I know I’m supposed to lead with the fact that Christie’s auction of Impressionist and modern art last night totaled $491.47 million, by far the highest grossing art auction in history, even without Andrew Lloyd Webber’s withdrawn Picasso. Among the nine new auction records were prices for Klimt ($87.94 million for “Adele Bloch-Bauer II,” making him second only to Picasso at auction), Gauguin ($40.34 million), Schiele ($22.42 million) and Schiele works on paper ($11.22 million). (All the foregoing dollar amounts include the buyer’s premium.)
I’m also supposed to tell you that a mere 7% of the lots failed to sell, and that unsold works accounted for a miniscule 2% of the total amount bid.
And I probably should also mention that the Neue Galerie, which sold three Schieles for a total hammer price of $41 million, also bought a recently restituted Kirchner for $38.1 million, trouncing the previous auction record for that artist. And, in that regard, I should also report that when I caught up with Ronald Lauder after the sale and asked if he or the Neue Galerie had bought any of the four Bloch-Bauer Klimts that had sold for a total of $192.7 million (with buyer’s premium), he replied, “I can’t say.” That might not be a stop-the-presses news flash, except that he used those same words when I asked if he had bought the Kirchner. Then he immediately owned up to that purchase, after being informed that a public announcement of the Neue Galerie’s acquisition of “Berlin Street Scene” had already been made at the post-sale press conference.
Now that I’ve finally gotten all that out of the way, what I really want to tell you about is the bravura verve and adroit bid-coaxing skills of veteran auctioneer Christopher Burge, to whom the sale owed at least part of its success and all of its esprit. He self-deprecatingly described himself to the press after the sale as “a performing seal.” But, in truth, he had been a master showman—a bobbing, weaving and always smiling seducer of any who might be tempted to try just one more bid…then another…and then just one more.
From the first lot, when he provoked laughter by inquiring, “Are you bidding sir?” to an animated attendee waving his entry ticket, up through the final offering, when he began his recital of acquisitive increments with, “Finally. Is it finally? It IS finally,” he was ever ready with a tension-dissolving quip or a sympathetic, “I’ll give you time, sir,” for those experiencing pangs in parting with multimillions. The brisk pace and quick-witted repartee were in sharp contrast to the stolid, if solid, Impressionist/modern disposals at Sotheby’s the night before.
When it was time for his victory lap, Burge proclaimed this “the most extraordinary auction I have been involved with” in his 36 years in the business. “For me, it was an extraordinary moment.”
And so it was for those of us—participants and observers alike—who packed the salesroom that night. But please, don’t remind me of my recent suggestion that “discretionary, high-ticket art purchases” might be “hypersensitive to economic jitters.” Is CultureGrrl permitted to delete woefully boneheaded posts?