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Arts / Museums

Tales from the Auction World

Frank Hettig

BY Catherine D. Anspon // 09.01.14
photography SHAYNA FONTANA

(PLUS A PEEK INSIDE THE WELL-EDITED HOME AND CUTTING-EDGE COLLECTION HETTIG SHARES WITH HIS PARTNER OF 14 YEARS, HERITAGE AUCTION VP AND MANAGING DIRECTOR OF FINE & DECORATIVE ARTS, ED BEARDSLEY.)

YOUR TRAJECTORY IN THE ART WORLD, AND THE PATH FROM GERMANY TO DALLAS

I was born in Germany at the border of Switzerland, then moved to Amsterdam and studied art history at the University of Amsterdam. During my study, I

worked as director in various galleries in Amsterdam and organized exhibitions. During the same time, I also wrote for various magazines like Artforum, Kunstforum and many more and published in museum catalogs.

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Then in 1998, I moved to Los Angeles, but there were no curatorial jobs in the museums. So I worked first for the Dutch consulate for the cultural affairs in L.A. and then at the Goethe-Institut, but I was still writing for European magazines. During a gallery opening in L.A., I was introduced to a former CEO of Bonhams, and he asked me if I wanted to work for them. I had no idea about the auction world. Maybe that’s also a little bit of a snobbish attitude, but I didn’t follow auctions. To put a price tag on art — how?

MOST EXCITING SINGLE WORK OF ART EVER AUCTIONED?

It was at an appraisal event last year. Each person comes in with big dollar signs in their eyes because they saw Antiques Roadshow, but to 99 percent you have to say, “No.” Even if people say it’s been in their family for 100 years, I always say: “If you buy now something at IKEA, and if it survives 100 years, it still would be IKEA!” So, after hours of saying no, I suddenly spotted a great painting, and it looked like a painting by Leon Gaspard. The owner told me that her uncle was a maintenance man, and he admired this work. When the owners moved, they gave him this painting as a present. His wife didn’t like it and refused to display it in their home. The niece inherited the painting, and even her son tried to convince her to throw it away, but she refused. This painting, done in 1922 and hidden for 50 years and almost in the garbage bin, sold November 2013 for $118,750.

BACK STORY ABOUT HOW TWO DRAWINGS BARTERED FOR A VW BEETLE CAME TO THE BLOCK

In the spring, a charming couple came in with a work from 1974 by the African-American artist David Hammons. She had inherited a Volkswagen Beetle from her uncle in L.A., and the car had a stick shift, which she couldn’t operate, so the couple exchanged the car for two drawings from their neighbor, artist David Hammons. I thought it would sell between $120,000 to 180,000, and it sold for $1.2 million. But if you have an artist as your neighbor, I still wouldn’t recommend exchanging your car for artwork.

FAVORITE MUSEUM IN THE WORLD?

Frankly, there’s really not one, because each museum has great works which I love, but personally I like more the intimate museums like the Nasher and the Kimbell (and also because of their architecture).

TOP WORK OF ART AND WHY?

The artworks I am most attracted to are from Dadaism, conceptual art and minimalism, and I love works which are somehow connected to Gesamtkunstwerk; works which have words in them and are socially and politically engaged.

MANY OF YOUR OFFERINGS ARE WORKS ON PAPER. ANY ADVICE AS TO FRAMING, HANGING, STORING, COLLECTION MANAGEMENT?

If you have a work on paper for 30 years and haven’t re-framed it, please do so, because then there was no UV-protected glass, and it usually wasn’t framed with acid free paper. Try to avoid hanging it in direct sunlight and not next to the shower.

ON THE ART OF FOOD. RUMOR HAS IT THAT YOUR DINNER PARTIES ARE LEGENDARY.

Yes, I like to cook — even if I am not a special cook. I like to invite people of different backgrounds and interests to keep it interesting.

Hettig and Beardsley’s long, long, thin table is the perfect foil for intimate dinner parties.
Hettig and Beardsley’s long, long, thin table is the perfect foil for intimate dinner parties.

ON THE MENU

Mostly Italian — or my interpretation of it. I don’t cook with a cookbook next to me but have my own interpretation based on my mood — which sometimes doesn’t work at all. But pasta with self-made pesto, stuffed champignons, lemon chicken.

IDEAL TYPE OF ENTERTAINING

Dinner. For sure, eight.

ADVICE ON DEVELOPING AN EYE

Go to art fairs and visit as many galleries as possible.

TIPS FOR BUYING AT AUCTION THAT ONLY THE EXPERTS KNOW

Buy what you like. I don’t believe in art as a solemn investment.

ON THE HERITAGE NICHE, AND WHERE YOUR DEPARTMENT FITS IN THE INTERNATIONAL ART WORLD ECO SYSTEM

First, we care for each work and do our best for each client. Other auction houses are only focused on the billionaires and oligarchs and only care about the works of $10 million and above. Because of our broad audience and outreach, even in the mid-level we are getting world records. I am also showing highlights in our New York office and Beverly Hills office.

IF BUDGET WERE NO CONCERN, WHAT ARTIST/ART WORK WOULD YOU ACQUIRE?

That’s a tough one: Duchamp, Man Ray, Schwitters, Bruce Nauman. There are so many. I don’t have a one and only favorite artist, because each artist also had a good and a bad day, so it really depends on the individual artwork.

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