Johnny Cash's lyric “I hear the train a-comin'” best captures the mood at the Santa Monica Auctions farewell event, held June 9-10. Due to the planned extension of the MTA's Expo Line, the entire C Building at Bergamot Station — home to Track 16, the Robert Berman Gallery and Santa Monica Auctions — is set to be demolished. The event was dubbed the “Expo Auction,” and attendees reflected on the demise of the live outdoor auction, held there annually for 18 years, with a swirl of mixed emotions.
Robert Berman, auctioneer and owner of Santa Monica Auctions, stepped into the spotlight and started Saturday night's auction amidst a a speedy onslaught of bids for a Peter Alexander pastel on paper. Flying through the next works like a tiger chasing his dinner, Berman sold two more Alexanders, two pastels by Carlos Almaraz, and finally whipped the crowd into a frenzy with the arrival of an untitled John Altoon. Starting the bid at $8,000, Berman kept coaxing more money out of the crowd. The pastel-and-ink work climbed to $16,000. “Now this is an auction … I love it!” exclaimed Berman.
Probably best known for creating and running Santa Monica Auctions, Berman was inspired by New York City's East Village art scene, and held his first auction in Los Angeles in 1984. Santa Monica Auctions features works by local Southern California artists as well as international art celebrities.
Stefan Richter, the Top Chef contestant who is chef and owner of Stefan's in Santa Monica, has been coming to this event for years. He'd always wanted to own a Banksy, and this past weekend, he got one. “I got an awesome deal,” he beams.
There were several newcomers to the event, such as Daniela Alexander, from Eastern Europe, who has attended auctions all over the world. Ignoring the opening bid, she brazenly offered a much lower price for a Marc Chagall. Berman decided to split the difference, and the crowd exploded with delight. She went on to buy three more works: a Sam Francis, a Paul Jenkins and a Kent Allen Jones.
There were several unnamed persons scattered throughout the crowd with iPhones in hand, while raising their paddles for unknown collectors. An untitled Thomas Downing sold to an anonymous phone bidder for $14,000.
Among the highs and lows were a few humorous moments. Hecklers were in attendance, shouting out offers far below opening bids. At one point, Berman snapped back, “Are you bidding or just yelling at me?”
A seasoned auctioneer, Berman was quick to read the crowd on Saturday. Knowing that Sunday may attract higher bidders, he abruptly passed on a gelatin silver print by George Hurrell. A young couple interested in the print, of Marlene Dietrich, cried, “Wait!” Robert barked back, “You gotta bid!” Quickly starting the bidding, the couple happily went home with the Hurrell.
Finally, the signature piece of this year's two-day auction, Andy Warhol's painting of Mick Jagger (signed by both), quickly initiated a bidding war. It closed at $40,000. Original owner Alison St. Onge was on hand to say, “I loved him so much and wouldn't have given him up for one penny less. … Don't know if I'm sad or happy. … I'm sure I'll be happy once the check is in my bank account.”
The Expo Auction — the final event at the doomed C Building — attracted both a new and loyal audience to Santa Monica Auctions. Though Berman was tight-lipped about where and if there will be another auction, one can assume he is already planning one. In the meantime, art lovers happily walked away with some incredible deals thanks to the Expo Line. … I hear the train a-comin,' comin' round the bend…