Robert Berman marks 35 years of auctioneering with his second moving sale at Bergamot Station

By Christina Campodonico

Art junkie Robert Berman has amassed a treasure trove for display and sale through his Santa Monica Auctions
Courtesy of Santa Monica Auctions

Robert Berman lives for the thrill of the auction. An art dealer who describes his auctioneer persona as a cross between a “stuffy English type” and P.T. Barnum, Berman has been wheeling and dealing art out of various Santa Monica galleries since 1979.

But he’s probably best known for his Robert Berman Gallery and Santa Monica Auctions, which will be moving to a smaller space within Bergamot Station after one last auction in his 3,600-square-foot gallery space in the B building on Sunday. The event marks both the 35th anniversary of Berman’s Santa Monica Auctions and a shift in the 70-year-old’s lifestyle.

“I’m downsizing,” says Berman, noting that business has been down since rumors spread last year that Bergamot had shut down. “The rents have been going up,” he adds, “and I’m trying to make things a little less stressful on myself — though I’m not retiring.”

The thrill of the auction and the ambience of the art world still prove too irresistible.

“It’s the most exciting game,” he says. “It used to be you’d go to church or temple for spiritual revision in your life. Now you go to a museum and you sit in front of paintings … and that is a soulful experience, which being in a gallery, you’re getting every day.”

Initially schooled in fine art at the Art Institute of Chicago, Berman got his start in auctions at Paris’ legendary Hotel Drouot back in the ’70s, “buying prints or drawings in one room, selling them in the next,” to quote a 1991 L.A. Times profile.

“I really liked the energy of the auctions, the throwing of the dice and forcing people to buy, rather than sitting in a back room,” he tells me.

After leaving Paris, Berman set up shop in Santa Monica and even hosted an auction in a nightclub on Main Street. In 1994, he became one of Bergamot Station’s first tenants. When the art center’s C building faced demolition seven years ago to make way for the Expo Line, Berman uprooted his operation in style, holding a lively auction to offload a stock featuring work by Light and Space artist Peter Alexander, Russian-French fauvist Marc Chagall and Venice surrealist John Altoon.

“Flying through the next works like a tiger chasing his dinner,” Argonaut contributor Kathy Leonardo wrote for LA Weekly at the time, “Berman sold two more Alexanders, two pastels by Carlos Almaraz, and finally whipped the crowd into a frenzy.”

Ever the salesman, Berman promises this weekend will present unique opportunities to acquire works valued in the “mid-range” ($3,000 to $20,000) and plenty
of “surprises.”

“We put together a very exciting auction for both the new collectors and for the very erudite connoisseurs of art who are looking for that one special rare thing,” he says. “We also have a suite of works by Keith Haring that he did with William S. Burroughs … a great print by [Takashi] Murakami. … We have a multiple by Ai Weiwei. We have a David Hockney.”

That last piece was made during “a very interesting period of time when fax machines were in their prime,” Berman explains: “David would send out faxes to his friends and usually these were thrown away … but some people did keep them, and we got a piece that came out of the collection of Billy Wilder.”

Though Sunday’s auction will help Berman say goodbye to such treasures, it is by no means the end of the line.

“I’ve been told that on my tombstone it will say ‘Still Considering Consignments,’” he jokes. “One of the advantages of being an art dealer is you keep going until they put you away.”

Santa Monica Auctions holds its 35th anniversary auction at 1 p.m. Sunday (March 3), at Bergamot Station, 2525 Michigan Ave., B-7, Santa Monica. View the catalogue at smauctions.com.

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