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Hooked on collectibles and the bottom line

by Joyce Wadler

Folks attending the Sotheby’s collectors’ auction [on a recent] Saturday, encountering a poem written by 11- year-old Elvis Presley to a grammar-school mate (it sold for $5,500) or Ella Fitzgerald’s "Personal and Professional Card Collection" (including Diners Club and Screen Actors Guild, it brought $600), may have wondered if there is anything in America that is not for sale.

Yes–at least at this auction house.

The car in which President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, which was offered some years ago, was refused by Dana Hawkes [’79], vice president for collectibles, as were items from the Sharon Tate murder scene and Nazi memorabilia.

Ms. Hawkes is also not disappointed that a tape recording of Presley’s last concert, for which there were copyright concerns, was not offered for sale by Sotheby’s.

"It was just a very sad . . . tape," says Ms. Hawkes, who is 42 and is clearly fond of some of the people whose possessions she is selling. "He was obviously high as a kite, he couldn’t remember the words to the songs. It was just a very sad representation of the King that everybody remembers."

But do you have the Action comic in which Superman made his first appearance, or a signed script from the last "Seinfeld" episode or something that really used to belong to Sinatra? The enthusiastic Ms. Hawkes, uncharacteristic in her field because she tries not to be too pushy in the acquisition of stuff, would like to speak with you.

Collectibles, which at Sotheby’s include dolls, toys and memorabilia, are Ms. Hawke’s field, and she is particularly well versed in Hollywood and rock ’n’ roll. She can tell you if your John Lennon autograph is fake (Yoko Ono helps her) or what to do with your Princess of Wales dolls from the Franklin Mint (take them elsewhere). But Ms. Hawkes says this courteously, and tells callers where they might sell their dolls. Ms. Hawkes, after all, does not simply cater to the pop-objet obsessed; she is one of them. Driving to the Midwest with her husband and two young sons last Christmas, she had the family dine on Burger King all the way to get the Nightmare Before Christmas wristwatches they were giving away.

"The farther away we got from New York City, the more they let us buy Nightmare Before Christmas watches without buying the burgers," says Ms. Hawkes, whose work forces her to be a student of society. "We bought 50. Now, six months later, they’re each worth $25 . . . . O.K., so I do collect."

What makes a successful purveyor of other people’s possessions? In the case of Ms. Hawkes, a cheerful yet respectful obsession. Raised in Boston, Ms. Hawkes majored in art history at Skidmore. She went to work for Sotheby’s in 1984, when collectibles brought in $800,000 annually to the New York house. Now, Ms. Hawkes says, the field brings in $6 million to $8 million a year. And while she credits the increase to nostalgic baby boomers who have reached the age of disposable income, others say Ms. Hawkes had also helped nurture the market.

Ms. Hawkes convinced Sotheby’s to go into the vintage comic books field, which took in $900,000 in the most recent sale. (She also married Jerry Weist, the antique-comic-book appraiser and artist who brought the idea to her.)

She has been involved in the Andy Warhol estate, too.

"Every department in the company was involved in that except Judaica," Ms. Hawkes says modestly. "He was a Catholic."

How do auctioneers get their hands on the goods?

"Everybody always says there are the three D’s in the auction trade," Ms. Hawkes says. "Death, divorce, debt."

The one item Ms. Hawkes would have liked to keep?

"It was a Clark Gable script for ‘Gone With the Wind,’ bound in leather, with Clark Gable’s name in gold letters on the cover," Ms. Hawkes says. "It came to us from a woman who had been a secretary at the studio, who had had a relationship with Gable. Normally an unannotated script with no date would not be worth that much; because it was Gable we thought it might bring $3,000 to $4,000, but because of the romantic connection a lot of people were interested. It went for $77,000 to a man from the Midwest who wanted to give it to his wife."

How long ago was this?

Ms. Hawkes searches for a signpost in time.

"In ’88" she says. "We had the witch hat from ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and the white piano from ‘Casablanca’ in the same sale. I asked the woman why she was selling and she said she had reached an age when she was disposing of some things. Often, it’s economics. Or people feel they have to let go and they’d rather do it when they are of mind and can handle their affairs."

Still, it must be a sad thing to sell a gift from a love affair.

"I don’t think so," Ms. Hawkes says. "From what I see, it’s the period of indecisiveness that’s the difficult period. By the time they’ve decided to sell, what I hear from people over and over is, ‘It’s time.’…"

This story is excerpted from the New York Times for June 16, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by the New York Times Co. Reprinted by permission.


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