‘Walking a Tightrope without a Net’

Auctioneers at evening sales create a sense of drama in performances that can range from buoyant to burlesque.

Tobias Meyer takes bids for a Mary Cassatt painting during the evening Impressionist and modern sale at Sotheby’s New York last May. The picture sold for $1,352,000.


Tobias Meyer drew bids for Andy Warhol’s 1986 silk screen Details of the Last Supper at Sotheby’s contemporary sale last November with a Zen-like sense of scale and economy. “And one… and two… and three… and four…”—he pulled in the million-dollar-plus sums until bidding stalled at $1.5 million. “One million five,” Meyer floated the figure over the salesroom. “Shall we try one more?” he queried. “Are you sure?” Then a gentle prompt to the underbidder, “Try one more.” The gentleman acquiesced. “One million eight,” Meyer announced from the rostrum. Another bid came in at $2 million. “One more?” Meyer inquired. “Fair warning… last chance… selling at two million dollars….” He scanned the room; down went the hammer.

What might have gone for $1.5 million fetched $500,000 more because Meyer knew how to work the room. At the twice-yearly evening auctions in which hundreds of millions of dollars worth of art changes hands in New York, an auctioneer’s style and expertise can add hundreds of thousands of dollars to the auction’s tally. Part sporting event, part Broadway production, and part symphony, auctions are capitalist, perversely democratic affairs—anyone can win as long as he or she has enough money to play—directed by an auctioneer, who controls and cajoles the action from the front of the room.

Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg chairman and auctioneer Simon de Pury, who superstitiously eats a yellow apple an hour before every auction, compares the job to “walking a tightrope without a net.” (“I don’t know how or when it started,” says de Pury. “One time I couldn’t find an apple until 30 seconds before a sale. I took one bite, and that did the trick.”) Meyer, who takes a 90-minute nap and has a cup of tea before a sale, recalls that when he first held the gavel for an evening auction in New York, “I almost fell back, the attention was so intense.” Christie’s honorary chairman and auctioneer Christopher Burge, who prepares for an evening sale by pacing indoors or walking the streets “muttering increments like a madman,” dryly states, “I hope and pray it will be over quickly.”

Auctions are highly choreographed events in which invisible factors are at play. The auctioneer operates within preordained parameters that change with every lot. The auctioneer’s book serves as a rudimentary script for the evening. “It’s very hard to decipher, I have so many bloody notes and drawings in it,” says Burge of his typical book, which notes clients who are expected to bid: where they will be sitting or standing, or through which staff member they will be bidding by phone. It also notes each lot’s secret reserve price—the lowest sum the seller is willing to accept, below which the auctioneer cannot sell the work. “The reserve price can be any amount,” says Barbara Strongin, Christie’s director of operations, although by law it cannot exceed the low estimate. The reserve is typically 80 percent of the low estimate.

The topography of an auction—the sequence of the lots and their estimates—is charted by specialists weeks before an auctioneer takes the rostrum. Far from arbitrary, the placement of works throughout the sale “is paced like music, with high moments and low moments,” says New York dealer Franck Giraud, former director of Christie’s 19th-and-20th-century-art department. “The order can make or break a sale if it is wrong.” Says Amy Cappellazzo, codirector of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, “We plan our sales around peaks and valleys. If there is an important lot, we’ll lead into it with property that is expected to sell well to ramp up momentum for it.”

Typically, sales are “front loaded,” says New York dealer Neal Meltzer, former head of contemporary art at Christie’s, meaning that the “more fresh, desirable, and underestimated lots are placed in the front of the sale.” The strongest works fall near the center, with lower-interest lots immediately following. Christie’s sandwiched two paintings by Alexander Archipenko and Juan Gris (estimate: $400,000–600,000 each) between Amedeo Modigliani’s 1917 Nu couché, which sold for a record $26.8 million, and Fernand Léger’s 1914 La Femme en rouge et vert, which fetched a record $22.4 million, last November. The Archipenko made $466,700; the Gris failed to sell. “Things are always going to be a bit sticky here and there,” says Burge. “That’s the nature of the beast.”

An auctioneer starts out by making consecutive or counter bids on behalf of the seller up to the reserve. “Some people call it taking bids from the chandelier,” says Michael Findlay, currently a director of New York’s Acquavella Galleries and Christie’s former international director of fine arts. “But really the auctioneer is bidding against the reserve, the price below which the seller has agreed to buy back the work.” An auctioneer tries to keep the attention of the room by varying the pace and, when a bidder needs additional time, “injecting a bit of patter to keep the void filled,” says Burge. Sometimes there is an opportunity to offer a well-placed quip. “But if you go into a sale trying to be funny,” Burge warns, “you will be a disaster, I assure you.”

The objective is to “create a positive atmosphere,” says Meyer. “You want to create a sense of community—an inherent complicity that you are in this together with the audience. The bidding process is a moment of great uncertainty: ‘Should I buy it, or should I not buy it?’ Even the most hardened bidder feels a sense of excitement.”

Bidding increments are up to the auctioneer, but the right footing at the start is essential. He needs to be able to sell the item at the reserve price if there is only one bidder in the room. He also has to hit or cover any absentee bids in his book. Standard increments are 10 percent, but an auctioneer may opt to add or break an increment (accepting a $50,000 bid, say, instead of $100,000) to get back on the right footing or to tap a bidder dry. “Every bidder has set a limit in his head, a price he doesn’t want to go beyond,” says de Pury. “A great auctioneer manages to squeeze an extra bid from this person and that person.”

De Pury used buoyant, sometimes burlesque, coaxing at last fall’s sale of contemporary art. When the bidding for Richard Prince’s 1999 Untitled (Cowboy)surged from $60,000 to a triple-estimate $320,000, de Pury, sounding a bit like a Baptist preacher, bent his knees, dropped his voice an octave, and implored, “Say 340!” When bidding reached $400,000, de Pury crouched and peered into the crowd, calling out to the underbidder, a mystery woman standing in the back of the room, “Where are you, madame? I can’t see you anymore.” When he spotted her, he proposed, “One more? Little bid? I will take ten. Just ten more.” She signaled the bid and de Pury turned to her competitor. “I will take ten more from you. Would you like to say $420,000?” No; the underbidder folded. Sold to the woman at the back of the room.

Sometimes a
bidder makes a dramatic jump in increments. Paul Gray, co-owner of Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago and New York, perceives the move as rarely effective among serious contenders. “There is precious little you can tell for sure during an auction,” says Gray. “But there are indicators you can act upon, given experience. If someone makes a preemptive bid, it often means they are near their last bid. They are throwing their last dagger to shut you out psychologically. It means if you really want the piece, it’s probably going to be yours in a minute.” If a competitor is uncertain, however, a significant jump can be a “death knell.” Says Findlay, “If someone offers a half-million-dollar bid increase, it can have a chilling effect on the competition. It can send the message that the bidder is willing to do absolutely anything to have it.”

Ultimately, says Burge, “if you think about the increments, you forget them.” Says former Sotheby’s chair and auctioneer John Marion, “You have to have a certain facility with numbers. It becomes sort of automatic with experience. I never thought much about the next jump. I always concentrated on the underbidder. He’s the most important person in the room. He’s the only one who can make the price go up.”

C. Hugh Hildesley, who is in charge of training auctioneers at Sotheby’s, says about four out of every six trainees make it. “It’s wicked but true, you can usually tell within five minutes. There must be presence, projection, enthusiasm, and a complete absence of panic. You also must be able to think of all kinds of things in a hurry.”

For example, if an artwork has a $1 million reserve and a single bid comes in at $980,000, the auctioneer can choose to accept the bid and avoid “buying in” the work, auction-house parlance for failing to sell the lot. “If I’m looking at the bidder and I can see he is struggling and at the end of his tether,” says Burge, “I might decide to take the bid, and Christie’s would pay the $20,000 difference to the consignor.”

Other considerations are also weighed. If there is an absentee bid of $260,000 and the reserve is $300,000, the auctioneer has to make sure to go past the insufficient bid. “I can’t buy it in at $260,000—the absentee bidder will say, ‘That’s my bid,’” says Burge. “I have to remember to cover the absentee bid by going up to $280,000.” Sometimes there is a global reserve or guarantee (a promise by the auction house to pay the consignor a set minimum regardless of whether the property sells) in play. In that case, the sum fetched by a particular work can impact the price at which an auctioneer can sell another lot by the same consignor later in the sale.

In effect, says Meltzer, an auctioneer’s role is like “closing 60 deals in an hour,” making crucial business decisions at the rostrum in a matter of seconds. “There’s a lot of pressure over what happens in that hour or two-hour period,” notes Marion. “Months and months of work are culminated in the 40 or so seconds you have to sell the work of art on stage.” There is no time for regrets. Says Burge, “I can’t think of it as having closed a deal. I’m on to the next one.”

