Admission Is Free. The Rothko Is $40 Million.

The wonder, and danger, of the spring auction previews at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

This Pollock would look great in the den

I get a bit weak-kneed this time of year. It’s not the pollen or the anticipation of summer. It’s more like a mild case of Stendhal’s Syndrome, an affliction said to induce dizziness (and, in extreme forms, nausea and seizures) after unrelenting exposure to beautiful art.

The disease got its name from the novelist, who suffered its effects during a trip to Florence in 1817. I get it in New York. Over the next few weeks, the New York branches of Sotheby’s and Christie’s will hold their spring auctions for Prints, then Impressionist and Modern Art, then Post-War and Contemporary Art—back to back, one after the other, after the other, after the other, after the other—and the sensory overload makes me swoon.

But it’s not the auctions themselves that put me in this state (though they can be fun, too); it’s the preview exhibitions of the artworks up for sale. These showings are open to the public for several days before the auction, and they’re free of charge. Yet the majority of those who attend are art dealers or collectors. Most people I know go to museums fairly often and pay hefty admission fees for the privilege; almost none of them have ever been to an auction preview or have more than a vague notion that such things exist.

I wandered into this scene just a couple of years ago, after overhearing a gallery salesman talking about it with glee. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing. The Post-War and Contemporary exhibitions were particularly stunning: aisle after aisle of eye-popping paintings by all the big names. Andy Warhol’s orange Marilyn and blue Jackies. Willem de Kooning’s spellbinding swirls. Clyfford Still’s slashing reds and blacks. Joan Mitchell’s explosive bouquets. Cy Twombly’s cosmic scribbles. Roy Lichtenstein’s golden, brow-cocked cartoons.

Or are you more of a Rothko person?

This spring, Christie’s is auctioning off, among hundreds of other works, Warhol’s Green Car Crash (a variation on the Orange Car Crash at the Museum of Modern Art), which has been in the hands of a “very private” European collector for decades. Sotheby’s is selling a 7-foot-high color-field canvas by Mark Rothko, a “combine” sculpture-painting by Robert Rauschenberg, and two drip paintings (an auction with one is rare enough) by Jackson Pollock. These are museum-quality pieces—literally. The Rauschenberg appeared in the worldwide tour of his combines last year. One of the drip paintings was in MoMA’s Pollock show of 1998.

That said, I can go see even better works by these artists at MoMA, the Metropolitan, or the Whitney any time. So, what is it that’s so exciting about looking at art in auction houses?

For one thing, this is probably my only shot at seeing these particular works. They’re passing from one private owner to another private owner, and it’s unlikely I’ll be invited to dinner by either.

In part, it’s the sheer, staggering volume and variety of the paintings—hundreds of them—teeming with color, crammed together on the walls of the auction-house display rooms, one canvas jostling the next. In some of the rooms, they’re stacked not just in rows but in columns, two or three paintings high, with hardly a square foot of space between.

Finally, it has something to do with the unabashed obtainability of this art. All of these great works, by great artists, are gathered here for one, and only one, purpose—to tell those in attendance: “You can buy these things!”

For the vast majority of us (me very much included), this message is entirely theoretical. Art prices are famously soaring out of control. Last year, art-auction houses worldwide brought in $6.4 billion in revenue—a 52 percent increase over the year before. More than 800 artworks sold for at least $1 million. Though some experts foresee a downturn, they don’t expect one anytime soon.

The Contemporary Art auctions are the fastest-growing of the bunch. The de Kooning that I admired at last year’s Christie’s sale, Untitled XXV, went for $24.2 million. The Clyfford Still, 1947-R-No1, sold for $19 million. Warhol’s Orange Marilyn fetched $14.5 million.

The idea of mustering this kind of money is as preposterous as planning a trip to the moon. Yet these exhibitions invite the fantasy, and anyone who strolls through their corridors can’t help but be drawn in to play along. Of course, many of the people roaming the display rooms—serious collectors solicitously guided by the top curators or “art consultants” describing a Calder mobile or Cubist Picasso to a client over their cell phones—aren’t just playing.

Is there something vulgar about this? Maybe. Many of these paintings should be in a public museum, not in some hedge-fund king’s living room. Yet there is an undeniable, perhaps a primordial thrill in seeing these creations outside the hushed temple of the museum, deep in the ruckus of the marketplace.

Don’t get me wrong. I love and cherish museums. There is nothing like the pleasure of a brilliantly curated museum show. I try to visit the Museum of Modern Art or the Metropolitan Museum at least once a month; each holds who-knows-how-many paintings and sculptures that I could look at for a very long time, again and again.

But most art was made to be sold; most museums acquired their art from dealers or from collectors who bought it from a dealer before bequeathing it. Roaming through the auction-house display-halls has the frisson of plunging from the sacred to the profane, of looking at these creations in their natural state.

One of these upcoming auctions sets off a different, in some ways edgier sort of tingle. Beginning this weekend are the preview exhibitions for the Prints auctions. Here, it’s not just the sensory overload—though there’s plenty of that, with the two auction houses together displaying more than 1,400 prints. It’s the fact that their obtainability is not so theoretical.

These aren’t poster-prints; they’re limited-edition lithographs and etchings, usually signed, by the likes of Whistler, Picasso, Diebenkorn, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol, Mitchell, and Frankenthaler—and, while their values are soaring, too, a fair number of them go for the price of a very used car or a short trip to Europe.

So, even those of us with relatively modest means can stroll through the aisles, discussing where we’d hang this frothy little Chagall (estimated price: $6,000 to $8,000), that playful Miró ($5,000 to $7,000), or this jaunty Sam Francis monotype ($5,000 to $8,000)—and suddenly realize: The estimated prices aren’t so high; bidding on one is not entirely out of the question. 

I’ve bid on a few prints in the past few auctions, but I’ve never won; I keep getting outbid by gallery owners who, three weeks later, post the print on their Web sites for nearly double what they paid. This season, I’ve got my eye on a Robert Motherwell screenprint-with-collage called Redness of Red ($10,000 to $15,000) … but no, it costs too much, somebody please outbid me, I’ve got no business spending this kind of money, save me from myself! It’s fun to go look, but beware—it’s also dangerous.