Norton Simon's secret bidding signals were so convoluted that they often worked against him.
Norton Simon was a California industrialist who parlayed a $7,000 investment in a bankrupt orange-juice bottling plant into a canned-food empire. He built one of the world’s finest art collections: 12,000 works in fields ranging from Old Masters to Impressionism to ancient Indian sculpture. Simon housed his art in the former Pasadena Art Museum, which he renovated. In 1975 it was renamed the Norton Simon Museum of Art. When he died, in 1993, at the age of 86, the museum was already being called the Frick of the West. His wife, the actress Jennifer Jones, died in 2009.
Following is an excerpt from
Collector Without Walls: Norton Simon and His Hunt for the Best, by Sara Campbell, senior curator of the Norton Simon Museum of Art. The book will be published by Yale University Press in September.
In January 1965, Norton Simon learned about a painting coming up at auction that would become his sole preoccupation over the next few months. He concentrated his attention and energy on what was possibly the most important acquisition of his life: Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Boy in Fancy Costume (previously presumed to depict the artist’s son, Titus).
Simon had known about the painting since at least 1957, when its price was £120,000 (about $335,000). While he considered the work outstanding, he thought the amount was “rather high for this relatively small picture.” Almost six years later, the London dealer Sir Geoffrey Agnew, of Thomas Agnew & Sons, offered it for sale for £550,000 ($1.54 million). Agnew tried to interest Simon in the picture in early 1963 and again at the beginning of 1964, when he reported that the owner might be prepared to accept the slightly lower price of £500,000 ($1.4 million), but Simon was no longer interested. Over the next eight months, the owner abandoned the idea of selling the painting privately.
To avoid a capital-gains tax law in Great Britain that would take effect on April 1, 1965, the owner placed the picture with Christie’s earlier that year. On January 20, Robert M. Leylan, Christie’s U.S. representative and general manager, wrote to advise Simon that the sale would take place in London in just two months, on March 19, and that the presale estimate was about $1.5 million. This time, Simon decided to go after the painting.
On March 15, Leylan confirmed that Simon would arrive in London late in the evening of the 18th. He would meet chairman of the board I. O. “Peter” Chance, who would conduct the sale and give Simon the opportunity to examine the painting with an ultraviolet light. Because Simon was determined to remain anonymous, Leylan also verified that Christie’s had reserved a suite for him under an assumed name at Claridge’s. “Please be assured that I and all concerned at Christie’s in London have done and will do everything possible to ensure anonymity on your behalf,” Chance wrote. To further cloak his identity, Simon arranged what he conceived to be an inscrutable mode of bidding. It was so complicated, however, that Christie’s director Patrick Lindsay was obliged to make notes of Simon’s instructions:
“Friday March 19th. Rembrandt. Lot 105. Portrait of Titus. When Mr. Simon is sitting down he is bidding. If he bids openly when sitting down he is also bidding. When he stands up he has stopped bidding. If he then sits down again he is not bidding until he raises his finger. Having raised his finger he is continuing to bid until he stands up again. P. Lindsay.”
During the bidding, Simon confused Chance by bidding aloud, then remaining silent. Chance became convinced that although Simon was seated, he had stopped bidding. When the bid rose to $2.1 million, Simon remained seated and silent despite Chance’s entreaties for another bid. When Chance knocked down the painting to Marlborough Fine Art (on behalf of Stavros Niarchos), Simon rose to his feet in protest.
Eventually, in full view of the press, and in spite of objections from Marlborough, an embarrassed and shaken Chance put the painting back on the block and reopened the bidding. Marlborough did not bid again, and Simon bought the Rembrandt with the next bid, of $2.2 million. Although Christie’s conditions of sale regarding disputed bids require the auctioneer to reopen the bidding, it was utterly unheard of at a sale of this magnitude. The brouhaha, coupled with the extraordinary price, made headlines around the world.
Members of Simon’s staff in Fullerton, California, had worked for weeks to keep his interest in the picture—as well as his identity—a secret. At one point they discussed issuing clandestine code words to talk about the details of the sale. As a result, and along with everyone else, they were extremely surprised and amused by the ensuing publicity. His assistant Angelina Boaz confirmed his determination to remain anonymous as well as the extraordinary public end to the secrecy.
“Before he left [for London] he really wanted that painting. He said to me, ‘I’m going to the auction, but nobody will know I’m bidding. When I call you, I’ll just say, “Have so and so wire so much money.” I’ll give you a password, and then you just go ahead, and have that money wired. But I won’t say why. I don’t want anybody to know that I’ve got the painting.’ On the way home from work the night of the auction, I heard on the radio, ‘Norton Simon just spent $2.2 million to buy a Rembrandt painting.’ When he next phoned, I said, ‘Oh that was a big secret!'”
While stories of what happened in the salesroom were widely circulated, Simon’s own explanation has never been published. In 1975, in an interview in preparation for a possible biography with Time magazine Los Angeles bureau chief Marshall Berges, Simon related his version of the proceedings.
