The New York art world is a far-reaching network of secrets and sham, buying and selling, and of course, schmoozing. As a New York artist who schmoozes once in awhile on a small scale, I decided it was time for me to schmooze at the high end of the art world and attend an American Art auction at the world-famous Sotheby’s. I was escorted on first visit by a very informed collector of American Art.
Located on the Upper East Side, the 490,000-square-foot Sotheby’s has a good looking, but not overly grand facade. Walking through the revolving doors and into the large foyer, a guard greets you warmly. The space is clean and minimal and feels elegant. There is a sleek and polished Ferrari, regally displayed on a round pedestal (for an international Ferrari auction to be held soon.) Sotheby’s Wine store is also in the lobby. It has the look of a walk in wine cellar, its neat rows of wine are displayed elegantly. According to Decanter magazine (seems like a reliable source) Sotheby’s full-service store offers “a range of fine wines at competitive prices, from $13.95 to $40,000 per bottle.” Yikes.
Potential art collectors are offered “the resources of Sotheby’s Financial Services” because, frankly, you’ll have to refinance your house to pay for this art. It’s fair to guess that when bidding starts at $80,000 it’s not coming home with me. But I didn’t come to bid. I came to behold. We had prepared by stopping by the day before to check out the collection for today’s auction. This morning, we arrived a half hour before the start of the auction and even got a bid number. We headed up to the seventh floor, where a pretty diverse, but sparse group was seated in the auction room. Apparently, I thought, there’s not a lot of interest in American Art right now. But then I learned that you can decide which art you want to bid on and come later, so you don’t have to sit through the whole thing. We picked up some free coffee and a scone from the food cart outside the auction hall. Seated next to some new friends we had met the day before, we browsed the catalog. There must be a lot of people with money to burn. Earlier this year, a Basquiat painting sold here at auction for 110 MILLION DOLLARS.
I had wondered earlier if I should dress up. Heels? Maybe nylons? (except I didn’t have any.) This is Sotheby’s. It’s the Upper East Side. Deciding that anything I picked wouldn’t measure up, anyway, I dismissed the idea in favor of my usual ‘Arty’ Look – black jeans (because that’s all I really own.) It ended up being a good call, as this crowd was definitely casual. Except for a couple guys in suits, it could have been a movie theater crowd. A few baseball caps, a construction worker type guy, a row of neatly dressed Korean students with notepads and pens, and a guy who I was pretty sure I had seen outside earlier asking for spare change. People you wouldn’t suspect may have deep pockets – or the ability to re-finance. The hall was not particularly large. On either side of the podium were phone banks, like the Jerry Lewis Telethon. The phones were landlines with curly cords. People were already on the phones, preparing, ready to place bids for their customers on the other end. Exciting!
The auction began precisely at 10 a.m. The young auctioneer (in a suit and bow tie) took his place behind the podium. “Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.” A painting was displayed on screens above and to his left. The less expensive watercolors went first, taking up an hour or so, before moving on to the more desirable oils. The good stuff comes out. “Lot number 108. Bidding will start at $80,000,” he announces casually. Now the phone bank begins to heat up, all in communication with their buyers. “Bid!” says one, raising her hand. She was outbid, raises her hand again. An internet bidder from who-knows-where was outbidding her. Taking a cue from her buyer, she demurs from further bidding. $95,000… $125,000… $155,000. At this point, the bidding begins to slow down. The auctioneer surveys the room. “I can sell at one hundred and fifty-five thousand.” He says dragging the words out slowly, firmly, looking from one side of the room to the other. “Last chance.” Glancing toward one of the telephone bidders from whom he senses interest, he asks gently, “Terry, can we make it a round number?” Terry smiles, curly cord phone to her ear and her hand covering the mouthpiece, listening intently. Then she raises her hand, pointing upwards. “160,000!” he says with delight. “Do I hear $165? $165……fair warning…” and with aplomb, he raises his arm, gavel in hand, and with the distinctive crack of the wood he pronounces it “SOLD for $160,000! Thank you, Terry. Our next item for bid..”