Love and Money

Sarah Thornton on Sotheby's Contemporary Evening Sale

New York

Left: Art consultant Matthew Armstrong with L&M Arts exhibitions advisor Robert Pincus-Witten. Right: Sotheby's Worldwide Head of contemporary art and auctioneer Tobias Meyer. (All photos: David Velasco)

“Christ never said that money was the root of all evil. He said it was the love of money,” snorted art consultant Matthew Armstrong, as we headed into Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening Sale on Wednesday. Sotheby’s saleroom is a vast rectangular hall with chairs positioned to either side of a processional aisle that leads to the “block” where works of art meet their taker. This central turntable—a lazy susan of art—suggests nothing more than “The Price is Right.”

Seating at auctions is no arbitrary matter. It’s the brutal means by which the auction house tells the world exactly what it thinks of you. Are you taken seriously enough to earn a seat in the first thirty rows? Is your wealth and power such that you require the reverential veil of a private skybox? Or are you amongst the upstarts and riffraff relegated to standing at the back? Luckily, a billionaire (whose name I can’t reveal) was too busy to attend, so I had a perfect seat in the fifth row on the aisle, directly behind Larry Gagosian, to the right of the Nahmad family, to the left of the PaceWildenstein gang, and in front of the night’s biggest spenders, dealers Dominique Lévy and Bob Mnuchin of L&M Arts.

Left: Collectors Eli Broad and Douglas S. Cramer. Right: L&M Arts directors Robert Mnuchin and Dominique Lévy.

At precisely 7:01 PM, the auction took off at a sprint. Four of the first five lots—paintings by Neo Rauch, Cecily Brown, Lisa Yuskavage and Christopher Wool—made quick and easy auction records for the artists. At Lot 8, a stunned silence fell over the room when the bidding on an Andreas Gursky climbed up to $2.3 million, the highest price ever paid for a contemporary photograph at auction. Ironically, it depicted the garish junk food of a 99 cent store, no doubt satisfying the ethnographic curiosity of the health-conscious rich.

Next up was Jeff Koons’s 1981-87 sculpture New Hoover Convertibles—a masterpiece guaranteed to give your housekeeper a good laugh. During this lot, I acquired a sense of the consulting style of L&M Arts. Visually, Lévy and Mnuchin make an unlikely pair. Lévy is a smart brunette with a meticulous sense of style that extends to her custom-made cufflinks. Mnuchin, wearing a crumpled black suit and undersized tie, looks more like a high school art teacher than a power player. Sitting with them was art historian and gallery eminence gris, Robert Pincus-Witten. Lévy made her bids by blinking deliberately, while whispering intimately into her cell phone. “It’s four point five with us” went the dealer-collector pillow talk. A quiet, respectful “congratulations” was all she uttered when her client won the work for $5.3 million.

When it came to the night’s top lot, Roy Lichtenstein’s Sinking Sun, 1964, Lévy was again on the phone, cool as a cucumber, and doing the double blink, all the way up to $14 million. Only when Tobias Meyer, Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art and chief auctioneer for Sotheby’s, was stalling in the vain hope of eliciting another bid, did Lévy show any sign of nerves, muttering an urgent “Come on!” When the hammer came down, it was below the guarantee of $17.5 million reputedly given to the seller, Joseph Helman.

Left: Collector Don Rubell. Right: Art Basel VIP coordinator Isabela Mora with Art Basel director Sam Keller and Gagosian gallery's Louise Neri.

Lot 31, a large white Robert Ryman canvas from 1962, offered another jaw-dropping moment. As bids climbed millions of dollars above the artist’s previous auction record of $2.3 million, cries of “This is insane!” and “Unbelievable!” could be heard as even the more reserved members of the audience developed rubber necks in an attempt to observe the bidding. In the end, L&M pulled out against a determined bidder sitting in a skybox on the phone to Parisian specialist, Gregoire Billault. After the hammer came down at $8.5 million, Mnuchin laughed and yelled out, “How about a ‘Wow,’ Tobias!” It was all theater.

Later in the evening, a 1975 de Kooning appeared on the lazy susan and it was Mnuchin’s turn to wield the paddle. To a “major international collector” on the other end of the phone, the dealer explained affably, “I want visiting rights in case it works out. That is my fee.” L&M don’t take commissions—they bid at auction as a “pure service” to their clients in order to retain “full objectivity” about the appropriate price of any given work. As the bidding progressed, Mnuchin gave a running commentary: “There will be three buyers on the left . . . We just bid ten . . . Gagosian has come into the game . . . I think we’ll bid now . . . Twelve right away?” And so it went until they started splitting the bids at $13,250,000. As the dollar values slowly inched up, Mnuchin said warmly, “I think we’ll give it one shot at fourteen million. How do you feel about that?” When the hammer came down, Mnuchin was happy and asserted victoriously to his client, “I think you have money and courage. Plenty of people have money, but few have your courage. Thank you very much.” By the end of the evening, L&M had spent $34.9 million on five works of art and underbid to the tune of twelve million on several more.

With sales of $128.8 million, Tobias Meyer had spearheaded the highest total in the history of Sotheby's Contemporary department, but many doubted that it was as lucrative as that record might suggest. A man with his eye on the money, Meyer believes that “The best art is the most expensive, because the market is so smart.” When questioned about the tight alignment of his personal “passions” with art that sells well, he said. “My relation to the market is much like a method actor. You have to make the feeling of the market your own feeling.” Indeed, Meyer is an astonishing character. As one dealer who requested anonymity remarked affectionately, “Tobias may pretend to be hard-nosed, but he’s really . . . an éclair.”

Left: Critic Roger Bevan with dealers Perry Rubenstein and Thomas Dane. Right: Tobias Meyer post-auction.