, bought a car and plunged into a routine of driving long distances or flying and picking up a rental car. In little over a year's time, she has logged 120,000 air miles in the Western states and driven uncounted distances.

"It had always been a fantasy of mine to live in California, Los Angeles in particular," she said. "I thought if I had to choose one other city that has vibrancy and vitality and interesting people, it was Los Angeles. So when this opportunity came up, it was great.

"I've also always had an interest in Western pictures and California pictures. Christie's has sold the occasional Rose or William Wendt in American sales in New York, but we've never had a cohesive group of California paintings. As soon as I arrived and started looking at collections and museums, I realized that there were great paintings and it was something we should be doing."

Another revelation was the territory through which she traveled. "Growing up and living in the East, you don't really have an idea of what the landscape looks like here," she said. "I used to look at California paintings and think, 'Oh, it can't really look that way,' but it does. I was surprised at how beautiful California is, and the paintings really reflect that. Also, the quality of light here is unbelievable."

Goldberg had barely acquired her driver's license when she got her first big break. "I received a photograph of an incredible Berthe Morisot in the mail and called the owner right away," she said. "I drove way out, in a rental car in the rain, took one look at this picture and was just blown away." Declining to reveal the location, she said, "It was a very unlikely place to find such a painting. That's one of the things that's so wonderful about California; you just never know what you'll find."

The painting, "Apres le Dejeuner," went on the block at Christie's New York in May 1997 with an estimated price of $800,000 to $1.2 million. It was sold for $3.7 million, an auction record for the American Impressionist.

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