Fall Postwar and Contemporary Sale
Monday, 7:00 pm
The auction starts-Ladies and Gentlemen, we begin this evening's sale of postwar and contemporary art with lot number 1, blah, blah, blah-and I hold myself still. It's a game I like to play at sales. I entertain myself with the implausible fear that if I so much as scratch my ear or push my glasses up on my nose, the auctioneer will perceive this as a bid and I will suddenly own a piece of art I can't possibly afford. That this is impossible only adds to the fun. I don't even have a paddle.
I stand at the back, squeezed in with the press and other observers. I take an elbow in the rib from a fat guy in a droopy overcoat scribbling names and paddle numbers in his notebook, but I hold my ground. I've chosen my spot in the sale room carefully. I figured I'd be invisible back here, in the standing section with the reporters and the pretend collectors and other folks not too proud to watch an entire auction on their feet.
There is another whole room of people watching on a screen upstairs in an annex-talk about Siberia! But they miss seeing the bidders in action. From where I stand, I can see everything. And I hope no one can see me.
Especially not Simon. Except there he is, coming down the center aisle, clutching his ticket to his chest as though someone might snatch it away and he'd be banished to the back to stand.
Simon is late. The first piece, a smallish Richard Prince cowboy, always an easy sell, selected to set the mood-Buy! Buy!-has gone far above the asking price. There is just the slightest break in the tension in the crowded room. The bubble will not burst tonight.
I try to tuck myself in behind the fat man, so Simon can't see me. I don't think he'd bother looking in my direction; no one of interest to him would be standing. Or so I think. I'm wrong, as I often am when it comes to my former boss. He does look in my direction. And he sees me. He stops in the aisle and our eyes meet. He runs his hand through his hair. Surely this will be the extent of our exchange. This is already too much intimacy for Simon.
He continues down the aisle toward me. This is the most crowded sale room I've ever seen, the seats jammed up against each other like coach class on Continental. Simon has to step over legs in the aisle to get to me.
"Mia McMurray. What in bloody hell are you doing here?"
It's not like Simon to be so loud. The fat reporter immediately starts shushing. Heads turn in our direction as the auctioneer accepts bids on lot number 2.
"How'd you even get a ticket?" His voice gets louder. More heads turn.
The reporter waves a hand at Simon to get him out of the way. This doesn't work. Simon glares at each one of us in turn. He doesn't seem to know what else to say to me. I give him my friendliest smile. I haven't seen him since June. I wonder if he missed me a little.
"Take your seat," the fat guy growls. He makes a gesture toward the ticket Simon is still holding at his chest.
This works. Simon gives me one last withering look before he turns to find his spot in one of the rows of chairs. I step back. The fat guy edges over into the space I just released, and I let him. "Thank you," I tell my new friend as he jostles into position. He doesn't respond.
Jeffrey Finelli's painting of Lulu is hanging in the sale room. It's on the right wall, above the bank of phones manned by a growing cadre of extraordinarily attractive salespeople employed by the auction house. He is flanked, not incongruously, by Ed Ruscha and Willem de Kooning, two of my favorites. From the far wall a Basquiat and a Hirst face the Finelli. There, the painting glows, imbued with the power of context.
The official title of the piece is Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him
. Wordy, isn't it? Talk about awkward. Most people leave off the part about the doubting and call it Lulu and God
. Or "the one with the girl and the paintbrush." Or just, "the big one." It certainly is big. A swirling riot of orange, pink, and yellow on a nine-by-twelve-foot unframed canvas. In the lower right corner is his signature, Finelli. A scrawl with an exaggerated F
and a long tail on the I
at the end.
It's an exquisitely composed portrait of a young girl holding a small canvas of her own in one perfectly detailed hand, a dripping paintbrush in the other. The use of light is remarkable, a clear golden light that evokes Florence. The scale gives the piece intensity, and the swirling colors give it Finelli's own unique style. But it's the look on the girl's face, wise and so clearly full of doubt that the explanatory title is unnecessary, that makes it difficult for the viewer to look away.
The Lulu in the painting has circular gray eyes. When they fix on yours, they lock in. You move before her and her eyes move with you, like Mona Lisa's eyes, only much bigger. She's riveting. From her spot above the audience gathered for tonight's sale, the nine-by-twelve-foot Lulu gazes down at the art world with a wry smile, as though amused by the spectacle before her. It is quite a spectacle.
