The Persistence of Memory

Nostalgia is a mighty thing, the Nose thought as we fell in with the throng thronging to Richard Opfer Auctioneering in Timonium for the Dec. 18 sale of the Haussner Collection. Haussner's, the restaurant, is dead; there's no more antelope leg or strawberry soup to be had. But Haussner's, the idea, keeps going. More than a thousand people put down a $250 deposit just to crowd into the auction house and have a try at 500 items' worth of Frances Wilke Haussner's art and other holdings.

Much has been made lately of the improving reputation of the late-19th-century academic painters and sculptors favored by Ms. W.H. This may account for the success of the sale of the A-list goods, which brought more than $12 million at Sotheby's in New York last month, according to The Sun. What happened at Opfer's was something else. Through some principle of cultural thermodynamics, Haussner possessions accumulated over the decades with diligent thrift were dispersed explosively, one item every 50 seconds, in a frenzy of reckless consumption.


First to go, of course, was the Great Ball of String, estimated by Opfer's to sell for $200 to $400 and claimed by Fells Point antiques dealer Robert Gerber for $7,500 in a bidding duel. That sale made The Sun and the newscasts, but as the day wore on, it seemed less and less unusual—except that, in the publicity it brought Gerber's shop, it had some practical value.

The sheer wackiness of this much-anticipated first sale was soon eclipsed by the fact that, over and over throughout the day, the catalog price estimates—which Richard Opfer himself admitted were conservative—were shattered five- and tenfold. The bidders were not the elderly waitresses and humble nuns of the Highlandtown dining room; the Nose spied furs and face-lifts aplenty, and even a lap dog. In a sort of tribute to the restaurant, the goods were clustered densely together one last time, around the edges of the big room. At a refreshment stand in back, renderings of the infant Christ and Mary Magdalene hung over a hot-dog roller.

We thumbed through our catalog, savoring the titles: "Morning at Capri," "Monks Sampling Wine," "Gamecock and Turkey Skirmish." Forget the question of whether or not the stuff qualifies as kitsch; what moved best, the Nose found, were the frank monstrosities. A pair of hideous (and well-battered) porcelain ewers, done up in the grotesque, overly ornamented Teutonic style (estimate $600-$900), went for $11,000. An ungainly statuette of a man riding a ram (est. $800-$1,200) brought $15,000. Chubby putti and romantic landscapes rolled up four- and five-figure price tags, in thunderous endorsement of Madame Haussner's tastes. People bought chipped statues, broken clocks, a decapitated column.

Art showing things one might have eaten at Haussner's did well. A bronze pheasant went for $3,000, a bronze rabbit $2,700, a bronze lobster $3,700. A still-life of peaches by A.J.H. Way went for $6,500. Historic and fictional personages were hot properties (busts of sundry Caesars, $12,500; a bronze Hercules, $2,800; Socrates, $5,000; Columbus, $3,500; Dante, $2,700), as were domestic animals. A small Albert Willens canvas of hunting dogs (est. $500-$700) went for $7,000, or $17,600 per square foot. A set of three postcard-sized paintings of kittens (est. $450-$650) also fetched $7,000, from a little woman with merry eyes and white hair, outfitted in tweed and sensible shoes. It was her only purchase of the day. "I like cats," she explained. She declined to give her name, but said she had patronized Haussner's from the 1940s till its very last day, when she dined on lobster tail.

It was a banner day for Fried Pal, the artist behind the voluptuous pinup girls of the restaurant's Stag Bar. One bare-bottomed figure in a corset went for $15,000; standing in front of the Nose, Joe Werner of Towson spent $4,000 on another busty Pal pastel. He reminisced about passing through the bar's pneumatic, pink-nippled nudes as a young boy en route to the men's rest room. "The Haussner's bar introduced me to the realization that men and women were different," he said.

The room brightened as the lot numbers crept toward 500, the crowd thinning and the white pegboard walls beginning to shed their paintings. The collectiveness of it, the thing that defined the Haussner's art experience, was coming undone. But Haussner's-ness, it seems, is indivisible; the orgy of spending went on. Every time the bids sagged to within a few hundred dollars of the estimates, the bidders would rally. In the doldrums of the 470s, a pair of ormolu-and-marble urns (est. $600-$900) shot up to $7,500; soon after, two small blue vases (est. $400-$600) went for $7,000.

Through it all, for seven hours, the indefatigable sing-song of Richard Opfer rattled on, barely breathing between lots, keeping the prices soaring. "It's only money," he told the crowd, more than once. At sale's end, people gathered around his podium, offering congratulations. The final take: $2.1 million, with a per-lot average of more than $4,000. In most successful auctions, Opfer explained, there are a few very high-priced items to inflate the total; here, there was simply steady, relentless enthusiasm. "Usually you need some big hits," the auctioneer said, looking a little dazed. "This was just strong throughout."