In the fall of 2019, Heidi and I visited a pre-sale exhibition of modern art at Christie’s in NYC. It was a revelation on a number of levels. First, there were just so many works on display by a huge variety of big name artists. Many had been in private collections for decades, and presumably had only been seen by a small number of people. We were able to admire them only briefly, because they would soon be resold at auction and, in all likelyhood, disappear into another private collection for who knows how long.
The visit was also memorable for the eye-popping prices that were expected to be realized at auction. There were easily hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art on display. No entrance fee. No mandatory bag check. No line-ups. And anybody can just walk in off the street (49th between 5th and 6th Ave) to have a look.
But that’s not what happens. Unlike other museums and galleries in NYC, there were no tourists (or at least they were well disguised). It has a very different vibe. About half the visitors, including us, just walked around in awe. The other half were accompanied by well-dressed, well-groomed young people carrying exhibition catalogs and other materials in binders. These people weren’t admirers; they were potential buyers. These people were very, very wealthy, or at least moved in their orbit, possibly as buyers or advisors.
Wouldn’t it be interesting to be one of those people, for a little while.
Of course, COVID shut down the live auction world for much of 2020 and 2021, but earlier this year I started to hear that things were happening again. An Andy Warhol silk-screen of Marylin Monroe was going on the block at Christie’s and might set a record. Spoiler: It did – $195 million. Sotheby’s and Phillips were also planning big modern art auctions around the same time. So I decided to get in on the action.
There was one major obstacle: I’m not very, very wealthy. But that just meant that my options were constrained. So I browsed the websites of the auction houses to find something that might be within reach. It was just a matter of sorting the items on offer by the estimated selling price to find the cheapest. And…. BINGO! There was one item at Christie’s that I could afford: This small watercolor by André Derain was scheduled to be auctioned on Saturday, 14 May.
I had no idea who André Derain was, but the estimated selling price was $800-$1000, which was manageable. Not the kind of money that I would spend carelessly, but something that I could handle. Even adding in Christie’s commission of 26% of the “hammer price”, it seemed like it was do-able. Although you can bid on the phone, or online, Heidi and I decided to head across the river to Rockefeller Center for the full immmersive auction experience.
In the preceding week, I registered as a potential buyer on the Christie’s website, and did some research on André Derain.
André Derain had a major role in the development of two of the most significant artistic movements of the early-20th century. He, Henri Matisse, and Maurice de Vlaminck were responsible for generating works with a totally new style which would become Fauvism and his association with Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque was integral to early Cubism.https://www.theartstory.org/artist/derain-andre/
So, the guy was no hack. There is some question of whether he was a Nazi sympathizer, or even a collaborator, but his works are held in collections by art museums and galleries around the world. When they have come to auction in the past, his most admired works have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars, some for millions. Just as importantly, Heidi said she really liked the one that was coming up for auction. She even had a spot picked to display it in our living room.
The auction was scheduled to start at 11;30, and my registration notice told me to arrive 30 minutes early to be sure of getting my paddle so that I could bid. When we arrived, the previous auction was still in full swing and running late. So Heidi, my paddle and I had some time to kill. We toured the exhibitions of future auctions, and found a great painting of Trinity Church with the Irving Trust and Bank of Montreal buildings in the background. When I worked at Bank of Montreal, the “old-timers” always bemoaned the fact that the bank sold the building at 2 Wall Street in the 1970’s.
When “our” auction began, we took a seat and soaked up the ambience. It’s all very gracious and dignified. The room is large with select artworks on display on the walls (the “important” pieces). At each side there are two rows of telephone banks staffed by about 30 Christie’s employees, communicating in hushed tones with the very, very wealthy people on the other end of the line. High on the back wall are a bank monitors showing bids being submitted through Christie’s website. And on the podium at the front stands the auctioneer. He is flanked by two monitors showing the item currently being sold, and a third over his right shoulder showing the current bid, in multiple currencies.. He looks to be a very pleasant young man who is throughly enjoying being the centre of all the action. (Later he would be replaced by an equally pleasant woman, with an equally dignified European accent).
Most of the activity was on the phones or online, but occassionaly someone in the room would, almost imperceptably, place a bid. A raised finger or nod of the head, at the right time, seemed to be all that was necessary. The phone employees were more transparent, always raising a hand and calling out “Bidding, Sir” when they had received their instructions. A guy in the front row, in a yellow puffy jacket, was the high bidder (for $380,000 I think) for one item. We sat through the bidding and hammering for 70 other sales, then it was our turn.
Lot #771, “Personnage bras levés” by André Derain was shown on the screen. The auctioneer announced that absentee bids had been placed on the item, and that the bidding would start with these. She opened at $2,000, and I was so disappointed.
That was already twice what I had, in my head, decided I would be willing to pay. So I never even got a chance to bid. When someone placed a bid for $2,200, I did consider raising my hand to place the next bid (which would have been $2,500 based on the bid increment convention), but the urge passed quickly, very quickly. After a minute or two, the bidding stopped at $3,200 (or $4,032 after buyers commission).
So, the whole thing ended with a whimper, not a bang, which is kind of sad. But on the other hand, it was a neat experience, and it didn’t cost a penny. Perhaps there will be a next time.