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by Kevin Nance
In 2003, Leslie Hindman had been out of the auctioneering game for six years. She had sold her Chicago art-and-antiques auction house to Sotheby’s in 1997 and since then had kept busy at a wide variety of tasks -- hosting shows like "At the Auction with Leslie Hindman" on HGTV, writing a column for the Chicago Tribune, running an antiques show at Navy Pier, and opening an art gallery in the Windy City’s trendy River North district.

Still, people around town kept after her to start a new auction house. Sotheby’s had shuttered the business it had bought from her, for one thing, leaving a gap in the market. Just as important was the simple fact that she missed auctioneering. "I just realized: It’s what I do," says Hindman, 53. "It’s who I am."

And so she re-launched Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in a 10,000-square-foot space on Aberdeen Street in the funky West Loop, where some of the city’s best-known dealers (Donald Young, Rhona Hoffman and Thomas McCormack among them) share the streetscape with meat-packing plants, cutting-edge restaurants (on West Randolph, Chicago’s self-styled Restaurant Row) and Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Studios.

Hindman started out small, with a staff of three, and held only a half-dozen auctions a year. Soon, though, she had another epiphany. A significant demand from both sellers and buyers, national and international, existed for a middle-market auction house specializing in art and furniture in the $5,000-$20,000 range. (Some artworks do sell for considerably more. In 2005, Study for the Lady with a Birdcage, by the Hungarian painter József Rippl-Rónai, sold at a Hindman auction for $590,400, setting a world auction record for the artist. Later this year, Hindman is offering a work by the American painter John Marshall Gamble with an estimated price of $60,000-$80,000.)

"Sotheby’s and Christie’s are a duopoly -- they do what they do, and they’re brilliant -- but there are lots and lots of people throughout the Midwest with things that need to be sold in that middle price range," she says. "I thought we’d do maybe six auctions a year and not do marketplace [lower-end estate] sales. But then I realized that the only way to do this is if you really do it, and have a full-service auction business."

That was proving nearly impossible at her original facility on Aberdeen Street, however. By last year, Hindman’s staff had grown to 40 people, she was holding 30 auctions annually, and her sales volume had hit $20 million.

"They were so cramped, with everybody three feet from each other," says her friend David Bahlman, president of Landmarks Illinois, a Chicago-based architectural preservation group. "They also didn’t have the service necessities they needed for doing the business. They’d have a preview for a sale and have to move all the furniture out, because that was the same room they were using for the actual auction."

The solution was right around the corner. Selling her old building to Winfrey last year, Hindman bought a 30,000-square-foot structure, a former floral business at 1338 West Lake, for $2.5 million, and then spent another $1 million on renovations. Her new headquarters, which opened in January 2008, boasts spacious offices, large and flexibly configured preview rooms, a drive-in intake dock, a customer parking lot and other previously undreamt-of amenities.

"It’s fabulous," she says during a recent tour. "We love it."

For such a capacious new building, however, the auction room itself is quite small -- it seats fewer than 100 people -- and purposely so. Most bidders at Hindman’s auctions are not physically present. They participate by phone or via the internet, both through eBay and her own site, (Hindman also publishes her sale inventories on Artnet, which helps make individual lots show up on Google searches.)

"Eighty percent of what we sell is outside Illinois," Hindman explains. "It’s an international, global market, not a local market. If it’s a Hungarian painting we’re offering, it sells to someone in Hungary. Recently we had a consignment of a piece from Czechoslovakia, and we had people bidding from Bratislava."

Now, with plenty of room to grow, Hindman plans to continue to enlarge her business, carving out new market niches including books and manuscripts and, more recently, jewelry and vintage couture, which she often gets on referral from Sotheby’s or Christie’s. (On May 18, Hindman is selling one such referral: the complete wardrobe of Leona Helmsley, who died last year.)

Many out-of-town patrons get their first look at Hindman’s new space on Apr. 25, 2008, when she hosts a party for VIP guests at Art Chicago. That event is followed by a contemporary art auction on April 27-28, featuring Frank Stella’s abstract metal sculpture Progressive Pattern (n.d., est. $30,000-$50,000) and paintings by artists including John Grillo (Phoebus, 1957, est. $20,000-$30,000), Michael Johnson (Sanjue Two, 1994, $20,000-$25,000) and Gertrude Abercrombie (Untitled, 1961, $4,000-$6,000).

Patrons at that and virtually all sales at Leslie Hindman Auctioneers can expect to see the owner herself working the rooms. "I attribute a lot of her success to the personalized, friendly, hands-on demeanor that she has with all of her clients," Bahlman says. "People are treated very well, with the attention and detail that you certainly don’t get when you go to the large New York houses."

Where you won’t see Hindman is in her own office, which is smaller than the one on Aberdeen. "I don’t care about offices," she says with a shrug. Even where there’s no auction in progress, she’s usually moving around the building, interacting with her staff. "I want to be out there with the people I’m working with," Hindman says. "Who wants to be stuck sitting in an office all day?"

KEVIN NANCE is critic-at-large at the Chicago Sun-Times.