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Making a Strong Bid for a New Niche

Under Andrea Fiuczynski, Christie's L.A. office is creating a buzz with record prices for California art.

December 31, 2000|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer.

"Christie's was a coincidence," Andrea Fiuczynski says of her career at the international auction house. Those who have watched her rise from an entry-level job in New York to a managerial position in Berlin to her recent appointment as president of Christie's Los Angeles may find that hard to believe. But she insists that is the straight story.

"I arrived in New York directly from college, along with tens of thousands of other recent graduates in the summer of 1985," she says. A student internship at the trendy Holly Solomon Gallery in SoHo had whetted her appetite for contemporary art, but the opening she found was in the department of European furniture of Christie's. "I thought I would try it for a year," she says. "But within a few weeks, there was an auction and I was hooked."

Apparently she was a natural, both behind the scenes and on the podium. Five years after joining the firm, she was head of her department and on her way to becoming a "star auctioneer," as reporters inevitably describe her. Impeccably groomed, intensely focused and endowed with a voice that Art & Auction magazine likens to "velvety merlot," she is so good at persuading Christie's clients to part with their money that she has been entrusted with high-profile sales all around the world, including the 1995 auction of Rudolf Nureyev's estate in New York and the 1996 Mauerbach Benefit Sale in Vienna, a pro bono auction of Nazi-confiscated goods that raised funds for Holocaust victims.

In Los Angeles, where Fiuczynski has taken charge of the firm's 3-year-old West Coast headquarters--called Christie's Los Angeles but located in Beverly Hills--she has sold everything from Andy Warhol prints and David Hockney drawings to diamond rings and rare French wine. Offering an eclectic range of shopping opportunities, the Beverly Hills sale room has made its mark on the local art scene by racking up record prices for several California painters, including Maynard Dixon ($1.3 million), William Wendt ($530,000), David Park ($501,000), Granville Redmond ($424,000) and Elmer Bischoff ($211,500).

The Dixon record--for "The Pony Boy," a 1920 painting of a Native American youth on horseback--was set in October at a $5.7-million sale of Western art from the estate of Katherine H. Haley. Christie's conducted the two-day auction at Haley's ranch near Lake Casitas, and sold every piece in the 1,016-item sale, often exceeding pre-sale estimates. The $1.3-million selling price of "The Pony Boy" doubled the estimate of $500,000 to $600,000. Another Dixon painting, "The Ancient," valued at $30,000 to $50,000, was sold for $358,000.

These successes are the result of a team effort, Fiuczynski says. But once desirable property is ferreted out, consigned and promoted, it's up to the auctioneer "not only to make it happen, but to make it happen well," she says. "The rule of thumb is that a good auctioneer can make a 15% or 20% difference. My job is to make spending money fun."

Tucked away in an elegant Spanish-style building on Camden Drive, Christie's Los Angeles is a far cry from the firm's splashy New York operation at Rockefeller Center, where sales of multimillion-dollar artworks are routine. Still, the West Coast headquarters seems to be creating a buzz and a niche for itself. The annual number of auctions has grown from eight to 21 in three years of operation. This year, sales totaled $42.5 million, a 20% jump from the $35.5 million total amassed in 1999. (In a separate operation, Christie's sales of motor cars, mostly conducted on the West Coast, brought in an additional $35 million during each of the past two years.)

"It's been a very steady growth," Fiuczynski says, noting that the new sale room has added a dimension to Christie's long-standing regional office in Beverly Hills, which continues to bring in business for auctions held all around the world. "A jade collection might be sent to Hong Kong, while German Expressionist paintings might go to a German and Austrian sale. Our responsibility to our clients is to send the property where it will command the highest price."

Figuring out what to offer locally has been part of the challenge of launching the West Coast sale room, she says. Most successful so far are jewelry, wine, contemporary art, and American, Western and California painting. But plans are afoot to stage more sales of modern design, books, film-related material and scientific instruments as well.

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