Cappellazzo likens an auctioneer’s skills to a “whole different language of reading” that picks up on every movement and gesture in the audience. Says de Pury, “You have to completely attune yourself to the mood in the room. I can feel in advance if someone is going to bid. I don’t see anything, but I can sense it.” An auctioneer also interprets body language. “I definitely know when someone shakes their head if they mean it,” says Burge, “or if they might go a hell of a lot further if I go back, look at them, and ask, with a slightly raised eyebrow, ‘One more?’”

Bidders can be just as perceptive and calculating. Burge opened the bidding for Modigliani’s Nu couchéat $14 million last November. As the bidding heated up and the currency converter boards flipped madly to keep up, Burge moved with the action, swaying from side to side as if he were the referee of a tennis match. “You’re out. You’re out. You’re still in,” Burge chummily informed a group of bidders at one point.

Gray was waiting until the last minute—when bidding slowed between the last two contenders—to show his hand. “I needed to get in at the right moment for my client’s top bid,” says Gray. “If it wasn’t going to be the winning bid, I wanted it to be the underbid.” Gray hit his mark at $23.5 million. But his adversary went one step farther, winning the nude portrait for a record $26.8 million (with buyer’s premium, the fee the purchaser pays the auction house).

When Gray pursued Picasso’s 1932 Nude in a Black Armchairin 1999 on behalf of a client (reportedly Limited chairman Leslie Wexner), he chose to get in on the game during a quiet moment near the midpoint. Gray entered the fray at around $25 million and outlasted three competitors past the $35 million mark, ultimately winning it for $45.1 million (with buyer’s premium). “I did not know what my client’s limit was when we started bidding,” says Gray, who bid on the phone to a Christie’s specialist from a skybox above the salesroom (he was in touch with his client over the phone). “Clearly, there was an amount above which he would not go,” says Gray. “Somewhere in between folly and a steal lies the market, but it is not always easy to put your finger on. He did not want to limit himself before knowing the mood of the room and who else was bidding.”

Ultimately, an auction is a forum where “all sorts of things can go wrong,” says Burge. Willem de Kooning’s 1953 drawing Monumental Womanwas sold twice to New York dealer Robert Mnuchin at a Christie’s sale in November 2000. Burge initially hammered the work down to Mnuchin for $1.5 million, but New York dealer David Nash approached him at the rostrum, claiming that Burge had missed Nash’s bid. (The dealers were sitting in the same line of sight.) Burge reopened the bidding. The second time it sold to Mnuchin for $2.4 million. The audience twittered when Burge brought down his hammer and announced the drawing sold “to the same bidder for an additional $900,000.”

There is little an auctioneer can do during a rough patch aside from trying to keep a good game face. “That is an auction I never want to go through again,” commented de Pury after Phillips held its Impressionist and modern sale, the last of its kind, in November 2002, when eight top lots in a row failed to attract a bid. Likewise, Meyer presided over a tepid contemporary sale last May that brought in less than half the equivalent sales total of his competitor Christie’s. “You try not to let it affect your composure,” says Meyer. “You cannot personalize it. It can be tough.”

Three years ago, Burge, meanwhile, ran the bidding for Picasso’s 1923 portrait Olgafrom $16 million to $24 million with few bids in sight. Christie’s had estimated it would sell for $30 million or more. Burge hammered it down as unsold amid rumblings in the salesroom. “I usually slow down just to make sure that I sound really relaxed when I am about to buy in a work worth millions of dollars,” says Burge. “I think it’s best to say ‘passed’ with enthusiasm—don’t bloody mumble it, sing it out.”

Setting aside the glamour, the boldface names, and the astounding sums of money, sales can be “very boring,” says Giraud. When Burge played an auc
ioneer in the film Wall Street, 400 extras waved their paddles in the air simultaneously when he opened the bidding on the first take. “I had to break it to them that usually there are no more than two or three paddles in the air,” recalls Burge.

Typically, the people who experience an auction as if it were a night at the theater are the “noncombatants,” Findlay says, who aren’t in the audience to bid. “The sense of theater is in a way artificial,” he notes. “Whether anyone gasps or applauds a sale doesn’t matter to the attendees who have business to transact.” As Strongin puts it, “It is the ultimate free entertainment, as long as it’s not your money that is being spent.”

Kelly Devine Thomas is senior writer of ARTnews.

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