The Glamour Hammer

In a career full of stuff, auctioneer Leslie Hindman has reached a sort of nirvana where little tempts and less is wanted. If we all followed suit, she’d be out of business–but she needn’t worry. I, for example, am poring over the catalog for her first-ever vintage couture sale, coming up later this month, a corner of my brain already calculating how much cash I can scrape up to drop there. I’ve come to a full stop at a black silk 1950s Ceil Chapman evening dress with an estimated price of $200 to $400. It has a classic 50s silhouette–scooped neck, nipped waist, a layer of tulle floating over a swishy tent of a skirt–just like the pink silk Chapman that’s been hanging in my closet since I grabbed it off the rack at a Salvation Army years ago. I’ve never worn it and probably never will, a fact that doesn’t begin to cool my lust for this one.

Like the Chapmans, Givenchys, and Pauline Trigeres in the catalog, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers is a bit of history making a comeback. Hindman founded it in 1982, when she was a twentysomething from Hinsdale with four years of experience at Sotheby’s. Backed by corporate power brokers including former Sara Lee head John Bryan and MacLean-Fogg CEO Barry MacLean, she carved out a niche by doing what the big auction houses wouldn’t–taking on whole estates, selling everything from the heirloom jewels to the vacuum cleaner. (In 1986 she also became a co-owner of Salvage One, an architectural recycler.) She auctioned off the belongings of Chicago patricians like the Robert McCormick and Potter Palmer families, as well as the seats, lockers, and bricks of Comiskey Park, and snagged worldwide headlines when one of her employees spotted an unknown van Gogh on the wall of a suburban Milwaukee ranch house. Hindman sold the painting for $1.4 million and soon had her own Roadshow: a pair of television programs on the Home & Garden network and a syndicated column in the Chicago Tribune. In ’97 Sotheby’s came back and bought her out.

Hindman signed a noncompete agreement with Sotheby’s and worked for them for two years before leaving to start an Internet business, Eppraisals. In those supercharged days all you had to do was murmur a dot-com idea to open the cash spigot, she says: “I mentioned that we could charge a small amount of money [for appraisals by a network of 750 experts], and I got $15 million.” Investors included the Tribune Company and a couple of venture capital funds. In March 2001, after eBay made the company its exclusive appraiser, Hindman was assuring financial columnist Terry Savage that Eppraisals would succeed–never mind the dot-coms imploding all around. Two months later it folded. Embroiled in a legal battle with her Salvage One partner–and dating soon-to-be senatorial candidate Blair Hull–Hindman took a break, then tried her hand at running an art gallery. That lasted eight “really boring” months, she says. In late 2003, with Sotheby’s gone from Chicago and her noncompete agreement expired, she rented a 12,000-square-foot warehouse on the west side and returned to the faster pace of the auction business. “Initially,” she says, “I thought I’d have just six auctions a year. I wouldn’t have to work too hard, and I wouldn’t have too many employees.”

But Hindman says more of the public now understands that auctions are like buying wholesale, and the Internet has made every one a global event. She did a dozen her first year back, half of them modestly priced “marketplace” sales, with most items going for $100 to $500. Gross sales were $8 million. Her catalogs list high and low estimates for each item or group of items in a lot; bidding starts at about half the low estimate. Buyers pay the “hammer price” plus a premium of 20 percent to the house (less for sales over $100,000); sellers also pay the house a percentage.

Internet resources like record auction sales worldwide for fine art, which has taken most of the guesswork out of pricing and made research instantaneous. Buyers participate by phone and computer (through eBay, where they can scroll the catalog and click to bid), resulting in many more participants but fewer warm bodies. That’s a change Hindman, who’s the author of the 2001 book Adventures at the Auction, regrets. “At the last marketplace sale we had 365 people bidding through eBay and about 50 in the room,” she says. Many are out-of-towners, but these days “even locals come and preview, then bid from their house.” They pay an extra 2 percent to do that, and they miss the electricity in the room.

According to Hindman, her catalog estimates for the clothing sale are conservative, and the vintage clothing and couture market–in contrast, say, to the sports memorabilia market–is “just starting to be hot.” Last week the first baseball thrown at Boston’s Fenway Park sold at auction for $132,000, and the contract that sent Babe Ruth from there to the Yankees went for a shade under $1 million. In a world where little mass-produced cardboard pictures of men with bats command thousands of dollars, a 1950s beaded Schiaparelli cashmere sweater at $100 to $200–while not quite the kick of a thrift-shop find–is a steal, if you ask me. Hindman’s auction offers 400 items ranging from a circa-1900 faille skirt ($100 to $200) to a Chanel wool suit from the autumn 2000 collection ($300 to $500), plus purses, shoes, hats, and costume jewelry. She says 90 percent of these treasures came directly from the “Chicago ladies” who wore them; the other 10 percent are from vintage dealer John Muller. “The 70-year-old ladies are selling their favorite stuff from the 1960s, and the kids who are 25 are going to buy it and wear it and think it’s really great again,” Hindman says. “That’s cool.”

The clothes are on view at Leslie Hindman’s Web site, www.lesliehind, on eBay, and at the auction house through June 20; catalogs are $10. There’s no charge for the preview or auction, though you must register to bid. The auction gets under way at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, 122 N. Aberdeen, on Tuesday, June 21, at 5:30 and will move at 80 to 100 lots an hour; cash or checks only on-site.

LH Couture auction

WHEN: Tue 6/21, 5:30 PM

WHERE: Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, 122 N. Aberdeen


INFO: 312-280-1212 or

Cindy Bandle, 1955-2005

Speaking of elegant: the Goodman Theatre will celebrate the life and work of its longtime press director, Cindy Bandle, who donned a hat and manned her press table while waging a three-year battle with breast cancer. Bandle died May 10; the memorial, led by Richard Christiansen, begins at 5 PM Monday, June 20, in the Albert Theatre.

Meet the New Boss

League of Chicago Theatres executive director Marj Halperin, who’s leaving her post at the end of this month, will be a hard act to follow. This week the league announced that Chicago Department of Aviation promotions director Deanna Shoss will step into Halperin’s role. Like Halperin’s, Shoss’s resume includes a stint with the Chicago Park District and is heavier in city government than in the performing arts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.