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The art of the steal

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Just 25 minutes into the bankruptcy sale at Somerhill Gallery and beads of sweat had begun to leak from under auctioneer John Pait's straw hat and were dribbling down his cheek.

The afternoon sun baked the bidders trapped behind the art gallery's glass windows as if they were human casseroles. A man's wet shirt stuck to his back. A woman in a strapless blue top misted her chest with perfume before diving into the fray. Squeezing through the crowd was Somerhill President Joe Rowand, who, owing artists at least $270,000 in unpaid commissions $200,000 to the gallery's landlord and hundreds of thousands of dollars to other creditors, declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy last month. He was not visibly sweating.

Pait is accustomed to selling items whose owners, through bad luck, mismanagement or denial, have plunged so deeply into arrears that they must forfeit their goods. In the past year, Pait and his associates have sold rubies and jockstraps, backhoes and boom boxes, wedding dresses and cinderblocks. And on this Sunday afternoon, it was his job to sell art at the greatest profit, and to efficiently strip the walls, shelves and ceilings of paintings, glassware and even the light fixtures.

"Here's a Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever bowl," he said of a $700 piece of glassware whose pattern, at least to Pait, must have resembled a rash. It went for $25.

He hoisted an 18-inch vase above his head. "And here's a shot glass," he joked.

Brandishing a pear-encrusted ceramic bowl with a broken leaf, he told bidders, "Turn it to the back and they'll never know the difference." Bidder No. 55, apparently handy with a tube of Gorilla Glue, nabbed it for $60.

A bidding war broke out over Robert Jackson's "Onion in a Cherry World," a painting of an onion, surrounded by, well, cherries.

"Six hundred, six hundred, six hundred." Pait stared at one bidder and then the other, egging them on.

"Seven hundred." Nod. "Seven-and-a quarter." Nod. "Seven seventy-five."

"Whoo!" the winning bidder exclaimed.

Jeff Waits' 2002 painting "Mirage," an image of the sun setting behind a grove of pine trees, was listed at $1,600. It went for $400.

"Mirage"'s new owner carefully guided the painting through the thicket of bodies to a clearing near the door.

A woman leaned to her friend and said, "That's the one I wanted, dammit."

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