Tag Archives: auction

Norman Mailer and Christine Keeler’s bra

Jay Landesman was an American writer and eccentric entrepreneur who arrived in London in the mid-1960s and immediately flung himself headfirst into the emerging counterculture scene, largely because the first person he met when he arrived here was Peter Cook. Landesman later became best known as the male half of a famously open marriage, much to the shame of his son Cosmo, who gained revenge by marrying Julie Burchill. (‘She hated hippies, ex-hippies, food freaks, open marriages and old people,’ wrote Jay, ‘The only thing she liked about us, was that we were Jewish.’)

In his entertaining 1992 memoir Jaywalking, Landesman’s non-ideological dalliances on the fringes of the London scene make great reading, with walk-on roles for the likes of John Lennon (‘He was uptight about Wendy Cook’s insistence he sample her salade Nicoise, a dish he was highly suspicious of and couldn’t pronounce’), Tom Driberg (‘He took us to a pub whose entire clientele consisted of lesbians, transvestites, young Danish sailors, ageing pederasts and an assortment of amputees’) and Germaine Greer (‘I watched her challenge Jimi Hendrix to an arm-wrestling match, and win’). Although it’s never entirely clear what he did – bar run the disastrous UFO rip-off the Electric Garden for a couple of minutes – Landesman was clearly good company with a penchant for meeting interesting people, and at some point was asked by The Sunday Times to write about the art of giving a party. His ideal guest list is worth repeating in full:

Minimum of three potential celebrities; at least one real celebrity (any field); a foolish couple; a serious couple (straight feed for comics); an engineer or non-speaking Czech (to point out); six swinging teenagers (girls); a bitchy girl who can generate masochism in men; a gym instructress who drinks too much; an older woman who sits and smiles (who is she?); a rune beauty (who was she?); Christine Keeler; no fat people unless Peter Ustinov; nobody jet or Court Circular; no dogs; no Peter Hall, Jonathan Miller, David Frost (or equivalents); no crew cuts; a swinging accountant; a buff (a jazz-hair or gambling buff); two attractive lesbians (to get wrong); one international drug trafficker (to point out); a beautiful flawed couple; a gay MP; Tariq Ali (not Christopher Logue); an Irish showbusiness GP; a titled person (to show you’re not snobbish); no artists’ agents, editors or publishers; no children or headshrinkers (except RD Laing); an eccentric lawyer or priest (no respecters of confessionals); an articulate tradesman (electrician, cabinet maker, house painter, bank manager); a forgotten culture hero; a reliable loudmouth who’ll come early and leave early; the ex-wife of a world celebrity; a pop singer no one recognises; a girl with buck teeth, a corrective shoe, or both; an established figure who decides that night to drop out…

Landesman was fond of Christine Keeler. He met her soon after arriving in London at the Kismet, a Soho drinking club, and the pair became friends. He also knew Norman Mailer from the mid-1950s, Mailer having interviewed Landesman while researching his pioneering essay on hipsterdom, The White Negro. In London, Landesman had an opportunity to bring the two together.

The cause was Mailer’s decision to challenge for the Democrat candidacy as Mayor of New York under the slogan ‘Vote The Rascals In’. The sizeable US expat community in London – there were frequent baseball games in Hyde Park featuring the likes of Tony Curtis, Marlon Brando, John Cassavetes and Charles Bronson with Phil Silvers as umpire – decided to hold a fundraising event.

The Friends of Norman Mailer Committee was founded by charismatic rogue Harvey Matusow, and he put on a celebrity auction, featuring myriad bizarre offerings from Yoko Ono like ‘Dirt From Central Park’, ‘Air over Greenwich Village’, ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’ as well as bottles of Robert Lowell’s sweat and a slice of raw liver from Philip Roth’s fridge. The star exhibit, however, was supplied by Landesman: Christine Keeler’s bra.

