By Thane Peterson
The evening of Nov. 12 I found myself at Sotheby's flagship Contemporary Art auction watching a fortysomething man with long silver hair bid on a painting by the late British artist Francis Bacon. The bidding stalled at $3.1 million, and Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, took to speaking directly to the man, trying to get him to bid $3.2 million.
"Are you sure that's all?" Meyer asked from the podium, lowering his voice to a patient, almost intimate tone. There were several hundred art collectors, dealers, and reporters in the room, but like any good auctioneer, Meyer suddenly made it seem as if he were alone with the silver-haired guy in the stylish black shirt. You would think they were discussing nothing more consequential than whether the man would like some more cabernet with his steak au poivre.
"No," the bidder blurted out. He hesitated for a split second, then raised his bid. (In the end, the painting was sold to someone else, for $3.8 million.)
For me, witnessing this was a signal moment in New York's autumn auctions because it was one of the few times when I could see what was going on. I've been covering the art market for a decade now, but I usually don't bother to attend the sales. Every time I do, I'm reminded how mysterious, confusing, and surreal art auctions are. Historians talk about "the fog of war," which makes it virtually impossible for even commanding generals to know what's really happening during a battle. Well, when it comes to generating fog, war doesn't have anything on an art auction.
The fall auctions are the biggest annual event for Sotheby's, Christie's, and upstart Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, and they went amazingly well this year. The Sotheby's Contemporary sale ended up totaling $74.5 million, about three times as much as last spring's disastrous Contemporary auction, when war jitters dampened the enthusiasm of buyers and sellers alike. Last week's Contemporary sales at Christie's and Phillips also were quite strong, as were the Impressionist and Modern sales at Christie's and Sotheby's earlier in November.
What's amazing to me is how millions of dollars can change hands so quickly in a process so lacking in transparency. Even if you're in the same room, it can be hard to follow the action. In the movies, art auctions appear to be orderly affairs in which tweedy-looking collectors bid by discretely raising a finger or arching an eyebrow in the auctioneer's direction. In reality, nobody knows for sure who's bidding. The hundreds of collectors and dealers who register to bid are never referred to by name. Each one is issued a paddle with a number on it, and bids are made by raising the paddle.
Once the bidding for a particular work is over, the winner shouts out his or her paddle number. The only way to know who the bidders and winners are is to recognize their faces. Of course, it's often impossible to see who is bidding. That's partly because the paddles are usually only visible from the front of the room, where the auctioneer is. (I could see the silver-haired man only because he happened to be sitting near the Sotheby's press gallery.)
Even the auctioneers need help from employees stationed around the periphery of the room to make sure no bids are missed. Sometimes, a spotter will bellow out "bid" and furiously point in the direction of some collector or dealer just as the auctioneer is about to bring down the gavel.
Many big-time art collectors are notoriously shy of publicity, so they have a dealer bid for them, giving instructions by cell phone. At every auction banks of phones are manned by auction-house representatives bidding for collectors. The actual bidder may be in a private room elsewhere in the building or calling in from Europe or Asia. Occasionally, a furious bidding war breaks out between phone bidders, making it seem as if a couple of lowly auction-house employees are competing to buy a $10 million painting.
Compounding the confusion, you often don't know who the sellers are, because few list their names in the auction catalog. There's usually just a note in the catalog along the lines of "property from a private collection." If the seller is prominent, there are generally some people in the room who know who it is. Publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse is believed to have been the seller of the Francis Bacon triptych. But most sellers succeed in remaining anonymous.
Occasionally, a light pierces the fog, and an important trend becomes apparent. That was the case with the first lot sold at the Sotheby's auction -- a wall hanging made of steel, canvas, and copper wire by the 72-year-old artist Lee Bontecue, one of my personal heroes. Sotheby's had estimated that the work would fetch $50,000 to $70,000, but it ended up going for a record $456,000. That was a sure sign that Bontecue -- who for three decades has been working in seclusion in rural Pennsylvania, refusing until recently to even show her work -- is now one of the hottest living American artists.
There also are occasional moments of real excitement. When Untitled (Cowboy), a large color photo by Richard Prince, came up for sale at the Phillips auction, a young Asian woman in a black dress put up her paddle and simply left it up. The bidding against her was furious, and auctioneer Simon de Pury barked out number after number in a nonstop staccato. Whenever there was a pause in the bidding elsewhere, he looked to the back of the room, where the woman was languidly holding up her paddle. She ended up buying the painting -- apparently for an anonymous buyer who was talking by cell phone to the young man next to her -- for a record $460,500.
The couple disappeared after the auction, and no one in the crowd seemed to know who they were. In any other context, that might have seemed odd. At an art auction, it's par for the course.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell