Mary Cassatt's "Baby John Asleep, Sucking his Thumb," a pastel of a mother holding a sleeping child, is auctioned for $115,000. An Alexander Calder multi-colored mobile appraised at $8,000 is sold for $30,000. An antique Heriz carpet valued at about $6,000 goes for $16,000.
And now one of the prides of this collection, the highly regarded Steven Straw collection, is up for bid -- an oil on canvas painted by James Bard in New York 114 years ago.
The name of the painting is the "Neversink," a steamship in patriotic hues sailing placid seas with a background of brilliant sky.
"Do I hear $35,000? $37,000? $38,000?" The auctioneer peers through 1,000 faces, searching for a final gleam. "Are you all through at $38,000?" He raps the rostrum with a gaval of oak. "Down it goes at $38,000" -- $38,000 paid to the court for the benefit of Steven Straw's creditors.
Steven Straw always impressed people and inspired their trust. A wunderkind of the art world, dealer Straw zipped around the country in his Cessna 414 forging huge deals. Yet, as a bank board member and contributor to the local hospital, Straw was regarded as a devoted community son in the Massachusetts north shore town of Newsburyport, where he operated his gallery in an elegant 173-year-old building.
Straw, 28, recently found himself the center of attention in a stately old building of another kind -- the 1888 Essex County Courthouse in Salem, Mass., where he pleaded not guilty to charges that he swindled investors out of more than $3.5 million. Associates' confidence in Straw dissipated last year when he filed for bankruptcy, listing $16.2 million in debts, against $1.7 million in assets. The move shocked the art world, especially almost 100 Straw creditors.
Straw pled innocent of 46 counts of fraud and grand larceny in a brief arraignment sandwiched between cases of small-time drug deals and petty theft. This followed a six-month investigation by the local district attorney's office and several weeks of grand jury hearings.
To partly assuage creditors, about $1 million in art treasures, a large part of Straw's remaining assets, were auctioned off over the weekend.
The main mystery in the Straw case remains the money -- where it went and why. "I don't know whether any of that money is still around," assistant district attorney Stephen J. Kiely told the judge. "There appears to be missing $5 to $6 million from his estate: that money hasn't been accounted for -- the auditors can't find it."
Straw's dealings allegedly featured quick-profit investment schemes involving nonexistent art and paintings, and antique furniture he never owned.
PORTRAIT ONE: A Richard Benedek, a New York art dealer, filed a complaint against Straw last June. Benedek said in court papers he began trading with the well-connected Straw in 1975. And like many others who dealt with Straw, he made money.
Benedek's affidavit filed in court states that he invested -- and was burned -- on three partnership deals: The purchase of an antique furniture collection, a group of 11 paintings, including a Winslow Homer and a Mary Cassatt, and a $15 million group of 31 Old Masters and French Impressionists, including two Renoirs, a Titian, a Rembrandt and three rare Seurats.
Benedek says he paid $1.5 million for a half stake in each of the first two deals and more than $1.8 million for a small share in the third. The transaction, like many deals in the art world was made on faith and a handshake.
After several stalls by Straw and two rubber checks for $655,000, according to Benedek, the New York dealer learned that the furniture and the paintings never touched the hand he shook when he struck the deal with Straw. Benedek said his faith cost him about $1.2 million.
It was after Benedek filed suit that Straw declared bankruptcy, leaving 97 creditors clamoring for chunks of hisdebt. Among them are galleries and dealers from London and New York to Los Angeles including one in Signal Mountain, Tenn.
Creditors also include the Internal Revenue Service, Western Union Telegraph Co. and Coca Cola in Salem.
PORTRAIT TWO: J. Lewis Card Sr., a Tennessee businessman and previous financial winner with Straw, claims he staked $500,000 last April on a one-third interest in Paul Gauguin's "The Invocation." The lure, Card said, was Straw's assurance that he would sell the paintings for $2 million, earning a quick and hefty profit.
The only hitch in the deal was that the painting is owned by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it has hung since March 1977 when a wealthy Michigan couple donated the painting to the gallery. A Chattanooga, Tenn., grand jury indicted Straw in January for allegedly bilking Card. Straw pled not guilty. The trial date is July 15 in Tennessee.
