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Making a Strong Bid for a New Niche

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).

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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.”

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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.

Fine-arts specialists initially had difficulty persuading sellers to consign their property to Christie’s Los Angeles. “It was an untried market,” Fiuczynski says, and some vendors preferred to “sit out the first round.” But the inaugural sale of California, Western and American art, in 1998, was surprisingly successful. Nearly doubling the pre-sale total estimate, it racked up a total of $2.8 million--including $706,000 for a painting by Charles Caryl Coleman valued at a mere $40,000 to $60,000. Last fall’s sale of similar material brought $3.4 million and set records for three artists.

Local auctions of Modern and contemporary art have grown as well. This month, an auction of drawings, paintings and sculpture brought a total of $3.9 million, while a sale of relatively low-priced 20th century prints added $1 million.

In an art world where a single painting-- Vincent van Gogh’s “Portrait of Dr. Gachet"--has been sold for $82.5 million, these figures might seem paltry. But Fiuczynski says the growth in sales at Christie’s West Coast outpost is a source of personal pride. “Before I moved here from Berlin, I made the rounds at the Maastricht art fair to tell my clients that I was leaving Europe for Beverly Hills. One client looked at me in absolute horror and said, ‘My dear, you are moving to a cultural and culinary wasteland.’ I made sure he came to visit so I could disprove that.”

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The daughter of an American mother and a German father who worked for the chocolate company M&M;/Mars, Fiuczynski was born in the United States but moved to Germany in 1970, when she was 8 years old. She attended German schools, then returned to America in 1981 to enroll at Bennington College in Vermont.

She moved up quickly at Christie’s partly because Peter Krueger, then head of the European furniture department, contracted AIDS and died in 1988. Taking on additional responsibilities soon after she was hired, Fiuczynski became his personal assistant and student as well as a junior specialist in French and Continental furniture. Before his death, Krueger taught her the basics of furniture as well as the auction business. “I traveled with him, cataloged with him; he taught me everything he knew,” she says. “His death was a tragedy and a great loss to the field, but having a private tutorial with him was a huge luxury.” As her knowledge and experience grew, she became a senior specialist and, in 1990, head of the department.

By that time, she was also a fledgling auctioneer. At a company “casting call, where everyone is invited to learn about auction rules and regulations,” she decided to try out as an auctioneer. “I made the first cut and the second cut. Then I was told to go downtown and stand in line with the hot dog vendors and get fingerprinted. In December of 1989, I found myself licensed to sell.”

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Her first sale--of relatively low-priced furniture and decorative arts--was terrifying initially, she says, but then it became fun. “What I love about auctioneering is that it’s interactive theater. A seasoned auctioneer can anticipate where the next bid is going to come. People sit up straight, establish eye contact and start projecting their energy toward you. Of course, there are also those very savvy people who talk and bid at the same time.”

She moved to Berlin in 1995 as the resident decorative arts specialist and manager of European business development for Christie’s London, Amsterdam and Monaco sale rooms. “It was a fascinating experience, but I’ve never felt so American,” says Fiuczynski, who speaks German but had to learn European ways of doing business.

She moved to Christie’s Los Angeles in 1997, as senior vice president, director of business development and principal auctioneer. Promoted last month to the newly created position of president, she is now responsible for the entire local operation.

During the past year, both Christie’s and its primary rival, Sotheby’s, have been embroiled in a federal investigation of collusion and price-fixing in New York. The ongoing drama has made spectacular news, but Fiuczynski says it has had very little impact on Christie’s Los Angeles. “When we were all briefed, my biggest concern was the credibility and integrity of the company,” she says. “I wondered how my team could go out and get business in the wake of all of this press.”

Expecting a flood of phone calls and the challenge of crisis management, she was pleasantly surprised and relieved when her professional life went on pretty much as usual. Whether liquidating an estate or building a collection, people have personal reasons for buying and selling at auction, she says, so the sales continue.

At the moment, she is looking forward to the next batch of sales. An auction of photographs, Jan. 17 at 5 p.m., will offer about 250 works by Edward S. Curtis, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, David Hockney, Hiroshi Sugimoto and Adam Fuss, among many other artists. Weston’s “Invalid Utensil,” a 1930 image of an upended bedpan, is expected to command the top price of $40,000 to $60,000.

“And we’ve got Duquette,” Fiuczynski says proudly, referring to a three-day sale of the late Los Angeles designer Tony Duquette’s collection, March 12-14 at Barker Hangar in Santa Monica. “We are looking at the contents of his residence and warehouse, about 8,000 objects, which we are condensing into 1,500 or 1,600 lots. The scope is everything from old master paintings to his designs to jewelry to tribal objects, to you-name-it. Tony was such a legend and wizard of American design. It’s going to be very exciting.”


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