Bidding began at £100. There were no takers. The auctioneer tried again, at £50. Nobody moved. Next he tried £10 for this ‘psychosexually historical’ item, but the opening bid was a measly 10 shillings. Landesman tried to get the bidding going and raised his own hand, but nobody followed suit and he ended up winning the item back for a mere 10s 6d. Later, he discovered it wasn’t even Keeler’s. ‘Christine doesn’t wear a bra,’ a mutual friend confessed, ‘But the deception was justified in a good cause.’ The mayoral election was just as successful – Mailer came fourth, in a field of five.

At Christie’s

Last week I attended my first auction. It was at Christie’s, the grand London auction house who hold their blockbuster Impressionist and Modern Sale every February.

It was a strange experience. This will almost certainly be the only time I’m ever in the same room as somebody spending upwards of £7 million on, well, anything. The big seller was Lot 10, a Pierre Bonnard oil painting from 1923 that went for £7.2m in a lengthy contest. The entire Bonnard bidding process can be witnessed here and is an interesting example of what can take place in this unusual atmosphere of extreme wealth and refined competition.

Terrasse à Vernon

At times, when the auctioneer is registering bids – ‘3.5… 3.8’ you have to remind yourself these are millions of pounds he is talking about. A painting can double in value in seconds. Note also how polite the auctioneer is. He personally addresses the bidders by name and asks them if they will continue to bid, delicately stoking their interest without seeming too pushy and occasionally breaking the tension with a joke. There is no aggression here, no way you could ‘accidentally’ bid for something, and the bidder is also given plenty of time to say whether they will maintain an interest. It is not the clock you are competing against.

Bidding also goes up quite gradually. You are not attempting to blow your opponent out of the water poker-style with an eye-watering bid, but merely hoping to part with as little more than your direct competitor is prepared to pay then you can get away with. For this reason, battles can be protracted.

The Bonnard contest perhaps went on a little too long for the purists, but even I could detect the air of disappointment when the auction’s landmark painting, a Gaughin estimated at up to £10m, failed to meet its reserve and was withdrawn from sale. Could nobody really be bothered to fork out for this work? The room sighed.

Some of the things I witnessed intrigued me. The auctioneer is Jussi Pylkannen, who also happens to be the President of Christie’s Europe, so each increment of £100,000 will translate directly into profits for the company’s coffers. No wonder he gives people time. At one point in the Bonnard sale, he started accepting bids of £50,000, much to the annoyance of the man sitting next to me who felt that ‘splitting the bid’ so late in the day simply wasn’t on. But it’s all profit for Christie’s.

I was also interested to see that many of the Christie’s senior management – including Olivier Camu and Giovanna Bertazzoni, who organised the sale – were now manning the phones, bidding on behalf of individual clients and offering advice on what to go for. This put them in a curious position, although given that Christie’s itself is essentially just a gigantic middleman, not a particularly troubling one.

The auction room itself is a busy, noisy place, packed with an international clientele of around 500 people dressed in their finery and younger than I expected. For some it was clearly seen as an exciting way to begin a night out in London.

Most of the bidding was done on the phone, but some came from people in the room. I wondered whether people deliberately remove themselves from the room so they can avoid the tension and the sort of ‘testosterone bidding’ I had been told about.

A man near me purchased a Picasso for £500,000 while slouching against a pillar, desperately trying to look casual. As his bid was accepted he barely looked up, but the arm holding the paddle was trembling. An elegant woman right at the back suddenly became involved in a fascinating competition over a Max Ernst sculpture, that was expected to reach £350,000 but eventually went for over a million. Between bids I watched her take instruction from a mobile phone. Was she bidding on behalf of somebody else, consulting an lawyer or accountant, or was she seeking approval from her husband before busting his budget over the million pound mark? The billionaires who deal in this market are, after all, overwhelmingly – but not exclusively – male.

Les asperges de la lune

The battle over the Ernst sculpture reminded me of something Bertazonni had said – that sculpture had become hugely popular in the post financial crash art market, ‘as though people wanted something tangible, three-dimensional’ to hold on to. This piece of tangibility cost somebody £1.3 million. Security comes at a price.