Scene & Herd

Thank You, Sir

New York

Left: The crowd outside Sotheby's. Right: The crowd inside.

Protesting Sotheby’s new anti-union contractor, picketing maintenance workers booed everyone entering the Contemporary Art evening auction on Tuesday night. I had to walk through the “boo” gauntlet (though the union had my sympathy). As did Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, who I first spotted emerging from a towncar, in black tie with his maestro-like slicked-back hairdo. A sea of hearty booers parted for him to enter the building, quite fabulously. The scene couldn’t have been set more perfectly—reduced to this crass, classic conflict between Us and Them. Workers and owners. Artists and buyers. For all the confusion these days between Art and Shopping, the primal scene of the auction reminds us there’s a difference between art and commerce after all.

On the screen where one watches the bids zoom up in dollars, euros, and yen—for about three minutes max per piece—the veil is lifted and Art is exposed as pure exchange value. It was kind of racy. All the aesthetic and social foreplay was over—boom—and you watched one “money” shot after another as the merch flew out of the shop. Now it’s a numbers game, and you sit with the price list wondering whose will be bigger? Meyer kept it moving, scanning the room for bids, “Are we done?…Fair warning…Are we all done now?” With his British accent and stern, headmasterly bearing, each time the “hammer” price was achieved and he said, “Congratulations, Sir. May I have your paddle?” there was a subliminal spanking vibe to it all.

“It’s not like ‘Will it sell?’ It’s ‘Who will buy it?’ I like that!” chortled K., my comrade for the evening, a veteran artist who is more familiar with the former situation. Buzzed by the palpable prosperity, we scanned the crowd. Mostly men of a certain age, probably dealers. “Yes, Virginia, it’s really true—there are no cute guys with money,” she confirmed. Oh well. There was a smattering of ladies. Yvonne Force studiously followed the price sheet from the front row, with her glasses on, high strappy lizardy sandals and a lavender duster coat. Sotheby’s people buzzed around solicitously and efficiently as black-garbed sales priests, with the gravitas befitting big bucks. Though at about fifty-five million, this wasn’t a particularly blessed night, according to the Sotheby’s VP I chatted with afterward.

Left: Auctioneer Tobias Meyer (at podium). Right: Keeping score.

K. points out a couple of dealers in the crowd, “You know what they do. They look to see who has the money. Those dealers were acting like they were in church or something. On their best behavior. They were giving the auctioneer their rapt attention.” Jeffrey Deitch bought Jeff Koons’ Cake, 1995-97, for $3,040,000.

Artworks by forty-seven male artists were selling that evening, and only five women—for less. K. rooted for the gals, since she wants her prices to go up, too. She was glad Agnes Martin broke a mil, but shrugged, “She is dead.” It’s good for business to be dead and/or male. “Girl, I’m gonna have a sex change,” she laughed, “a good investment.”

Here in the Sanctum Sanctorum of Capital, the artist’s presence—male or female—is weirdly taboo: “You’re not even supposed to be there to witness this.” K. mentioned another veteran artist who only went once, too: “She never got such dirty looks from people. [Dealer] JT usually looks the other way. He really shot me a stinker! The artist is a straight up dog [in the auction house]!”

“There ought to be a law,” she went on, “You know how when you write a song—like Carole King—you get royalties? There ought to be a law in the visual arts, too. OR It’s just highway robbery. Think about that Liz. [Warhol’s red Liz went for $12.6 million.] Blum got it from the artist for nothing. He sits on it for forty years and gets millions! That’s wrong, Rhonda. That shit ain’t right!” she cracks up. “I mean, one percent, two percent, whatever it is. Why do musicians and writers get royalties but not artists? [Like in California’s Civil Code 986—The Resale Royalty Act—that gives artists five percent of every sale.] Why isn’t there an outcry? Are we [artists] so kiss ass-ily complicit?” Now she’s really fired up. “Wouldn’t it be a great project—but it would take the rest of your life—to fake your own death and drive your prices up? There’s no way around it! That’s the way to re-emerge!”

“Thank you, sir,” Meyer was still going at it at the podium. “Congratulations. May I have your paddle, please?”