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Sale of private art collection ends golden era in Oakland

| Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2004

The party's over at the University Club.

After 114 years, the venerable establishment will close out its prestigious history on Nov. 15. From its beginning as a Downtown destination for college-educated men to the glory days in Henry Hornbostel's limestone structure in Oakland, the club provided a haven of hospitality to thousands of distinguished members and visitors. As members gathered for last Friday's "Last Waltz" swan song party, auctioneer Jeff Constantine added a few grace notes to this Saturday's sale of the club's outstanding art collection.

"There are going to be over 170 items for sale," says Constantine, co-owner of Constantine & Mayer Inc. "About 65 of those are paintings. We're also going to sell the club's furnishings and some interesting artifacts, including their great brass message board. But the paintings are going to create the real excitement."

Already attracting attention among University Club alumni around the country, the sale is drawing notice from collectors near and far. To pique buyer interest, Constantine published a four-color catalog that highlights the major offerings and targeted dealers, corporate clients and other potential prime buyers with a series of mailings. Despite the pre-auction buildup, he takes a cautious approach when it comes to gauging bidding interest.

"I think there will be hundreds of people in the audience," he says. "But I don't know how many will be there to bid. We've had calls from active and inactive members.

"That being said, I do expect an excellent turnout of buyers. This is the sale Pittsburgh's been waiting for. And we'll be ready."

Preparations for the on-site sale include auction-day reinforcements for Constantine & Mayer's staff. In addition, several local art experts, such as Richard Wagner and Heather Semple, will be on hand to offer assistance. Extra phones will handle an expected glut of call-in bids from across the United States and overseas. Along with displaying each item as it comes up for bid, a large video screen will project images of the works on large screen as they go on the block.

"This is such a rare sale," Constantine says. "The University Club started during Pittsburgh's gilded age. These painting have been inside these walls since the doors opened. Now that the club's disbanding, they will be in the hands of new owners at the end of the day. It's very unusual."

Adding to the singular sensation, the collection has remained intact for decades. Earlier this year, a Philadelphia collector bought a couple major works, but few paintings left the building before this week.

"The collection hasn't been sent away or sold piecemeal," Constantine says. "Keeping it here, and now selling it here, is a real testament to the club. Some pieces will leave the area. But I would love to see 80 percent of the paintings stay in the area."

During a recent visit to the club, Constantine pointed out several works that he calls "the real stars of the show."

"Beppi Ciardi is a very hot artist right now among collectors," he says in front of "Arch and the Sea, Venice," an oil-on-canvas painted by the Italian in 1927. "This is really a powerful work, because it contains his stock-in-trade components, such as the sea and sailboats in the background, framed by the stone arch. And the woman in the foreground provides an interesting focal point and a splash of color." Measuring 40 by 46 inches and signed in the lower right, the painting is nicely housed in a gilded frame.

Another powerhouse featured is Gennaro Befani, also from Italy. His "Kermiss" captures a Dutch street scene in which the town's women could be going to market or waiting for their men to return from a fishing trip. The colorful setting creates a sense of optimistic anticipation and excitement, as a troupe of street musicians entertains the women.

A local favorite will start off Saturday's bidding when Christian Walter's "Spring Landscape" goes on the block first. Fond of painting scenes near Ligonier and Latrobe, Walter mixes vibrant foreground colors with more foreboding background hues in the oil on canvas.

As he walks through the club's many meeting and reading rooms, Constantine points out paintings by Theophile Emile Achile DeBock, Emile-Rene Menard, Henry Ward Ranger, Ben Foster and Louis Kronberg, to name just a few.

"There are so many outstanding work in this sale," he says. "There's really a wide range of styles here to appeal to a variety of tastes."

Previews start at 10 a.m. Wednesday and run through Saturday until 15 minutes before the sale, with special evening wine and hors d'oeuvres viewings from 5 to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday. Saturday's on-site sale starts at 11 a.m. at the University Club, 123 University Place, Oakland.

Details: (412) 828-7015.

Royal York Auction Galleries

Mark your calendars for Nov. 20, as Royal York owner Bob Simon sets up shop for a sale that features what he calls an "interesting selection of lighting" from an old Squirrel Hill home. The collection of chandeliers tends toward the kitschier side, Simon says, but should provide plenty of options for buyers. Also look for a George Hetzel painting and other biddables.

Previews run from 5 to 8 p.m. Nov. 18, and 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 19. The sale starts at 9 a.m. Nov. 20 at the Royal York showroom, 5925 Baum Blvd., East Liberty.

Details: (412) 661-1171.

J.S. Dill Auctions

It's always a hot time in town come Thursday evening, as co-owners Jack Dill and Bob Hanks set up shop for the weekly auctions at their Butler County auction house. This week's offering features a selection of oak furniture from a local estate. Also on the block is a collection of vintage telephones, including a Bakelite number.

The following week's bidfest should score a bull's-eye with gun collectors, with an arsenal of 19th-century pistols and rifles. Then, two days later, a Saturday afternoon sale will feature goods from Sewickley, Butler and Southpointe homes, including a 10-piece Berkey and Gay dining room suite.

Details: (724) 453-0853 or (412) 362-9001 or www.jsdillauctions.com .

Three Rivers Auction Company

Fresh off a celebrity turn at last Saturday's Animal Friends Black Tie and Tails benefit auction, Three Rivers owner Tripp Kline gets back to business with Sunday's on-site sale in Ross.

Perched above the bustling main streets of Bellevue, the Summit Avenue home has housed the same family since it was built at the turn of the 20th century. Among the heirlooms up for sale are a locally made Dauler and Close 10-piece Chippendale-style, mahogany dining room suite; a seven-piece Art Deco bedroom set; a Gustav Stickley oak Mission library table (with original paper label and finish); and a four-door 1966 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham, with 62,000-plus original miles.

Details: (800) 976-4607or www.3riversauction.com .

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