Big Business as Usual

New York

Left: Christie's doorman Gil at work. Right: Chief auctioneer Christopher Burge. (All photos: David Velasco)

What exactly does the art market look like? From the press pen at the back of Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale on Tuesday night, it was a sea of bald patches and faux blondes. The men were in grey, black, and blue, many wired up with ear pieces attached to cell phones, looking like the bodyguards and chauffeurs that they left leaning against their town cars outside, except that their suits were made-to-measure. The women were small servings of bare legs in high heels and diamonds.

There are two ways to ready oneself for a major auction—sparkling water and aspirin or a double scotch on the rocks. Christopher Burge, Christie’s twinkly-eyed chief auctioneer, swears by the latter. With a total of ninety-one lots, this was the longest evening sale Burge had ever taken. The marathon had to start a half-hour early to accommodate the clients’ dinner reservations, and was characterized by such unbearable cold that many people speculated that Christie’s had jacked up the air conditioning in order to keep people from falling asleep.

The sale opened with twenty-six works by Donald Judd. The wall pieces consistently outperformed the floor pieces, but together they commanded $24.4 million—well over their high estimate. Still the consensus among the press pack was that the sale was “underwhelming.” Later I encountered a long-time Judd dealer who said the reverse: “Minor pieces sold for major money. For us in the Judd world, the earth moved.” In the context of the sale, I found it oddly reassuring that, despite Christie’s innovative marketing, Flavin Judd’s impeccably hung show, and Roberta Smith’s impassioned rave in the New York Times (which some say added “a couple million dollars credibility to the sale”), the room hardly went wild. Rather, this was a low-key affair befitting the memory of the restrained, cerebral master. As one Christie’s expert admitted, “the artist is incorruptible.”

Left: View from the press pit—the Christie's crowd. Right: Christie's call center takes donations for Andy Warhol.

Only ten to fifteen people left after the Judd lots, suggesting that both the collectors who’d come to “watch the market” and the dealers here to “take a position” were principally interested in the customary fare. Marlene Dumas, the only living female artist featured in the sale, was first on the block with Feathered Stola, a sensuous painting of a slender woman masturbating. This was business as usual and the room immediately loosened up. Bang went Burge’s happy hammer and the intriguing crotch shot sold for $1.2 million, double its high estimate.

In the end, the sales total was a whopping $143.2 million—the second largest in the Contemporary department’s history—but nobody even got close to the edge of their seat. There were no gasps or reverent silences. Josh Baer (dealer and editor of the baerfaxt) informed me that the technical term for such auction house profits was “shitload.” When debate among the reporters turned to why the Stones, a San Francisco-based collecting couple, were selling their Eva Hesse, one offered, “They’re bored,” though the work sold for $2,256,000, an auction record for the artist and more than twenty times what they paid for it in 1992. Perhaps they were simply keen to cash in.

It was good business, but lackluster drama. As Glenn Scott Wright, director of Victoria Miro Gallery, commented after the sale of the night’s “top lot,” Andy Warhol’s 1962 Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot): “It’s a sign of the times that the vendor of a tiny painting made during our lifetime exited the room looking crestfallen—of all things—when his lot sold for only $10.5 million hammer.” The painting was put on the block by Warhol’s original LA dealer, Irving Blum, and guaranteed by Christie’s for $11 million. Was Blum’s disappointment more emotional than financial? As high prices become the norm, it becomes harder and harder to get that euphoric fix. Or perhaps it was because his close colleague, Larry Gagosian (bidding for suspected third-party guarantor Eli Broad), made the winning bid?

At the press conference afterward, Christie’s staff knocked back champagne to celebrate the “testimony to Judd” as well as the world auction records made for Hesse, David Hockney, Damien Hirst, Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, Brice Marden, Morris Louis, Lucio Fontana, Piero Manzoni, and Dirk Skreber. Burge said the event bore witness to a “strong, engaged, sensible market.” Later, with a well-deserved fresh scotch in hand, he leaned over and said, “Auctions are the most boring things on God’s earth.”

Sarah Thornton