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October 31, 2003

TT: Among the professionals

I just got back from Sotheby's, where I failed to bring home the bacon--an exquisite 1931 etching by Giorgio Morandi on which I bid unsuccessfully this afternoon--but had an exhilarating, educational, and slightly scary time anyway.

Sotheby's New York is near the eastern end of 72nd Street. As soon as I got there, I went straight to the seventh floor, where I registered and was given a numbered paddle, which you need in order to place bids. (No, you can't accidentally buy a million-dollar painting by scratching your nose at the wrong moment, unless you're dumb enough to scratch it with the paddle.) Much to my surprise, all I had to do was show a photo ID. I wasn't asked to furnish proof of solvency. Had I wanted, I could have bankrupted myself several times over, and no one would have been the wiser until it came time to settle the tab.

Paddle in hand, I strolled into the salesroom, a cavernous chamber on two of whose walls hung large lithographs by the likes of Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and Chuck Close (this was a print auction, not a big-bucks painting auction). Placed in front of the third wall was what looked like a telethon phone bank, which turned out to be more or less what it was: Sotheby's employees sit there with phones to ears, passing along bids from bidders who couldn't (or wouldn't) show up in person.

The folding chairs filled up, and at two o'clock sharp, a gawky, cheerful-looking WASP in a suit stepped behind the podium, clipped on a lapel microphone, and called the crowd to order. On his right was a ponderous turntable which spun the "lots" into view, one item at a time. On his left was a large video screen on which the items and top bids were flashed, plus a few extra telephone operators and one woman who passed along the on-line bids (Internet bidding is fast becoming a big deal at the lower end of the auction business). The whole thing looked not unlike the set for a low-budget game show.

Once we got started, things moved quickly--really, really quickly. My idea of art auctions had come straight from the scene in North by Northwest in which Cary Grant slips through the fingers of James Mason and Martin Landau by misbehaving in a fancy Chicago auction house and getting himself carted away by the cops. It wasn't like that at all. The auctioneer wasted not a single word describing any of the various prints on sale, much less engaging in small talk. All he did was announce each lot number and (occasionally) the artist, and for the most part he was the only person in the room who said anything at all. Nearly everybody bid in silence, raising their paddles, a finger, or a pen.

The bids came fast and furious, and once the top offer had been made, the auctioneer would say, "Fair warning and down it goes," rap the podium once with his hammer, and move on. It generally took about 30 seconds to dispose of each item, be it a Kandinsky, Feininger, Braque, Matisse, or Miro (of which there were what seemed like at least two dozen for sale). The prices ranged from $1,500 to $30,000, and it was unnerving to watch the numbers soar. The person operating the tote board frequently had trouble keeping up with the bids.

At first I was shocked by the whizzing pace of the bidding, but the etching I wanted was Lot 342, which gave me plenty of time to get used to it, and within half an hour I was swept up in the discreet excitement that rippled through the room. Most of the bidders in the house appeared to be art dealers, but I spotted a few obvious-looking civilians who were clearly delighted to go head to head with the pros, 30 seconds' worth of single combat at a time. It didn't take long for me to figure out that when my time came to bid, I'd need to keep as cool as possible if I didn't want to spend a lot more than I could afford. So I watched in silence, listened, and learned.

Two hours into the auction, Lot 342 finally spun into view. I raised my paddle to place the first bid, and within five seconds I knew the odds were against me. At Sotheby's, the auctioneer places absentee bids on behalf of customers who have authorized him to bid up to a certain amount. Each time I bid, he raised me, at first in hundred-dollar increments, then five hundred at a time. We reached the high end of the pre-auction estimate, then rolled right over it. At that point, a dealer got into the act, and all at once I was bidding above my not-a-dollar-more point--not too far over it, but far enough for me to come to my senses, kick myself, and realize that I was teetering on the verge of doing something extremely stupid. I placed one last ill-advised bid, and the dealer topped it immediately. The auctioneer looked back at me. I shook my head, just like the Sotheby's Web site says to do, and abjectly laid my paddle on the seat next to me. A couple of heartbeats later, the hammer came banging down, and "Vari oggetti su un tavolo" went home with somebody else.

As I left the salesroom, I breathed a deep sigh of relief. I knew it would have been incredibly easy for me to have spent more money than I could afford on that etching (which is, of course, precisely what auction houses count on). But I jammed on the brakes at the next-to-last second--and instead of slinking home with my paddle between my legs, I felt like the king of the cats. As Winston Churchill once said of combat, there is no sensation so exhilarating as being shot at without effect. I'm sure he's right, but there's also something to be said about nearly spending way the hell too much money in public.

The only bad part, of course, is that I came home empty-handed. I'd let myself get my hopes up, and those of you who've been following this blog from the outset will recall how much I love Morandi's work. The thought of owning a piece of it, however small and imperfect (for this particular etching was in less than ideal shape) had filled me with anticipatory joy. On the other hand, I got my first taste of auction-house blood today--and it wasn't my blood, either.

Will I be back? You better believe it.

Posted October 31, 2003 6:06 AM

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