Hundreds attend auction for Met museum property

February 17, 2010 

Hundreds of bargain-hunters gathered Wednesday in downtown Fresno to bid on the first of two batches of property from the defunct Fresno Metropolitan Museum.

More than 600 lots containing items such as office furniture, science exhibits and lighting fixtures were sold in a sometimes dramatic auction held beneath a large tent on the former museum's grounds. The museum's art collection will be sold later.

Proceeds will help pay off The Met's $4 million debt. The 25-year-old museum closed its doors for good Jan. 5, the victim of high expenses and plummeting revenues.

"It's so sad," said bidder Pam Frazier of Fresno, who, with daughter Anika Frazier, was in the market for antiques. "There are so many memories here."

Controversy also lurked in the background. Fresno attorney Robert Rosati has asked the state Attorney General's Office to investigate whether it is proper for The Met to sell off its collection to satisfy its debts.

A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office said Wednesday that the complaint had not yet been received.

But sentiment and legal challenges took a back seat to shrewdness on this day. Bidders viewed The Met's failure to watch its bottom line as a potential boon to theirs.

"We run a business, too," said bidder Diane Anderson, owner of an environmental testing laboratory in Clovis who was interested in software. "We have to be practical."

One of the day's highlights came in the early afternoon when the two marble fu (or foo) dogs went on the block. They weigh about 5,000 pounds each and were donated to the museum by the Republic of China's National Palace Museum in 1984, when The Met opened.

Bidding started at $5,000 for the pair and rose in $1,000 increments to $19,000. At the end, only a man and a woman were still in the hunt.

She was in command at $19,000. Auctioneer J.R. Searcy looked at the man: "Do I have $20,000?"

The man hesitated -- he wanted to bump only $500. Searcy said OK.

But the woman quickly raised her price to $20,000. The man gave it one last shot -- $20,500. But the woman was not to be denied, raising the paper with her bidding number to signal $21,000.

Searcy and his staff used their best auctioneering tactics, but the man folded.

Sold -- two historic foo dogs to Kristie Serimian of Selma.

The crowd applauded.

Serimian said she hasn't decided where to put the two statues, which are supposed to have protective powers.

"They're a beautiful piece of art," Serimian said. "They're a part of Fresno's history."

The marble dogs and several art exhibits were sold Wednesday because their size and weight made them prohibitively expensive to transport. The rest of the museum's art collection, with an estimated value of $3 million to $6 million, will be sold later at another auction, the place and site still to be determined.

The amount of money the auction raised was not available Wednesday afternoon. Searcy declined to release the figure, and museum officials were unable to provide a tally.

Some bidders spent thousands of dollars.

There were six lots of Haworth ergonomic chairs, five chairs to each lot. The first lot sold for $1,000. Auction rules permitted a winning bidder on the first of multiple lots of the same items to buy the remaining lots at the same price.

The bidder chose to buy all six lots at $1,000 each -- 30 chairs at $200 each.

The chatter among several unsuccessful bidders was that the chairs retail for at least three times that price.

The enthusiasm of auctioneers and bidders waned by the middle of the unseasonably warm afternoon. Barely half of the 400 or so folding chairs under the tent were filled when a "Fresno Bee antique circulation sign" went up for sale.

The former Met building, built in 1922, had been home to The Bee for more than 50 years.

Twenty seconds after bidding began, Searcy said, "Sold -- $300."

The reporter can be reached at ghostetter@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6272.

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