story by Sheila Sarhangi
photo by Sergio Goes
Marty McClain wants people to have fun at his auctions. Tell that to the guy who threw in the towel after this afternoon’s bidding war for a 1937 bronze sculpture by a student of Rodin hit $30,000.
But really, there are good reasons why over the last thirty years, two-thirds of his auction-goers have been regulars. For one thing, McClain, founder of McClain Auctions, the largest and one of the oldest auction houses in Hawai‘i, is a personable guy. More to the point, museum-quality artifacts are up for grabs, and the deals are often one finger short of a five-
On this particular April Saturday, three local estates are offering a mishmash of items: deer antlers, Persian rugs and koa furniture, samurai swords, ‘ukulele, a Picasso sketch. Each lot is given a number and displayed on the ground floor of the window-lined downtown Honolulu auction house. At 10 a.m., McClain takes the podium and carries on a mile-a-minute pitch over the next four hours—without a break.
This is when things get interesting. The bidders, who range from flip-flop-wearing twenty-somethings to aloha-shirted business types, put on a theatrical performance with signals and gestures, each as unique as a birdcall. There’s the hand-raiser, the finger-pointer, the number-flasher, the head-nodder and a mysterious figure with dark sunglasses, a straw hat and a dubious gray mustache. Bids are also accepted by phone; one caller scores five early 1900s photos of hula dancers and grass shacks for $1,100. An extra-long Ni‘ihau shell lei—appraised at $5,250—gets snatched for $2,700. As usual, the no-minimum bidding means every item is destined to be a goner, with some lots going for as little as $25.
Upstairs, hundreds of pieces—antique books, oil paintings, a carousel horse—are available for rent as props to local productions, which have used McClain’s furniture for Magnum, P.I. and other TV shows. Recently McClain’s 60-year-old bronze diving helmet appeared in Lost.
“Hawai‘i is such a melting pot of people and things,” says McClain. “Back in the days when steamships were coming here, people would bring pianos, big whaling pots, all kinds of things, and these things have been here for generations. There are so many hiddentreasures in Hawai‘i, it’s unbelievable.” HH