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Aristocratic venue gets common touch; Auction: Christie's is as likely to market glitzy celebrities as it is dusty aristocrats, and the auctioneer is more nextdoor New Jersey than across-the-pond British.; Sun Profile

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- On this particular day at Christie's auction house, the sale is "Magnificent Jewels." Real ones, alarmingly multi-carated and one accidental nose-itch away from having to mortgage the house.

The crowd awaits the auctioneer; surely he will be the silver-tongued Brit of countless Hollywood portrayals who ratchets up bids in a blur of fast talk and cool charm. Instead, in strides Barbara Strongin, all smiles and straightforward demeanor, next-door New Jersey rather than across-the-pond British.

But if she is unexpected, perhaps so too is Christie's, circa 1999.

Tomorrow and Thursday, Strongin and other gavel-wielders will preside over the kind of sale that founder James Christie surely never envisioned when he began auctioning aristocrats' belongings in 18th-century London.

There will be television lights and breathless on-site news updates, spectacle and camp, outrageous amounts bid giddily rather than judiciously on used shoes, tattered books and old frocks.

This is not just anyone's garage sale. These are the possessions of the eternal goddess, Marilyn Monroe, the latest dead celebrity whose stuff is going to auction.

Like that of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Elvis Presley, Monroe's aura surely will add a premium to the prices that the 1,500 items in the auction might normally command.

Among various pots and pans, a white piano and the certificate of her conversion to Judaism that are for sale, the highlight is lot No. 55: the shimmering flesh-colored gown that she was literally sewn into for a breathy rendition of "Happy Birthday" to President John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden in 1962.

Seven figures, goes the latest speculation on how much the dress will cost someone.

After auctions in which Onassis's triple strand of plastic pearls went for $211,500 and an ancient piece of the Duke and Duchess' wedding cake went for $29,900, anything can -- and usually does -- go at these celebrity sales.

"It's pure desire at play," said Bruce Wolmer, editor-in-chief of Art & Auction magazine. "These objects have no benchmark value, unlike, say, Impressionist or modern art. This material has only subjective worth, so it really is a pure expression of desire what someone will bid for them.

"People want these items for the same reason medieval pilgrims used to visit a saint's reliquary," Wolmer said. "These celebrities are the great icons of the culture, and their possessions have an almost magical quality."

While they garner the lion's share of the public's attention, celebrity sales still comprise just a sliver of business at Christie's and its twin pillar of auctioneering, Sotheby's. But they serve an increasingly important role for the auction houses as the once stuffy, British-founded companies slowly open the door to, well, commoners.

Someone too intimidated to bid on a Jasper Johns might have no similar qualms about Marilyn's bluejeans or her jotted-on cookbooks.

Unlike the more traditional auctions, these sales can turn festive and party-like. People dress up, celebrities such as Joan Rivers and Tommy Hilfiger join in the paddle-waving and any buyer's remorse is still off in the future.

"The regular sales are very controlled. The celebrity sales, they're out there," Strongin said. "You get your groupies. These people will just start talking to you, 'Oh sure, I'll take that.' "

Part of the lure of the auction, of course, is the temporary entree to a rarefied world of suave British auctioneers (think Hugh Grant in the recent movie, "Mickey Blue Eyes") and lavish catalogs with items quaintly identified as "The Property of a Lady" or "From an Important New York Estate."

Those attending the Marilyn Monroe auction will get a taste of all that with Christie's chairman, Lord Hindlip, wielding the gavel on opening night.

But Strongin will take a turn the next day. If there is someone who can make the auction experience less threatening and more accessible, less Etonian and more American, it is Strongin.

"I don't have a British accent, I didn't go to a fancy school, this is not the world I grew up in by any means," Strongin said.

She is from Hampton, N.J. -- "which has nothing to do with the Hamptons," she notes wryly -- and graduated from Rutgers with a degree in advertising.

Failing to find work at any of the agencies, she was hired at Christie's on the basis of her one marketable skill: really fast typing.

"I typed party invitations," she said.

Strongin had never been in an auction house. She had no burning desire to work surrounded by art. It was just a job. But six months later, her boss left, and she was suddenly head of the customer services department.

