- The Washington Times - Friday, July 28, 2000

The famous auction house Christie's recently put an unusual item on the block that ultimately didn't sell but drew a lot of attention anyway. It was the life-sized clay sculpture from which the phenomenally successful Volkswagen New Beetle was produced.

Christie's hosted a sale of 20th-century decorative arts called "Masterworks: 1900-2000" in early June. Items auctioned ranged from furniture by Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to the 1950 Rockefeller Guest House by Philip Johnson for the wife of John D. Rockefeller III, to a prototype of a streamlined pencil sharpener by Raymond Loewy.

"We wanted to create a catalog of the best of the 20th century in art and architecture," said Lars Rachen, head of Christie's 20th century decorative arts department. "When we came to the end of the 20th century in developing our wish list, we thought about what really represented the 1990s movement of revolutionizing product and brand. We thought the Beetle would be a great example. Volkswagen took the original Beetle form and updated it into something the public loves."

A life-size clay model of the Beetle would elevate it to sculpture, figured Mr. Rachen. So he went to the Volkswagen Design Center in Wolfsburg, Germany, where the new Beetle model was produced in 1995 and where he successfully convinced Volkswagen executives to put the clay model on the auction block. The automaker would have received the proceeds, minus Christie's commission.

In Germany, during the 1950s, the original Beetle was created to be affordable transportation. It grew to be one of the world's longest-running vehicles. In 1994, Volkswagen updated the Beetle in a concept car called the Concept 1, first shown at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Enthusiastic public reaction convinced Volkswagen to introduce an updated Beetle with lines similar to the original. The new Beetle, which has won numerous design and safety awards, has been wildly successful in sales and in re-establishing the Volkswagen brand.

Christie's had estimated the model would sell for at least $70,000 and maybe even $100,000. The auction house had little experience or history upon which to base its estimates. No known full-sized clay models of automobiles had ever been auctioned. Typically, automakers reuse the clay to make other models, or the delicate clay is destroyed as designers measure the model to make molds for the steel body panels on the production version. The Beetle model made of steel, wood and hard foam covered with modeling clay stands 59 inches tall, 68 inches wide, 161 inches long. The model weighs 5 tons and its wheels move.

The auction house had hoped a museum perhaps one that specializes in applied arts or design like the Museum of Modern Art in New York or museums in Houston, Denver or even Germany would buy the Beetle prototype. Until the end of March, the model was on display at the Brooks Stevens Gallery in Milwaukee as part of the Designs for the Next Century exhibit. The Petersen Museum, one of the nation's leading automotive museums in Los Angeles, considered bidding on the model but declined.

"If someone donated it to us, we'd love it. But if I had $70,000, there are several things I'd like to buy instead of a clay model," said museum director Ken Gross. Likewise, New York's Museum of Modern Art said it wasn't particularly interested.

Christie's put the model on display in its gallery with a production version of the new Beetle parked on the street in front to draw attention. And it did. "A lot of people looked at the model when it was on display in our gallery. It stood out, that's for sure," said Christie's spokeswoman Margaret Doyle. However, it didn't capture enough attention to sell. A few people bid, but their bids were not close to the minimum required. So the clay model goes back to Volkswagen in Germany.

One person who is extremely relieved is Freeman Thomas, one of the 18 members of the original Beetle design team who now heads design at Chrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich. Mr. Thomas was stunned to learn Volkswagen would even consider auctioning such an important piece of its history. In the end, collectors and museums apparently figured $70,000 was too much to pay for a 5,000-pound lump of brown clay with wheels. Fortunately for Volkswagen, the real thing has been more successful, setting new sales records all the time.

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