Andersen art sale lures the curious

Walking through the stripped offices of Andersen's headquarters this weekend were the curious, the shrewd and those seeking a last glimpse of the once-prosperous company's art collection. They found hallways, conference rooms and reception areas transformed into ersatz galleries holding an overwhelming amount of art.

Saturday marked the first of a six-day sale and preview of almost 2,000 artworks -- paintings, prints, posters, textiles, sculptures and photographs -- that once decorated Andersen's Chicago, Minneapolis and Detroit offices. Opening day drew a steady stream of about 500 visitors to 33 W. Monroe St., from families looking for art to adorn their homes to the occasional dealer searching for a rare deal.

Within minutes of the sale's start at 9 a.m., people on the 15th floor were hoisting artworks, which hung on every available bit of wall space or leaned against glass partitions, and carrying them to a cashier for purchase. Prospective buyers on the 16th floor previewed more than 1,300 works by lesser-known artists that are being auctioned Thursday and Friday by the Great American Group, 71 E. Wacker Drive.

"It's an extraordinary, unfortunate opportunity. We hate to see the company go under, but we got some wonderful pieces," said Patrick Diamond, a City of Chicago employee, as he and his wife, Judith, carried out prints by Sam Gilliam, Norman Rockwell and Salvador Dali.

Tom Rand, a Chicago photographer on the lookout for works by prominent photographers, was disappointed by the sale.

"I thought I could find some bargains here because most people still consider photography kind of a lower art," he said, looking at a work by William Wegman. But it was one of only a handful of photographs for sale.

Throughout the offices are reminders of Andersen's happier days: a marketing plan outlined on a dry-erase board in a cubicle, chairs arranged around a conference table as if employees had just left for lunch.

"It's a little freaky," admitted Jim Kent, formerly a senior manager at Andersen who left the company a couple of years ago to work as an independent consultant. "I'm looking at the snack room and thinking of what it used to look like. No one could have imagined that it would be like this.

"I wanted to see if a couple of pieces that I had particularly admired were here," he continued, alluding to three botanical prints by Michelle Stuart that he found on the 15th floor.

Artworks on the 15th floor are part of Andersen's "investment art sale," explained art consultant Emily Nixon, who from 1987 to 1992 informed Andersen's acquisitions and served as curator of the collection. Before her arrival at Andersen, partners at the company's different locations acquired artworks for more than 90 years with help from various art consultants and designers.

Nixon's company, Nixon Art Associates, selected more than 300 of the most valuable artworks for a cash-and-carry sale. Nixon added that she priced most of the works about 75 percent of their retail value, so that most individual works were $500 to $5,000.

Even works by such distinguished artists as Ellsworth Kelly, Josef Albers, Ed Ruscha, Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg and Louise Nevelson aren't high-priced paintings or sculptures but more reasonably priced prints.

"This was never intended to be a blue-chip investment collection like some corporate collections are," Nixon said.

Chicago viewers will appreciate the inclusion of well-known Chicago artists such as William Conger, Dan Smajo-Ramirez, Don Baum, Christina Ramberg and Margaret Wharton, some of whom were associated with the Chicago Imagists.

Although the sale prices are generally lower than those offered for the same artists represented in Chicago galleries, none of several art dealers interviewed thought the auction would affect local art prices.

"This is an anomaly," said Paul Klein, of Klein Art Works. "It's like having the circus come to town. It's different for a few days and then it goes back to what it was before."

The Andersen collection reflects a corporate mentality, consisting largely of works selected for their ability to create a pleasant atmosphere rather than to challenge viewers. Regional landscape paintings abound, as do subtly toned abstract paintings and drawings.

"It's definitely corporate art, with a lot of decorative things," said Michael Jefferson of Wright, a Chicago auction house. "It's interesting historically nonetheless, being a local collection by a local business that has an international reputation. I just don't know if that's compelling enough for buyers."