PORTRAIT THREE: Petersen Galleries of Beverly Hills, the largest creditor in the bankruptcy proceeding, with claims totaling $7 million, says it paid Straw $3.5 million for Rembrandt's "Portrait of a Man Holding a Black Hat." The painting allegedly was to be sold to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art in an easy deal netting $1 million in profit.
Unfortunately for Petersen, the painting had already been purchased for $2 million by Armand Hammer, chairman of the Occidental Petroleum Corp., from the collection of J. William Middendorf, former secretary of the Navy.
Museum officials in New York said they had never dealt with Straw.
Collectors, dealers and gallery owners say the lush collectors' market was ripe for an operation such as the one Straw allegedly conducted. There is little regulation and most transactions are based on trust.
"The art business is a very delicate business conducted by gentlemen; it would be expressing a distrust to question the integrity of a deal," says Douglas James, a veteran dealer from Signal Mountain, Tenn., who claims $4 million in losses to Straw.
"Sure Straw betrayed me," adds James, "but it wasn't like he was conniving little old ladies out of their bank accounts. I should have known better."
Straw, the son of a New Hampshire art auctioneer and antique dealer, is a self-schooled authority in 18th and 19th century art who began his career at the age of 14, with the purchase of a "nice, insignificant" $75 painting.
Straw shortly began honing his art-trading skills in earnest. "I'm aggressive," he told a reporter for the Daily News in Newburyport in a 1978 interview.
"I went to a lot of museums to study paintings; I talked to dealers, met the right people and built up some good references.
"When I started, I bought some inexpensive paintings and held them for a while until their value appreciated," Straw was quoted as saying. "And each time I sold a painting I put the profits into another one."
He advertised regularly in trade journals and produced a slick brochure to entice a better class of dealers. And he apparently made a good impression.
"Steven's always been an impeccably dressed, kindly, unassuming, soft-spoken gentlemen," says Abott W. Vose, of the Vose Galleries in Boston.
Adds David P. Benoit, a longtime friend who says he was stung: "He struck me as the most honest man I ever met in my life."
"He came across like a New England farmer; you believed he was giving it to you straight," said a Midwest art trader.
Says Peter Fairbanks, a former official with the firm that auctioned Straw's wares: "Steven is a very believable man; he created a milieu of believability.
Straw operated out of a three-story Federalist mansion built when Yankee Clippers rife with riches from the Orient docked in the nearby Newburyport harbor.
The gallery, an hour's drive up the coast from Boston, had brimmed with 175 paintings, including works by Cassatt, John Quidor, Homer and William Michael Harnett.
Oriental rugs valued at $46,000 covered the wood floors. Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs and chests were scattered about the first two floors where the paintings lined the walls.
But on the third floor there was computer gear with video display terminals and even a news-service wire. Straw employed a full-time computer operator and a broker.
The computer kept the company books and helped match client requests with fine art. The other machines were used by Straw for dabbling in stocks and commodities.
For a country boy born and bred in nearby Seabrook, N.H., Straw brandished an unusual flair for extravagance. He surprised a staid Yankee art auction in nearby Maine by swooping down in a helicopter.
"He was a showman -- wherever he went he had to come in with pistols blazing," said a long-time friend.
Straw personally delivered art on his Cessna and drove to work from his $185,000 10-room Georgian-style house in Newbury in a Mercedes-Benz 450SL roadster.
He liked Coca Cola -- he had installed a portable triple-spigot soda fountain at the gallery.
He jogged five to eight miled daily, keeping his 5-10 frame a sleek 140 pounds.
Friends say Straw and his wife are devoutly religious. He taught Sunday school at the Church of Christ in Seabrook. Reportedly, a new addition to the church was paid for by Straw, as was the minister's salary.
He served on the board of directors of the Institution for Savings of Newbury port, and he was a trustee at the Anna Jakes Hospital in town.
Shortly before declaring bankruptcy Straw is said to have donated $9,200 to the hospital to buy a monitoring device to help newborn babies breathe more easily. Hospital officials had told him two infants had died because the hospital was ill-equipped.
Little wonder that even many of Straw's creditors speak reverently of his kindnesses. Says a longtime associate of Straw's: "I just can't believe he's rotten to the core."