GUILD IN THE PRESS
Picture Tells a Story
The fine art of buying
fine art in the Big Easy
BY JAY MACDONALD
- Grandeur, Winter
I am in the presence
of "The Pig Woman," and for the moment at least, the monotone
drone of the auctioneer, the shuffling of folding chairs and the easy
amble of traffic passing by Magazine Street all succumb to my fascination
with the Knute Heldner painting.
Everyone at Neal Auction this afternoon is well aware that this engaging
rural portrait is on of the plums of this year's Louisiana Purchase
Auction. The annual event draws serious collectors of Southern art to
New Orleans each fall for a three-day sale of some 1,500 paintings,
sculptures, antique furniture and objets d'art.
You can feel the competitive buzz as the routine bidding on armoires,
Audubon bird books and antebellem steamship bells slowly builds to the
crying of lot 777. Heldner (1886-1952), a Swedish immigrant from Minnesota
who excelled at Southern landscapes, is considered by many to be an
under-appreciated American master. I'm no expert, but I tend to agree.
Tension mounts with each hammer clap as the likely bidders fidget and
pace the perimeter, steeling themselves for one of the most thrilling
two minutes of their lives. In all likelihood, this painting, previously
in the collection of the Duluth Art Institute, will never come to auction
again in our lifetime.
A FINE MADNESS
Several blocks away in the lower Garden District, novelist John Ed Bradley
gets butterflies just thinking about the hammer coming down on "The
It's moments like these that try Bradley's soul.
Once a star offensive center for the LSU Tigers, Bradley now saves his
game face for auction days. Woe be unto the gentle bidder who gets between
him and an attainable Heldner, Noel Rockmore or Alberta Kinsey.
"I get crazy," Bradley admits, laughing at himself. "Auctions
get as competitive as any football game I ever played. I start banging
my head against the wall."
Bradley caught this fine madness during his days as a Washington Post
feature writer. He spent hours combing the national collections and
commuting to New York gallery openings. In New Orleans, he has found
a home among the artists and art enthusiasts who make NOLA one of the
liveliest art scenes in the country.
Quick art history lesson: In the 19th century, artists gravitated to
the South's three busiest ports - New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah
- where wealthy merchants provided steady portrait work. The beauty
of the Louisiana bayou spawned a school of atmospheric landscape paintings
best characterized by the work of William Henry Buck and Alexander John
That regional sensibility would later take many different forms: the
stylized realism of Heldner, the vibrant impressionism of John McCrady,
the seductive French Quarter courtyard atmospherics of Kinsey, the social
realism of Thomas Hart Benson and the haunting Preservation Hall portraits
of Rockmore, to name just a few.
After several sleepless nights, Bradley has decided not to pursue "The
Pig Woman," whose price is likely to break him. This is a serious,
potentially life-altering decision. For this reason, he has stayed away
from the auction entirely, his reasoning obvious: "If I go, I might
An art jones has been very good for Bradley. It lit a fire under his
fifth novel, "My Juliet," is about a troubled New Orleans
artist hopelessly smitten with a most difficult muse, and his latest,
"Restoration." Like his fictional alter egos, Bradley is all
in when it comes to art.
His twin passions have developed a curious symbiotic relationship; the
royalty checks from his novels barely warm his palm before they're turned
over to an auction house or gallery, forcing him to write another.
"Man, I've got the disease bad and I haven't met the cure yet,"
he says. "It's not about money to me. It's just the painting. I'm
an amateur art historian and a sick collector. I'm a sick man."
THE INVISIBLE ART: RESTORATION
Blake Vonder Haar can't wait to get her hands on four life-sized Art
Deco murals by mid-century modernist Paul Ninas.
The murals brighten up the wee-small-hours ambiance of the Fairmont
Hotel's famous Sazerac Bar. Vonder Haar doesn't want to buy them; she
wants to restore them.
The hotel and legendary lounge was the unofficial headquarters of Louisiana
Gov. Huey "Kingfisher" Long, who liked to hold morning press
conferences here in his pajamas. Years of smoke and booze have darkened
Ninas' colorful street scenes, whimsically sprinkled with such celebrities
of the day as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Groucho Marx.
Vonder Haar's New Orleans Conservation Guild, which she founded in 1997,
specializes in the restoration of painting, gilded frames, ceramics,
porcelain, stone, glass and furniture. Her 12-member staff recently
restored 64 items damaged in the fire bombing of Beauvoir, the Jefferson
Davis estate in Biloxi, Mississippi.
