The Highest Bidder: Leslie Hindman’s genuine passion and unrelenting drive

Maybe you’re looking for an affordable but elegant armoire, or a large piece of colorful contemporary art, or a decorative Victorian-era vase to brighten your home. Or perhaps no one in the family wants the first edition book collection, fancy timepieces, and nineteenth-century British sporting prints the grandparents left behind and you just want to find them a good home.

If so, a trip to Leslie Hindman Auctioneers may be in your future, or even a visit with Leslie herself in your home.

In 1982, fresh off a tour of duty with Sothebys, the twenty-seven-year-old Chicagoan rounded up a group of investors and acted on the brash idea that she could open an auction house in Chicago that catered to an underserved cohort of consumers looking to buy or sell quality mid-priced items.

Today, thirty-four years later, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers has more salesrooms across America than any other auction house; conducts sixty-plus auctions and sells roughly forty thousand items annually in categories spanning the art, antiques, and collectibles spectrum; and in 2015, generated more than fifty million dollars in sales.

The firm is a founding partner of Bidsquare, a live auction platform formed by six leading auction houses; owns LHLive, a proprietary online bidding platform; operates LH Exchange, an e-commerce site specializing in high-end designer furniture and decorative arts; and offers special appraisal events in cities across the country, as well as full services in its offices here and in Denver; Milwaukee; St. Louis; Scottsdale, Arizona; and Palm Beach and Naples, Florida. And all arms of the firm serve a connected, global client base. At a recent Asia arts sale, for example, seventy percent of items were bought by bidders in China.

“People need an alternative to the big auction houses. They’re not interested in the middle market, so we are doing huge volume and making good money doing it,” says Hindman, operating, as is her style, amid a swirl of calls, computer clicks, and meetings in her office at 1338 West Lake Street in Chicago. “There is no magic formula. It’s about selling stuff. We find that people are happy to work with us instead of the big houses because our service is better and we care more, and so we get really good prices for things.”

The company has held many highly publicized auctions, including sales of memorabilia from the historic Comiskey Park and Chicago Stadium; the personal property from estates such as Arthur Rubloff, Mrs. Robert R. McCormick, and the Potter Palmer families; property from the Art Institute of Chicago and the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Kmart art collection; the Kemper Insurance Companies corporate art collection; sports memorabilia from the legendary Ernie Harwell; the Gary Pepper collection of Elvis Presley memorabilia; and the John Drury collection of A.C. Gilbert Erector Sets and Mysto Magic Sets.

Of course, there’s a lot more to Hindman’s success than a favorable supply and demand curve, starting with her approach to business. “I don’t know how to not build something,” she says. “Sometimes people will say, ‘You could work a lot less if you just stopped growing your business,’ but what is the point of having a business if it is not to grow it? It’s fun. It’s challenging.”

“I’m not some deep thinker,” adds Hindman, who attended Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, the Sorbonne in Paris, and Indiana University. “I just work hard, and I’ve always cared about delivering a good product and having a good company.”

It also helps that she doesn’t consider a lot of what she does as actual work. “I’ve  always felt that if you choose to do something that you think is interesting, then it is not really work. For me, going to somebody’s house and looking at their stuff is fun. I love it,” she said.

Earlier this year, she hired a chief operating officer to take much of the operational load off her plate. “It frees me up to grow the business, which I love to do, and meet clients. I went to St. Louis the other day and met the most interesting people. … That is why I like this business.”

Certainly, Leslie Hindman Auctioneers deserves top billing on its namesake’s professional resume. But the “serial entrepreneur,” as friends have called her, has over the years taken risks on many fronts.

She started an online auction company during the early years of the technology revolution and owned Salvage One for a time. “I’ve started a lot of businesses. Some have been very successful. Some have not.” For eight years, she hosted “At the Auction with Leslie Hindman” and “The Appraisal Fair,” which were viewed in more than eighty million homes across the country on the Home & Garden Television Network. She also wrote a weekly syndicated column called “What’s It Worth?” for the Chicago Tribune, and in 2001 saw her critically acclaimed book, “Adventures at the Auction,” published by a division of Random House.

As work-oriented as Hindman is, it does not define her. “I work all the time, but I play all the time, too,” she says. Some of that play revolves around travel with friends. “I like to travel to places people don’t like to go,” she says. “Right after the Arab Spring started in 2011, I went to Libya and Jordan. I think it is so interesting to learn about the world. I am glad I did, because you can’t go anymore.”

France is a frequent destination. An avid reader, particularly of history, she recently devoured books on D-Day, then traveled to the beaches of Normandy. Coming up is a trip to Bhutan, a Buddhist kingdom on the edge of the Himalayas.

She is also active locally, serving on the boards of the Chicago Public Library Foundation, the Arts Club of Chicago, and the Women’s Board of the Joffrey Ballet. Among her many awards are the YMCA Entrepreneur of the Year and the National Association of Women Business Owners Woman of Achievement.

Four years ago, Hindman bought, gutted, and renovated one of the four single-family houses still standing on Lake Shore Drive. “I’ve got the coolest house in the whole world. I love it so much,” she says.

She gets up most mornings at five thirty and walks along the lakefront. Dinner parties are a frequent occurrence. “I don’t make fancy, difficult things. Salmon, filet mignon, and I make a really good tarragon sauce for the beef.”

But if you thought her home would be chocked full of eye-catching possessions, you’d be wrong. “Because I am around so much stuff and constantly looking at things and helping people who are cleaning out estates, I don’t have any need to really own that much stuff,” says Hindman. “When I go home I want to be somewhere peaceful … an off-white environment, with a few nice things.”

Of course, there are exceptions, like the note on her mother’s monogrammed stationery, now framed, that says “So we were wrong. Thank God!” that was sent to her on the firm’s 10th anniversary.

Hindman, who is single and lives with two cats, jokes that she is looking for a boyfriend. “He has to love to travel and go bike riding,” she notes.

In the meantime, she’s busy happily plotting more projects and expansion plans.

Any hint what those might be?

“I’m working on some things,” she smiles.

About the author

Alan P. Henry is a New York Times bestselling author, six-time national fiction contest prize winner, and thirty-five-year newspaper veteran with the Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and now, 22nd Century Media.

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