“What was the most colorful thing about the Titus? It was the way I really bid and the battle because of it. The truth of the matter is—when I look back, the only thing I can say is I was worried and I was upset, and it said right in the catalogue that if there is an argument, the auctioneer puts it up to bid again. It’s just as clean cut as that. But everybody was emotionally involved. I was emotionally upset, so it stirred up something. When I was sitting down, as long as I was sitting down I was bidding. And what happened was, when I got up to a certain price, I’m sitting down and he [Peter Chance] turns and looks at me—I told him I didn’t want to be disclosed—and says, ‘I have a bid of so much over here, do I get any more?’ He didn’t point his finger at me, but did everything else but. ‘I’m going to knock it down. Once, twice, do I hear any more?’ and he looks right at me. And I look at him with daggers in my eyes, but I wouldn’t open my mouth, and he knocked it down to the other guy.
“I stood up and hollered and I was so goddamned emotional, I gave [the bidding instructions] to a dealer sitting next to me, who knew nothing about it, and I said, ‘Dudley [Tooth], they’re screwing me, read this letter.’ He said ‘Norton, you didn’t bid.’ I said, ‘Read the letter.’ And he reads the letter out loud.
“So that became the important event—not the price I paid for the picture or how good the picture was. And, my God, he gave me all kinds of time by saying, ‘Do I hear any more?’ As far as I was concerned as long as I was sitting down, he was hearing more. He knew the reason I did that was that I didn’t want anyone else to know that I was bidding. Finally they had a consultation up there on that platform and decided to throw it open to bidding again, and the other bidder was so goddamned mad because it was already knocked down to him, that I made one more bid and he wouldn’t bid again.”
In the intervening years, Simon had thought a good deal about Chance’s behavior, and during the interview he offered an interpretation that was less about confusing instructions and more about strategy.
“Some way or another, that auctioneer knew that was the last bid he was going to get out of the other fellow, and therefore he wanted to be damned sure I was bidding. Some way or another, he got a signal: ‘This is it and I’m through.’ So now he figures, ‘I’ve got two and a quarter million at stake, and nobody sees this man Simon bidding. Supposing he walks out on it, all I’ve got is a copy of a letter.’ Well, that really should be enough. There’s no excuse, except for the fact that nobody would know that I was bidding and therefore, he’d have to knock it down to me. He must have gotten nervous because it brought a lot more money than they expected. Really, the picture was great, everybody knew about the picture and they were all excited, but the thing that really caused the drama was something completely different.”
Niarchos continued to threaten Christie’s with a lawsuit, clouding the issue of export and demanding assurances from the auction house that it would not release the painting to Simon without notice. A month after the sale, Niarchos withdrew his claim, but days later his representative tendered an offer to Simon directly, writing, “I think Mr. Niarchos would still be interested to acquire the Rembrandt and I have a feeling he would be prepared to pay you a profit of £100,000 ($280,000) if you were interested in disposing of it.”
But Simon had no intention of selling.
Two weeks after David Bull became director of the Norton Simon Museum, in 1980, he participated in an extraordinary and typically convoluted auction purchase by Simon. Sotheby’s had informed Simon in February that Dieric Bouts’s Resurrection would be sold in London on April 16. A 15th-century distemper painting on linen, it depicts Christ triumphantly rising from the tomb, which is set in a vast landscape. The work was originally part of an altarpiece; other known panels are The Annunciation (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), The Adoration of the Magi (private collection), and The Entombment (National Gallery, London).
Simon was interested in the picture but decided not to bid in person or through an agent. Instead, he sent Mrs. Simon (Jennifer Jones) to London, accompanied by Bull. Sotheby’s had originally estimated that the Bouts would fetch $400,000 to $500,000, but the extraordinary interest in the painting shown by Simon and by museums, such as the National Gallery in London, sent the figure up to $1 million. When the hammer came down, the price was a remarkable $4.2 million—the third-highest price ever paid at auction and the most expensive work of art to enter the Norton Simon collections. Agnew, bidding on behalf of the National Gallery, was the underbidder. In an elaborate plan reminiscent of the Titusauction, Simon was on the telephone from Los Angeles giving instructions throughout the sale.
David Bull later recounted the process: “Norton said that he would be on the phone with [Sotheby’s specialist] Tim Llewellyn, while Derek Johns was the auctioneer. Norton told me to go out and buy three envelopes, seal them, and label them A, B, and C. When I asked him what I should do with them, he said, ‘We are going to have some fun.’ Then he said that he would be on the phone with Tim and that at any given time during the bidding he would ask, through Tim, for me to open envelope A, B, or C. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘there will be nothing in the envelopes.’
“I arrived at Sotheby’s and sat in the third row so that I could watch Sir Geoffrey Agnew in the front row. We had already worked out that he was going to bid. Derek Johns came up to me, having had a call from Norton, red in the face, and said angrily, ‘It is hard enough to hold an auction, but playing games with envelopes is just too much.’ The arrangement with Tim was that if I were to continue bidding, he would hold the telephone to his left ear, and if I was to stop, he would put it to his right ear. I also asked Derek that if we made the winning bid, he would announce, ‘Bought by Jennifer Jones Simon on behalf of the Norton Simon Museum.’ When the hammer came down on our winning bid and Derek made his announcement, Jennifer turned to me and said, ‘I did not know we were bidding. Please come out to my car and tell me what was going on!’
“Just before I went out with her, I gave the three empty envelopes to Derek. Afterwards, I realized that NS wanted publicity. If it went for a record price, he would get all the publicity, but if not, the envelope trick would catch the attention of every TV camera in the room.”
In just a week, the painting was in Los Angeles and hanging in the galleries.