She has restored everything from a $10 million Van Gogh to family heirlooms,
giving the same care and attention to detail to each. She also frequently
helps clients worldwide by providing condition reports on art prior
Artwork undergoes all sorts of trauma. and nowhere more so the in hot,
humid New Orleans.
Vonder Haar removes the grime, discolored varnish and occasional additions
(one painting inexplicably had a dozen seagulls rendered in Wite-Out)
and expertly fills without embellishing those areas destroyed or discolored
by sunlight, fire, water damage or punctures.
The New Orleans Conservation Guild recently moved from the struggling-artist
Bywater neighborhood adjacent Faubourg Marigny into bright new digs
in the 90,000-square-foot Louisiana ArtWorks complex at 725 Howard Street
in the heart of the Warehouse District. Its new street frontage has
enabled the Guild to open an arts supply market that specializes in
top quality products aimed to keep the restorer away.
Vonder Haar estimates the Ninas mural will take two months to restore.
And since they cannot be moved, her crew will have to work their magic
on-site, likely in the wee-small hours of the morning.
ART CENTERS OF THE BIG EASY
With more than 100 galleries, New Orleans is the ideal spot to begin
or expand your Southern art collection. Whatever your taste or budget,
you'd have to have a blindfold on to walk out of the Big Easy empty
handed. Still, a little orientation helps make the most of this adventure.
There are three distinct neighborhoods for fine arts in NOLA: the French
Quarter (or Vieux Carre), the Warehouse District and Magazine Street
(after the "magazin" that Spanish Gov. Miro used to house
The French Quarter is home to some of the most sumptuous galleries in
town. If you're looking for a trophy Monet or Cezanne, this is the most
likely where you'll find it. Bargain hunters, however, would be wise
to look elsewhere, with one notable exception: Struggling artists display
their work on the black wrought-iron fence that surrounds the park at
Jackson Square. To discover even younger artists, visit NOCCA, the New
Orleans Center for Creative Arts, the local "Fame" incubator
The Warehouse District, NOLA's still-coalescing gallery district nestled
between the Central Business District and the Mississippi River, is
where you're most likely to find the emerging stars. Its lovely new
Ogden Museum of Southern Art, a Smithsonian affiliate less than two
years old, is still finding its footing but promises to become a major
force on the scene in coming years.
Check out more than a dozen galleries along Julia Street, as well as
New Orleans Auction, the Contemporary Arts Center and the new Louisiana
ArtWorks, the only venue of its kind to invite visitors inside the visual
Unlike the Quarter and Warehouse District, the Magazine Street arts
neighborhood, some seven miles long, is best explored by car. It runs
parallel to the streetcar line between St. Charles Street and the river,
with a couple dozen galleries, antique stores and retro shops scattered
throughout the lower Garden District between the presidents (Jackson
and Jefferson avenues).
The shops are somewhat grouped with restaurants and coffee shops nearby,
but too far apart unless you're an avid jogger. This is the center of
trash to treasure, kitsch to chic, retro to repo and beyond.
THE CRYING OF LOT 777
"The Pig Woman" appears on the overhead screen. Phone and
eBay bidders are standing by. Nervous casualness turns suddenly serious.
I know John Ed Bradley is coaching a friend who's thinking of diving
into this power date. I've seen his Heldners; I know what they mean
And Blake Vonder Haar has previewed this and the other pieces of the
Louisiana Purchase Auction, appreciating the sheer wonder of oil on
canvas, the enduring power of brushed light.
It feels like a family affair now, somehow personal. I care what happens
to "The Pig Woman," however absurd that seems.
The auctioneer cries Lot 777. Rush of blood to the veins. Almost without
warning, the numbers climb: $35,000, $40,000, $50,000, the upper end
of the catalog spread.
Up it moved to $60,000, the auctioneer's voice rising with the bid.
Two bidders remain, a woman with a preteen daughter near the back and
an anonymous phone bidder. Sixty-two five. Sixty-five. Sixty-seven five
in the room. Will the phone bidder go to seven?
Going once... going twice... fair warning... sold in the room for $67,500,
a record for a knute Heldner painting.
With the slam of the hammer, "The Pig Woman" has a new home,
I have a double-latte buzz that will last the week, and Neal Auction
can set about replacing these irreplaceable works with yet another collection
Every picture, it is said, tells a story, and it's certainly true in
New Orleans. If you've never explored this city's riches beyond the
obvious thrills of the French Quarter, by all means make a point to
do so. It's quite a story.