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Leslie Hindman standing by 'High Snow-Low Sun A', a 1961 painting by Theodore Stamos (1922-97) which sold for $160,000 (£131,000) on May 23.

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In her office in Chicago, she displays a pair of ‘Rockingham’ dogs – the first lot she ever sold under her own banner in 1982.

Since then there has been the sale of her firm to Sotheby’s at a time of regional expansion in 1997, the cable TV shows and a book deal during the collecting ‘big bang’ plus an online appraisal firm during the first dot-com boom.

Latterly, as the landscape morphed once more, she returned to her abiding conviction that Chicago – America’s third largest metropolitan area – should have its own auction house.

By popular demand

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, the sequel, arrived with a flourish in 2003. Hindman explains that it was a case of “back by popular demand” after both Sotheby’s (2001) and eBay-owned Butterfields (2000) had closed.

“A lot of people – from dealers to collectors to bankers – kept saying, ‘Why don’t you reopen your auction house?’ I originally thought I would have 10 employees and a couple of sales a year. It ended up being much more than that.”

The firm’s scope and reach have been expanding ever since: it now has seven branches and 97 staff.

Hindman has found gaps across the US auction scene since the raison d’etre of the largest firms began to change in the late 1990s.

Asked whether she has seen a change in consignments now that the big auctions houses are focused on high-end goods in certain categories, Hindman says: “Collectors and potential consignors realise that you don’t have to go to one of the larger auction houses any more to get top dollar for something.

“The average person may have two things worth $100,000 each, but they have a houseful of things worth $2000-10,000 per item so they sell with us.”

“We really don’t see a reason to be in New York,” she adds. “There are already a lot of auction houses in New York. People from all over the world buy from us. We do have jewellery previews there now though; we lease space from the Waldorf Astoria Hotel several times a year.”

Instead of the Big Apple, Hindman has chosen to focus her energies on an online presence – “overall about 28% of the lots sell online via our live bidding platform Bidsquare” – and on the American heartland where she found the so-called middle market somewhat neglected.

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Bright red initials mark out the Leslie Hindman Auctioneers building against the Chicago skyline.

The firm now has salerooms and business offices in Chicago, Milwaukee and St Louis in the American Midwest, Denver, Colorado in the Rocky Mountains, Scottsdale, Arizona in the desert Southwest, and two Florida locations – Palm Beach and Naples.

It is something akin to the auction network once envisaged by executives at Phillips in the UK and the US two decades ago.

Next on the list is Georgia. Hindman says an Atlanta branch could open in the next six months – “we’re looking now and interviewing people”.

A new recruit is Michael E Shapiro, who from 2000-15 was director of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and, before that, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

A specialist in 19th and 20th century painting and sculpture, he will work with all Hindman branches as a senior advisor to museums and private collections.

Regional strength

Branch sales often focus on the market in that region.

More formal furniture and decorative arts are sold in Palm Beach, a retirement location of choice by Americans, tempted by the warm climate.

The retirees often discover they have no further need for that diamond necklace and consign fine jewellery to the sales held in Chicago.

At the Colorado branch, the Arts of the American West format has proved a popular event and it is also the location for one of Hindman’s favourite recent auctions – the sale of the contents of legendary Caribou Ranch, outside Boulder, Colorado, in January 2015.

“The ranch was a fabulous recording studio founded in 1971 by Jim Guercio and his wife Lucy. All of the top rock and roll musicians recorded there over the decades – Billy Joel, The Beach Boys, Elton John, Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Tom Petty, U2 and many more.”

In all, the firm schedules more than 60 sales a year, including some quirky online-only offerings such as writing instruments, circus memorabilia and Hermès scarves.

“Jewellery is our strongest category, followed by contemporary art and 19th century European and American paintings. We also do a fair amount of business in Asian works of art. And, of course, we sell a lot of English and Continental furniture and decorative arts.”

However, she adds: “I’m very happy that we’re in the business of selling everything – from books and manuscripts to fine antique jewellery, and 20th century furniture to 18th century decorative arts.

“We’ve always done that because if you’re too focused on one area and the market changes, you’re at a disadvantage."

By Karla Klein Albertson