She has worked mainly in the operational end of things -- developing procedures for telephone bids, for example, and scheduling auctions and auctioneers. And then 12 years ago, one of those auctioneers called in sick. On a staff-light Saturday. Five minutes before the sale was to start.

An auctioneer was born.

"She is a natural," said Ann E. Berman, who as the "Art Watch" columnist for Town & Country magazine frequently attends auctions. "She makes everyone feel at home."

Strongin has the busiest schedule of the Christie's auctioneers, largely because she is the jane of all trades and the master of none. While other auctioneers specialize in certain fields -- modern art or rare wine -- she is the only one who can handle every category.

As a senior vice president in charge of the bid department, she has the advantage of knowing many of the buyers. At the recent jewel sale, for example, she knew about three-fourths of the audience -- and when she could cajole another bid out of someone, or when someone else was through.

You would never know it from her calm, ever-smiling demeanor, but each lot is an exercise in mental juggling.

There is the secret "reserve" price that the seller has specified, which the final bid must at least match for the item to be sold. There are previously arranged absentee bids that must be introduced into the mix, bids coming in via two banks of phones on either side of the room and, of course, bids from the floor.

Often, there will also be shy bidders who, rather than publicly raise their paddles, have worked out secret signals with staff members for when they're entering or dropping out of bidding.

"They don't want anyone to know they're bidding for fear that someone will bid up the price against them, or they don't want people to know they're adding to their collection," Strongin said. "And some just like to play the game."

It can be a risky game. Strongin remembers one client who arranged a signal with her: Glasses off, I'm bidding; glasses on, I'm out. Unfortunately, the client was sitting in the back of the room and taking his glasses off and on so frequently, Strongin wasn't sure she was getting the right signals even after the piece was sold to another bidder.

"It's up to $7 million or whatever, and I'm thinking, this is a lot of money. I'm starting to get nervous," she said. "After the sale, I asked him, 'What the hell were you doing?' And he said, 'Well, when I took my glasses off, I couldn't see if you were taking my bid.' "

But mostly, this is serious stuff, and Strongin is no pushover. She has one goal when she's up on the podium -- to separate you from your money.

Her tool is her stare. It's an eye wrestle with the bidder, but she is smiling, always smiling through it, daring the bidder to be the first to back down, even as her lips are saying, hey, just having fun here.

"I won't break my gaze," she said, "until you bid or you finally look away."

During her 20 years at Christie's, she has seen the auction house morph from one dominated by dealers who all knew one another into a more open place where anyone can walk in and bid -- provided you first establish a line of credit, of course.

"When I started, everyone was a dealer. There were no paddles, there were no phone bids. When you sold something, you called out the name of the person who bought it -- you knew everyone," she said.

"It was very clubby. You were on the inside, or you weren't. It was good-old-boy. People were very intimidated to walk in here."

But then, auction houses were dragged into the modern world. Such things as baseball cards, movie memorabilia and old toys became, in some eyes, as valuable as the "real" art sold by Christie's and Sotheby's.

"There was a great interest in objects of the 20th century, of objects related to popular culture," said Arlan Ettinger, head of Guernsey's auction house, which opened about 24 years ago in New York to capitalize on these modern-era items.

"But there was no venue for such items at the two major entities, Sotheby's and Christie's, or at the hundreds of smaller auctioneers moving things out of a barn in Vermont or Connecticut."

While Guernsey's does traditional auctions as well, it has made a name for itself with such celebrity events as the Elvis Presley extravaganza in Las Vegas this month, the stunning $3 million sale of Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball in January and, last year, the controversial auction of Catonsville collector Robert White's JFK memorabilia.

While Christie's and Sotheby's remain the twin pillars of the auction industry -- each had nearly $2 billion in sales last year -- the field has democratized to the point that anyone with a modem is now in the same business.

eBay and other Internet auction sites have grown remarkably in recent years -- one estimate is that they account for $2.1 billion of the total $13 billion in e-commerce last year. Both Christie's and Sotheby's have entered the digital age -- Amazon.com has bought a stake in Sotheby's and plans to bring its bidding online, while Christie's Marilyn auction will be broadcast live over the Internet.

But the real action remains in the room itself, which is a good thing for someone like Strongin. In cyberspace, no one can see you staring.

"It's my job to get people to bid more than they thought they wanted to bid," she said sweetly, "and I can only do that if you're in front of me."

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