Press Play

Left: The scene outside Christie’s “Bear Party.” Right: Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale. (Photo: Erika Nusser)

THE SATURDAY BEFORE LAST, Christie’s hosted a tony “Bear Party” in a big plastic tent erected at the Seagram Plaza in Midtown. No bears attended. “A straight person must have thought of that name,” someone murmured outside, their face washed in the glow of Urs Fischer’s twenty-ton teddy bear/streetlight, which sat, slumped and lonely, looking out at Park Avenue. Flashbulbs bounced off the glittering girls vamping in front of a CHRISTIE’S photo-op backdrop and lining up for entrance bracelets. It was like a Millionaire Matchmaker mixer, except here the goal was to partner rich people with merch. Or maybe just media and merch. “There’s no one here who could afford this,” another guest speculated, waving toward Fischer’s sculpture. “These people are comfortable wearing wristbands.”

Inside, Alberto Mugrabi, the dealer whose family was putting the feted object up for auction, admired his bear. “It would look great anywhere. It would look great in Paris. In Dubai. It will go to either the Russians or the Arabs.” Mugrabi knows how to hit the selling points, also detailed in the work’s fifty-four-page advert/catalogue, which featured a multipage spread, “A Bear for All Cities,” with the sculpture Photoshopped, like a traveling gnome prank, into various world locales: Untitled (Lamp/Bear) in Abu Dhabi, Untitled (Lamp/Bear) in the Red Square, Untitled (Lamp/Bear) in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, etc.

The auctions may or may not be a place where the mysteries of art and money are resolved or even clarified. But the way we look at them you’d think that the esoteric happenings of the salesroom might reveal something concrete about the market, something besides the fact that some people in the world are richer than you or I. If the auctions are one thing, they are a cipher for privilege, a place where entitlement is made salient, where class is rigorously policed.

On Tuesday evening, those arriving at Sotheby’s for the biannual Contemporary Art Evening Sale were greeted by a massive inflatable rat and a line of picketers who passed out information sheets decrying the auction house’s hiring of presumably nonunion painters. Sotheby’s handed out their own information sheets—a new, passive-aggressive “Media Guide to Attendance at Sotheby’s Auctions”—to reporters checking in at the entrance, each of whom was then escorted by an official representative to the auction room on the seventh floor. “All journalists must remain in the designated press areas,” read item one (of eight)—a rule that doesn’t apply to the New York Times’ Carol Vogel, who always stands beyond the ropes.

Left: Collector Peter Brant and dealer Larry Gagosian outside Sotheby’s. (Photo: Erika Nusser) Right: Collector David Ganek and dealer Alberto Mugrabi.

Sotheby’s sale began convincingly enough in the scheme of these things but never fully picked up, with audible bids for the most hyped works (Lot 10: Koons’s porcelain Pink Panther, 1988, put up by Benedikt Taschen, and Lot 21: Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies, 1964) staying below the low estimates. “This is a tough night for Tobias,” someone in the press pack observed sympathetically, referring to chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer. In the end, the sale brought $128.1 million with premiums, just over the house’s low estimate of $120 million. “We took slightly larger steps, anticipating a market that isn’t there quite yet,” Anthony Grant, one of the house’s senior contemporary art specialists, explained during the press conference.

“I’m asking please that you stand in the designated area.” The next night, just before Christie’s evening sale, Toby Usnik, the house’s head of communication, tried to corral press behind the crowd-control stanchions at the back of the room. “Do we really need to suffer the additional humiliation of standing behind the line?” one writer cried. “I’m asking nicely,” Usnik grimaced. “And I’m telling you nicely,” came the retort. The face-off fizzled when a bulky security guard picked up the velvet rope and placed it in front of dissident reporters.

The press pack is a kind of collective hermeneutics—a para-society forming around a common impossible task and a similarly restricted view of events. Members try to divine meaning from the smallest gestures: a glance at the phone banks, a stutter in the bids—any wrinkle in the proceedings is weighed and interpreted. Thus, seeing is everything: “Those ladies better get out of our way,” a writer said loudly before the proceedings. “Press don’t get many perks, but one is a fucking sight line.” Penned up like unruly sports fanatics, or unmanageable oracles, reporters are the Greek chorus of the auction drama.