There are three types of people crammed into the tightly packed rows of seats. First, of course, are the collectors. The big players peer down from their boxes above the action, like at the ballet. The others occupy seats as good or as bad as their recent buying history. There are passionate collectors, fueled by lust, and others, only mildly horny, looking to enjoy themselves without commitment. Within this category are a crop of new-moneyed thirty- and forty-year-olds with an air of being on a Saturday shopping spree.
Then there are the dealers, like Simon. They monitor the market carefully at auction, if they're good, sniffing the wind. There are young ones, scrappily negotiating arrangements that are only slightly unethical, and older ones, guarding their turf, knowing that in the contemporary world, new is always desirable. There are secondary market dealers. They're the ones who sell the works that come up for resale, unlike the gallerists who represent artists and sell art on what's called the primary market. That's the stuff you can buy, if you're lucky, when you walk into a gallery.
There are also lots and lots of art advisers, spending other people's money with a nice cut for themselves, sometimes a kickback from certain dealers. All of them trying to grab a piece of the pie, any way they can. Even the most jaded of them enjoy the spectacle.
I suppose I fall into the third category. The gawkers. We're here to watch. It is a thrill, seeing other people spend what feels like obscene and frivolous-or simply impossible-amounts of money on something as tenuously valuable as a piece of art. It's especially exciting when the numbers go crazy, way above the estimates in the catalog. This has been happening a lot. Apparently we're in the middle of a bubble.
In the gawker group are curators and art historians, elegant couples in smart suits who are cultured and speak many languages, ladies in long flowered coats they've brought back from Bali or large plastic earrings that are funky and awful, men in leather jackets they're too old or too bald to be wearing, the pretend collectors, and pretty young things in BCBG cocktail dresses and blown-out hair more interested in snagging a husband than a good deal on a Matthew Barney video piece.
"Fair warning," the auctioneer states in British English, slightly accented with Swiss German. There are a lot of wonderful accents in the international art world. The auctioneer's is a cocktail of European influences, but he is fully in control of his English. He wears a crisp Italian tuxedo and has noticeable sideburns and a very full head of hair. He's known for a penetrating stare that is famously effective at wrangling one or two more bids out of buyers. He stands at his little podium with supreme confidence, a preacher at his pulpit, commanding the room. Some of us have a small crush on him.
Above his head is an electronic board that posts the bids in different currencies. It's fun to watch the prices appear in yen and euro and British sterling. Lot number 7 has sold. A hundred thousand above the high estimate. There's a strain in the air you can almost taste, sweet and tart, a combination of anxiety and self-congratulatory glee at simply being here. The sale is going well, but I'm anxious for it to move more quickly. I'm interested in Jeffrey Finelli's painting of Lulu. Lot number 22.
"New bidder," cries the auctioneer, pointing toward the phalanx of well-dressed auction staff working the phones. His moves at the podium are graceful versions of traffic-cop gesticulations as he locates where the money is coming from on any given bid. "On the telephone."
The seller of the Finelli is a collector named Martin Better, although this is supposed to be a secret. Like many secrets, it's ill kept. Everyone who's anyone knows Martin Better is the seller. I see him now, in the eighth row, chewing gum with gusto, his wife, Lorette, at his side. Her precise blond bob catches the light as she stifles a yawn. I'm surprised to see her here-she's never been to auction before-but she does have a vested interest in tonight's sale. You can buy a lot of jewelry for what they might make on the Finelli, even if it doesn't go above the low estimate.
In the last four years Martin Better has accumulated art the way some people throw groceries into a cart, dropping five, ten, even twenty or thirty million on a piece with the nonchalant air of a housewife grabbing a box of Honey Nut Cheerios at the Stop & Shop.
Martin Better is a real estate developer, although he is often erroneously referred to as a hedge fund manager because it's popular sport to disparage all new collectors as hedge fund speculators, implying that the only reason they're buying art is to-gasp-make money.
Marty Better is a notorious risk-taker-although the phrase, I believe, is "He's got balls the size of coconuts." Or something that sounds equally uncomfortable. He made a huge fortune for himself in the real estate market. Then he began buying art. Once he started, he couldn't stop.
Ironically, Dr. Kopp, one of the more vociferous of the older collectors denigrating the newer buyers in general, hedge funders, Russians-and Martin Better in particular-for what he perceives to be a lack of sensitivity to price, is seated right next to Martin and Lorette. Maybe someone at the auction house was having a little fun. Poor Dr. Kopp. He's a world-renowned professor. And he can't afford the art on his walls.
We're on lot 14 when the energy in the room shifts. It's time for the celebrity socialite to make her entrance. Jenna Bain is the wife of prominent collector Robert Bain. Yes, you can read "prominent" as "wealthy." You're starting to speak the language.
