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.
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when the auction’s landmark painting, a Gaughin estimated at up to £10m, failed to meet its reserve and was withdrawn from sale.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.
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.