Left: Brett Gorvy, Christie’s international co-head of post-war and contemporary art. Right: Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale. (Photo: Erika Nusser)

A good narrative is essential to the action. The plot of Christie’s sixty-five-lot sale that night was strategically calibrated, with the right mix of pathos, climax, denouement. The first “moment” was Lot 6, Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #96, 1981, one of the artist’s iconic centerfolds, first commissioned for Artforum. Consigned by Jane Kaplowitz, wife of the late Robert Rosenblum, the print went to adviser Philippe Ségalot for $3.89 million (with premium): a world record not just for Sherman but for any photograph at auction. “It’s great to see an artist from our community, a real collector, reap some rewards,” an exuberant Amy Cappellazzo said later.

A pair of Warhol self-portraits—a red “fright wig” from 1986 (Lot 16) and a blue quartet from 1963–64 (Lot 22) constituted the pinnacle of the sale. The first went to Jose Mugrabi for $24.5 million hammer, under its low estimate of $30 million. My neighbor in the press pack was rooting for the second, which was “so covetable. I really want it to go for more than ‘Fright Wig.’ ” And it did. Auctioneer Christopher Burge kept the bidding war going for an unheard-of fifteen minutes, eventually landing it, to much applause, at $38.4 million (with premium). “That’s what you want—a little show, some drama!” a colleague yelled.

Fischer’s Untitled (Lamp/Bear) was at Lot 32. It quickly went for its high estimate—$6 million, an easy record for the thirty-seven-year-old artist, though considering the hype, it was a relatively small amount in the grand scheme of the evening. In the end, Christie’s raked in $301.7 million, selling 95 percent of its lots. “We broke the $300 million barrier. You have to go back to 2007 to see that,” a nearly giddy Brett Gorvy said during the press conference, as Cappellazzo teasingly shushed him.

During and after the show, in the foyer and in the plaza, many journalists, freshly free from the confines of the pen, stalked principals from whom they could pry a choice sound bite. Outside, Vogel caught up with Alberto Mugrabi, whose family had done quite a bit of business that night. He plucked Vogel’s cigarette from her mouth, used it to light his own, and then held hers as she took notes. “The two sales were day and night,” he told her: a nice, summative phrase that she used in her Times report. Another writer hovered, waiting for her quote, but was blocked (“Dammit!”) by the arrival of Greek tycoon Stavros Niarchos. “Why am I even bothering with this?”

Left: Simon de Pury at Phillips de Pury & Company’s Contemporary Art Part 1 sale. Right: Amy Cappellazzo, Christie’s international co-head of post-war and contemporary art.

“What! Another auction? Don’t these people ever run out of money?” The next night, walking toward Phillips de Pury down Fifty-Seventh Street with a colleague from another magazine, I considered this weird masochistic voyeurism, how shopping becomes sport, how transaction becomes transubstantiation. How the stuff of money tangles with the stuff of history.

“I come to get a sense of the market,” said a dealer next to me at the back of the room. “It’s good so far, but still soft. And it’s hard to say what it all means. Three hundred million dollars is nothing in terms of a whole industry. It’s two planes. Or a development project in Miami during the boom.”

The cover lot and talk of the evening at Phillips de Pury was a turquoise Warhol Liz from 1963 (similar to the one Hugh Grant sold at Christie’s for $21 million hammer in 2007). Many considered it a coup for the auction house to land it in their sale. The work went in a flash, just shy of a minute, quickly achieving $24 million hammer.

Later on, an early-1980s Robert Morris wall piece came up on the block. “Oh, this isn’t going to do well,” reported the same dealer. “Too serious. Too gloomy.” And indeed, the droopy felt was passed over with nary a bid.

The sale was finished in just under an hour. Fifty-one lots brought in $94.8 million—less than one-third of Christie’s evening sale from the night prior, but just $33 million shy of Sotheby’s take-home on Tuesday. Other people will no doubt parse what, if anything, this means. It seemed like a lot of money.

Out on Park Avenue that night, after an exhausting week at the theater of privilege, members of the press pack bid their adieus in the gloaming:

“So, you fly out tomorrow?” he asked. “How about a drink next time? You never have time for a drink when you’re in town.”

“That’d be lovely,” she said, buttoning her coat. “Tea though. I don’t drink before the sales . . . I’ll see you in November?”

“Yeah, see you in November.”