Happy as Larry

London
02.10.06

Left: Christie's Laura Paulson, Brett Gorvy, and Amy Cappellazzo. Right: The bidding begins on Francis Bacon's Self Portrait, 1969.


Record-breaking auction prices are the norm today, so the fact that Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale achieved the highest ever UK total for such an event Wednesday evening is not really big news. The auction room was more crowded than usual, with elderly and self-important attendees complaining like only the rich can about the lack of seats. The pre-sale babble was louder and the ringtones were more diverse. Most importantly, it was just a little harder to resist being seduced by the tantalizing hum of acquisition and profit. The art market, as one insider noted, is “hot but solid with lots of depth.”

Christie’s UK doesn’t use paddles so the bidding took the form of hand flicking, pen wagging, bid-card waving, reserved nods, and insistent eye contact. I sat next to a notoriously grumpy Swiss dealer, who grunted, sometimes even shouted his bids, and not far from a female British consultant who did a lot of insistent finger snapping. Amy Cappellazzo, International Co-Head of Post-War and Contemporary Art, joked, “I’ve always suspected that people’s bidding strategies are connected to their sexual performance. Some bidders are not afraid to let the auctioneer know what they want. They’re shameless in their desires and transparent about their needs.” Presumably, other bidders like to keep you guessing, so discrete that they’re either alluring or plain frustrating. Art consultant Sandy Heller saw it another way: “I need to be shy with my clients’ money. I want the auctioneer to think that every bid is my last bid. The key thing to avoid is regret. You really don’t want to take the wrong girl home—particularly for the wrong price.”

The crowd was keen for the first four lots of British paintings, but the energy in the room really shifted with Lot 5, a 1969 Francis Bacon self-portrait from the collection of the artist’s devoted spinster friend, Miss Valerie Beston. Sitting in the fifth row in a pale-blue shirt and dark grey blazer was expansionist dealer Larry Gagosian. Although not known first and foremost as a Bacon man, Larry has exhibited him in the past and, given his evident interest in the Lot, he must have inventory back at the gallery whose collective worth would be bolstered by a high price. When the bidding started out slowly, he wore a slight frown. His head swiveled with the bids, trying to keep track of who was doing what, and he looked concerned. He may have made a bid at around £2 million in his casual “why not” arm-swinging style, but I couldn’t be sure from where I was sitting. When the bidding hit £3 million, his face started to relax, then at £3.5m, it cracked into a broad smile. At £3.7m, he started to look like a big kid, and his eyes kept shifting up to the currency converter to confirm the dollar value of what he was hearing. With each increment, Larry’s eyes expressed increasing wonder. When the painting finally sold for a whopping £4,600,000 hammer (£5,160,000 including the buyer’s premium), the audience applauded and Larry had a good belly laugh.

And that was the highlight of the sale. Auctions usually climax with the highest priced lot and then slowly deflate, and this sale was no exception. There were a few other moments—like when a small painting by young Leipzig painter Matthias Weischer went for £190,000 hammer (five times the estimate) or when an Andy Warhol dollar-sign painting went for £2.3 million (heads shook in disbelief). Of the sixty-two lots in the sale, only nine were by American artists and, of those nine, six were Warhols. As the crowd filtered out of the building to have dinner at Le Caprice and The Wolsey, I overheard somebody claim that he could “shift Warhols on a street corner in Seoul.”

Sarah Thornton