Jenna Bain is spectacular. The dress clings in all the right places. The shiny blond hair bounces just so. She waves and kisses, kisses and waves, making an entrance down the center aisle although her seat next to her husband is more easily accessible from the side of the room. Her husband is already seated, and he sits up a little straighter now, knowing he's the envy of every man at the sale. Everyone sits up a little straighter, the shot of glamour reinforcing the feeling that here, now, is the place to be.
"I can sell it at four million dollars," intones the auctioneer. Then just one last query in the direction of the underbidder on lot 14. "Any more?"
And then, it's too funny. Almost immediately following Jenna Bain comes Connie Kantor. One of the new collectors-no, not hedge fund money, her husband made his cash inventing some kind of toilet-paper dispenser-Connie in five-inch heels is a moving sight gag as she makes her way down the center aisle, although her seat too would be more easily reached from the side closest to the door.
She waves and kisses, kisses and waves, acknowledging anyone she happens to know. My shoulders hunch reflexively, although I know she won't even glance in the direction of the standing section. Her eyes dart this way and that with the acquisitive gleam of a collector in heat.
Hers is a lumpy body no amount of money can dress up, although she's trying, in what appears to be a mink sweatshirt with a hood. She has lank hair even the man known as the magician with the blow-dryer can't volumize and little eyes made smaller with too much makeup. She wears diamonds by the yard roped several times around her neck and a much larger one dangling from her ring finger. Off her arm swings an enormous Hermes Birkin bag in bright blue crocodile. That's one of those bags that cost ten grand at least, if you can get your name on the top of the wait list. The croc is more. This one is so big it looks fake, but Connie doesn't have the confidence to carry a fake.
Her husband Andrew, a troll-like creature slumped in a seat near the front of the room, does not turn around. He's on the crack, scrolling messages on the CrackBerry, his shoulders bobbing up and down. I've never seen him without that BlackBerry; he always looks very busy, but he could also just be playing BrickBreaker. Either way, he doesn't look up to see his wife come down the aisle. His are the only eyes in the room not on Connie right now. Even the auctioneer pauses slightly to take in the visual of her entrance.
The contrast between Connie and Jenna Bain is comical. Just as Connie gets to her row, blowing a kiss at Andrew, she trips on her heel. She goes all the way down to the floor, and from the blue bag spews makeup and cell phone and two tampons all over the aisle. It's all I can do not to guffaw. There are others in the room less restrained. The fat guy next to me snorts a loud laugh.
"Yard sale," he says, slapping his knee.
The suave auctioneer can hardly keep the focus of the crowd. He manages to do so with a quick sale of lot 15. "All done, then, at two hundred thousand dollars."
The sale is moving swiftly. Artists' records are being made. So far, nothing has been bought in. Soon, we're at lot 21. This is a piece for which there was a lot of presale hype. When it sells, anticlimactically, for just over the low estimate, a few people get up to leave.
And then, the Finelli. The estimate is $950,000 to $1,150,000. Will it shock you to know Simon originally planned to price the painting at $75,000 at the opening in March of this same year, only nine months earlier? It should. I've never been good at math, but that's an increase of what? A lot.
The seller-yes, right, Martin Better-should make a tidy profit on a painting for which he paid $675,000. Six hundred seventy-five thousand dollars is where the price had gone for this piece by June, only four months after the opening. Sure, there's been plenty of vicious gossip and opinionated judgment about Marty selling the Finelli so soon after he bought it at the Basel art fair. And not just quietly offering it around through a secondary dealer, or giving it back to Simon to sell for him, but putting it up for auction. Auction is so public, so flashy, so, well, bold. Coconuts, hmm.
"Lulu meets God and doubts him," the auctioneer intones. He glances at the ceiling, knowing as he does how a piece of art that's generally been decreed to be the best of the artist's output can produce strange and exhilarating results at such sales. These kinds of results, wild excesses, are what keeps him in business, and what keeps all of us coming back, even suffering the humiliation of the standing section if necessary. Perhaps his glance at the ceiling is a little prayer.
The bidding starts strong, with multiple bids from around the room. The brisk action sparks the curiosity of some of the early leavers, who linger at the door to watch. There are phone bidders and lots of raised paddles, and the numbers go up steadily.
"Seven hundred thousand. Seven hundred and fifty. Eight hundred." The auctioneer hardly gets a chance to breathe between bids.
The price is quickly at nine hundred and fifty, the low estimate. The early buyers fall out as the price gets over a million. At a million four it settles down to three bidders.
