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‘Pre-Columbian art going for $15. Boy, that is cheap.’

On their way to an auction Sunday, several dozen noticeably dissimilar people whose common link was a passion for ethnic art and good buys made their way past a scattering of bronzed young bodies in bathing suits beside the swimming pool at Sportsmen’s Lodge Hotel.

Paying no attention to the bathers, who paid no attention to them, the art lovers found their way up a stairway to a suite of two rooms on the balcony.

The rooms had been rented by Joel Malter & Co. Inc. of Encino for its quarterly auction of Pre-Columbian, African and New Guinea art.

The suite was prepared with 80 banquet chairs placed in rows down the center. Tables covered in brown cloth were lined end-to-end along the walls. Dozens of artifacts were arranged on each table.

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The smaller objects on display included bowls and figures, brass amulets, effigy vases and poison bowls. Larger items, such as fertility and ancestral masks carved in ebony and an elephant-hide shield, were leaned against the wall.

At the door, each bidder received a number on a large card and a catalogue of the 252 lots for auction. The catalogue contained short descriptions of each lot.

Some of the descriptions seemed to convey sharp insights into the social perspective of the Pre-Columbians.

One, for example, read:

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“JALISCO, 150 BC-250 AD, a figure of a nude female carrying a large water jug behind her head, using a forehead strap.” She was valued at $1,250.

The note for a similar male figure said: “EARLY COLIMA, c. 100 BC, a seated man with right hand holding his genitals while his left hand rests on his chin.” He was priced at $1,500.

That caught the eye of a tall, slender young man in designer jeans and a polo shirt.

“I have a collection of penis pieces,” he said with a loud laugh to a friend who was following him around the room. “Isn’t this fun? Didn’t I tell you it was going to be a blast?”

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His friend nodded.

Others in the room were less talkative. Many appeared to be husband-and-wife or boyfriend-boyfriend teams. They moved about the room quietly, circling in their catalogues the pieces that drew their attention.

It wasn’t especially a Valley crowd. Several buyers were collectors from the Sherman Oaks-Encino area. But at least half said they came from other areas. Two dealers came all the way from Santa Fe, N.M.

The bidding was quiet and restrained. Few of the items sold for even half the catalogue price. This seemed to distress the auctioneers, Michael Malter and Michael Kalman.

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“Unbelievable,” Kalman shouted at one point when a set of 15 pottery-fired textile stamps from Ecuador sold for $15. “One thousand-year-old Pre-Columbian art going for $15. Boy, that is cheap.”

“Congratulations. Nice buy,” he moaned when Malter accepted $650 for a figure of a seated woman, listed in the catalogue at $2,250.

Most of the buyers kept poker faces. Except the dealers, few would volunteer their names. A couple expressed concerns over burglary and the IRS.

Others were just evasive.

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“You don’t want to talk to me,” one man said with a self-conscious smile to a reporter. “I’m not really bidding.”

He promptly sat down and bought a piece for $275.

Some of the buyers thought the prices were high. Others thought they were low.

“These things are going very cheap,” said an Encino woman who would not give her name. Still, she hadn’t bought anything.

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“The good things I’m looking for are going for more than I’m willing to pay,” she said. “It just depends on how much of a bargain you are interested in.”

The tall man with the genitalia art collection both talked and bought a lot.

He said he was Kenneth Garett, a psychologist from Palm Springs.

He had bought a few small statues and a three-foot-high African mask with inlaid cowrie shells. The mask was for his office.

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“I like to spook my patients a little,” he said, laughing.

Garett let on that no one really listened to the moaning of the auctioneer.

“It’s a game,” he said. “It’s a silly game. They put silly prices down. We know that.”

Garett said he loves auctions so much he goes to four or five a year.

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“My wife comes,” he said. “She tolerates it. She’s outside talking.”

He sat down and bought a few more things. Then his wife, who was wearing a silky black pantsuit and looked ready for a party, drifted to his side and whispered in his ear.

“She’s going to strangle me soon,” he said.

He paid $1,160 and carried his goods away.

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By then, the bidding action focused on a tall woman in a black-and-white stripe tunic pantsuit and a doctor who sat inconspicuously in the front row in a tweed coat.

Both bid on almost every Pre-Columbian piece and often pushed the price $100 or more after everyone else dropped out.

Afterward, the woman said she had spent about $4,000. She wouldn’t say who she was.

But the doctor said he was Milton Birnbaum of Burbank.

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“I guess I don’t care if my patients know how I spend my money,” he said, smiling with self-satisfaction. He had spent about $5,000.

He said it was all for the general improvement of his collection. He would keep some pieces and trade or sell others among fellow collectors.

In spite of his deep resources, Birnbaum hadn’t bought indiscriminately. Sometimes the price got too high even for him.

“They were some nice pieces I was bidding on and didn’t get,” he said. “Life is like that.”

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