How to Make a $119.9 Million Bid

The top ten collectors on the 2012 ARTnews 200

For more information on these collectors, plus the rest of the list, please click the image to see the Top 200

“I was sweating bullets,” Charles Moffett told me after he bid for a mystery collector who bought Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a record-breaking $119.9 million last May.

“When it was over, I was soaked and I probably looked and felt as if I’d run a four-minute mile,” said Moffett, who is Sotheby’s executive vice president and vice chairman of its worldwide Impressionist, modern, and contemporary art department. The bidding took 12 minutes.

How about the collector? “Cool as a cucumber,” said Moffett.

When the auction started, at $40 million, there were eight bidders for The Scream. “At $1 million a bid, it went quickly to about 60 or 70 million,” Moffett said. “At 80, it was down to four, and that seemed to separate the pack. These guys went back and forth until we got to about 90. In the 90s the pack thinned out again, and when we got to 100 we had two.

“It was the first time an auctioneer took a hammer bid of over $100 million. I wasn’t thinking of setting a record. What was on my mind was a bit of strategy. It was important for my client to answer the other bidder with resolve and conviction. We made our bid within one second. Then the other bidder waited a minute or so. Why he was hesitating we didn’t know. Maybe that was his strategy, to slow down the auction, but it didn’t work. He was at 101. Then it went back and forth and we went to 107 and we got it.” Sotheby’s premium brought the total to $119.9 million.

“Certain guys get in the ring and never quit,” said one dealer.

The Scream was not the only painting that Moffett bid for and won that night. The others were a Soutine and two Picassos. A week later he acquired a Francis Bacon for a collector for $44.8 million. Total expenditure: more than $180 million.

Were the paintings for the same collector? “I can’t answer that,” Moffett said. How did it feel spending all that money? “It’s stimulating,” Moffett said.

Collectors, dealers, auctioneers, museum directors, curators, and consultants were interviewed by ARTnews correspondents for the 22nd annual ARTnews 200 and the Top Ten, our lists of the world’s most active collectors.

“Bidding around the globe is the mainstay of the market,” said Amy Cappellazzo, chair of postwar and contemporary development at Christie’s.

One or two generations ago, Moffett said, collectors were different. “The mantra then was, ‘I know what I like.’ They made purchases that in many instances they would come to regret. The new collectors are well advised and not making the mistakes of previous generations.”

Thomas Gibson, the London dealer, has a different view. “The majority of collectors in contemporary and modern art tend to go for easily recognizable things,” he said. “Say you have the only Mantegna in private hands. To many people it’s just an old painting. It has no financial power on the wall. They buy with their ears, not with their eyes.”

Don’t tell that to Cappellazzo. “The market is extremely savvy and smart,” she said. “When you have a smart marketplace it forces everyone to be better at what they do. Buyers are buying with all their senses, and eyes are chief among them.”

Milton Esterow is editor and publisher of ARTnews.

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