One of them is a new collector I overheard at the preview loudly questioning the condition of the piece, probably because he had no idea what else to say. The condition? It was practically still wet.
The second bidder is, of course, Connie Kantor. She's recovered from her fall, relaced those mischievous sandals, and is waving her paddle as high as she can reach, as though the auctioneer might not spot it. Not for Connie the subtle nod or a discreet removal of glasses.
The third of these bidders is in the standing section, behind me. This person occupies an unusual blind area in the oddly shaped sale room, to the side of a pillar, blocked to the seated crowd. It's a spot visible to the auctioneer and the alluring salespeople lined up along the telephones and only a few people in the standing section. To most of the room this bidder is nothing but a paddle. A mystery bidder. The seated crowd loves a mystery bidder.
The bidding goes up steadily, paced evenly, with the three paddles alternating. The two million mark gets hit, much to the surprise and excitement of every person in the room. The currency board flips out the numbers: 1,565,195,000 euro. That's 223,359,084 Japanese yen. Even Lorette Better looks interested.
Then three million. A thrill takes over the quiet sale room. Talk about excess. Remember, this is Jeffrey Finelli, not Andy Warhol!
At three million two even the elegant auctioneer is having trouble restraining himself. "Three million three, three million four, three million five, three million six." He hardly pauses between the numbers, glee infusing his pronunciation of the words. His narrow hips swivel as he gestures first toward the back right corner of the room, then to the front left, then to the far right where Connie sits.
At three million seven hundred thousand the collector who was concerned about the condition of the painting drops out. He looks bewildered, as though he's just woken up from a trance.
It's down to Connie and the bidder in the back. The whole room seems to be playing my game, people holding themselves rigidly still, not even breathing, fearing the slightest misinterpretation of a tilted head or a loud sigh.
The mystery bidder seems to have the piece at four million dollars.
"Fair warning." The auctioneer practically dances at his podium.
"Selling now at four million dollars."
There's not a sound in the room. Something in Connie's deer-in-the-headlights look causes the auctioneer to sense he might have another bid. He fixes his seductive gaze on her, now the underbidder.
"Will you give me four million one?" he asks, leaning way over the podium in Connie's direction.
Connie holds tight to the paddle in her lap. The other hand she has slipped under her thigh, as though to keep it from leaping up of its own accord and bidding without her. Her lips will be clenched with such determination they will have practically disappeared, only a smudge of lipgloss remaining to indicate that there once was a mouth in that region of her face.
"One more, madam?" the auctioneer queries.
The room is silent. Connie's husband refuses to catch her eye.
"Take your time," the auctioneer says, sounding gracious, although we all know what he really means.
Connie looks down at her paddle, then lifts her head and nods firmly at the auctioneer.
"Four million one hundred thousand dollars," he says with as much excitement as his Swiss manners will allow. "It's with you, madam, four million one against you at the very back of the room."
There's a slight pause.
"Do I have four million two?"
And the back-of-the-room bidder is right back in for four million two, so quickly, with a swift lifting of the paddle above heads, and then just as swiftly lowering it so it is almost missed by everyone except the auctioneer.
Connie turns her head once, quickly, toward the standing section. I slide behind my heavy friend, but Connie doesn't see me.
"Do I have four million three?" the auctioneer asks, ever so politely, of Connie. Connie looks like she could scream in frustration. But she clamps her lips together even more tightly and lifts her paddle in weary resignation.
"Four million three hundred thousand dollars," the auctioneer cries.
"Thank you, madam."
I crane my neck, as we all do, to catch a glimpse of the mysterious bidder. It's considered extremely bad form to stand up, but one woman wearing a yellow-and-black-striped dress does a sort of crouch in her seat to try for a better view. None of them, not even crouching tiger lady, can see what the eagle-eyed auctioneer can spot from his perch above the action. The figure with the paddle at the back of the room has gone, probably slipped out the side door.
"Four million three," the auctioneer states, now matter-of-fact, as he knows he has to wrap things up quickly.
"Fair warning," he says, before Connie can change her mind. "Selling now at four million three hundred thousand dollars."
Whack goes the little smacker on the podium. There is enthusiastic clapping. Apparently this occurs only in America. According to Simon, no one in London would clap at an art sale. After all, he was fond of saying, after a gin and tonic or several, it's a sale, not a theater show.
I don't know about you, but I disagree with him. I suppose I disagree with just about everything that's ever come out of Simon's mouth. Except one thing he said at Jeffrey Finelli's opening back in March.
"Art is the new cocaine."