Live and Online with Leslie Hindman Auctioneers


Anything can happen at auction. Maintain eye contact. Nod. Raise your paddle. Wait for the gavel to fall and - SOLD! You’re the proud owner of a Chanel evening bag owned by Oprah Winfrey. 

Or an early Lee Bontecou sculpture from the estate of philanthropist Claudia Luebbers. Or a signed manuscript by Mark Twain. Or a diamond lizard brooch. How about a pink Art Deco settee or a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair? 

Leslie Hindman has been in the auction business for more than 30 years, starting her career in the late 1970s at the Chicago branch office of Sotheby’s. When the mega-house pulled out of the local market several years later, Hindman filled the gap by opening her own space in 1982. Prominent estate auctions and big sales like the $1.43 million dollar sale of a previously unknown Vincent van Gogh in 1991 helped establish her auction house’s notoriety in the Midwest and beyond. By 1997 Sotheby’s came back around, purchasing Hindman’s auction house and giving her a principal management role with the company. She kept busy hosting two HGTV shows, authoring a book and opening a River North gallery space before starting a new auction house in 2003. This time she expanded her range to underserved cities ripe with potential consignments: Denver, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Naples and Palm Beach. Currently Leslie Hindman Auctioneers is the largest auction house in the Midwest, holding more than 50 auctions a year, including this spring’s highly anticipated sale of Oprah’s real favorite things: selections of furniture, decorative arts, fashion, 20th century prints and paintings from her Chicago estate.  

With global art sales totaling $54.1 billion in 2014, it’s no surprise that one of the areas with the most growth for Hindman is middle market contemporary art. The aforementioned Bontecou, for instance, is expected to fetch between $200,000-300,000 at auction in May. The untitled canvas, wire and steel wall piece from 1959 is an early example of the artist’s characteristic oval voids. Its provenance is reflected in its price—the piece was exhibited in a major 2004 retrospective that toured the Hammer Museum, the MCA and MoMA. 

“Our firm has grown considerably since 2003,” says Hindman. She notes that success in the market comes from being one of the largest auction houses in the country with access to good commissions. “People know to call us. We are lucky to be a leader.”

Of course, Bontecou lovers don’t have to vie in person. LH Live allows for real-time online bidding, in addition to phone and absentee bids. As a result, some of the highest grossing sales can happen in nearly empty rooms. Hindman also created an online platform shared with several other auction houses called BidSquare, where shoppers can view items by category across several auctions. 

How does stuff land at the auction house to begin with? Hindman cites the most common reasons for consignments are the three D’s—Death, Divorce and Debt. After the seller shares information about the property in question, Hindman’s team of specialists determines authenticity (no fakes allowed) and then estimates the value of a piece using prior auction records. Specialists will also make house calls, sifting through messy hoards, thoughtful collections and everything in between to identify the best property for an auction. In one case, a previously unknown Wassily Kandinsky watercolor, as well as an unsigned Oskar Kokoschka painting and several other exceptional pieces, was consigned after being stacked under a bed for decades. 

Zack Wirsum, Director of Hindman’s Fine Art Department, specializes in Post War and Contemporary Art, helped consign the Expressionist trove plus dozens of other artworks in the eight years he’s worked at the auction house. Son of Hairy Who member Karl Wirsum, Zack experienced art from a young age and has developed his own practice of making abstract paintings (he is represented by Jean Albano Gallery.) Unlike many artists who recoil at the idea of auctions and the market, Wirsum feels a heavy responsibility towards artworks he works with, particularly those made by living artists. 

“Placing auction estimates on work by family friends and by my father tests my objectivity,” Wirsum says. “But I respect the process and the challenge. Right now we have an early skull piece by my dad from the last Hairy Who show, and a reverse Plexiglass painting by Barbara Rossi that was shown in the infamous Made in Chicago exhibit. I’m glad to see both going back out into the world to hopefully join important collections.” 

Wirsum and Hindman agree there can be an intimidation factor for those less familiar with bidding at auction, particularly for younger collectors. One initiative to welcome new auction-goers and connect to the contemporary community surrounding the auction house is a West Loop gallery walk on May 16, 6-9 pm. Organized by Wirsum’s department, the walk will align with previews for the Post-War and Contemporary sale, featuring work by Gilbert and George, 

Amy Sillman and Nick Cave and the Carol H. and Richard M. Levin collection, which will include work by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Robert Henri. 

Wirsum’s team is also curating Blank Space, a new concept taking its name from a Taylor Swift song, The auction on June 24, with most low estimates under $800, means buyers can dip their toes in the pool with affordable purchases of paintings, prints and sculptures. Not into bidding wars? LH Exchange (LHX), a new Craigslist-like platform, gives users a more direct method to sell less expensive property while working with Hindman’s specialists to provide pricing and shipping assistance.

Contemporary art is a big category for younger collectors,” says Hindman. “We want to make sure they know that they can find interesting things under $1,000.”