Before I launch into my auction report, I must explain why I will never be an expert auction reporter. First, to figure out what’s happening in the room, you have to know what all the major secondary market dealers look like, and I do most of my market reporting on the phone. Second, because few collectors bid in person these days, you also have to know your collectors—who works with what dealer, who’s likely to want what, etc.—and this is something I’d just as soon tune out. Third, your memory for the historical auction record has to be as long as God’s, and mine certainly isn’t. But the most obvious reason is that, at 5-feet-3, I am simply not tall enough. The really expert auction reporters, like Judd Tully of Art & Auction, are well over 6 feet tall—or at least they look that way to me. Ergo, they are among the few people in the press pen who can actually see what’s happening. So why, if I can’t see much, do I like to attend the contemporary sales? Because it’s an effective and pleasantly dramatic way to gauge the temperature of the current market, and that’s something everyone is nervous about, even if they won’t admit it. Since last fall, of course, everyone has been trying to unravel the mystery of why the contemporary auction market has remained relatively strong. These are the two prevailing theories: a) People are taking their money out of stocks and putting it into tangibles; and b) collectors are effectively saying, “I’m not going to let those terrorists get to me”—also known as Post-9/11 Syndrome. But of course they’re also waiting for the other shoe to drop. Especially at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg—the venue of the night—whose impressionist and modern sale last week was a failure of historic proportions. Phillips has always been pretty strong, though, in the contemporary arena. And early on, as most of the initial lots went for pretty much within their estimates, it became clear that we were unlikely to witness another bloodbath. It felt as though everyone in the room was unscrewing his or her eyes and saying, “Hey, maybe we’re not dead yet!” When we reached the lot pictured on the cover of the sale catalog, a sculptural self-portrait by that ‘80s enfant terrible, Jeff Koons, the crowd began murmuring in excitement. (It’s a gloriously silly marble bust that shows the artist emerging from a cluster of phallic stalagmites, as if he were spawning himself.) The bidding, which started at something like $900,000, I think, began climbing pretty quickly in $100,000 increments. It stalled briefly around $1.5 million, the estimate’s low end, but swiftly picked up again. Eventually, Simon de Pury, the auctioneer, hammered it down for $1.85 million. With the premium tacked on, the sale would be recorded as $2.04 million—just over its high estimate of $2 million. Someone clapped, everyone else began talking and rustling, and there were glowing smiles all round. But here’s another thing about auctions: They’re remarkably reminiscent of school. Though everyone initially tries their best to be quiet and good, the attention span lasts only so long. Once you get over that initial tense hump, restlessness really sets in. Eventually people start leaving the room—even in the middle of the sale! This time, somewhere around Lot 26, a stunning Gerhard Richter landscape that was hammered down for $2.9 million, a dealer near me murmured, “I think I’ll go have a smoke” and promptly sidled away. At Lot 36, a Dan Flavin light piece that went for $100,000, the low end of the estimate, the exodus really began—even though there were still 10 lots to go. Maybe they all had restaurant reservations, or they were trying to avoid the line at the coat room? Halfway through, I myself found it hard not to think about dinner.
After the auction ended, I talked briefly with Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Wildenstein—one of those massive blue-chip outfits that has reams of smaller gallery satellites, all of them really good. Marc said he doesn’t really buy the idea that collectors are buying for investment’s sake. Pace also runs PaperBall, the gallery at the Bellaggio in Las Vegas, and when people lose at the tables, he says, they come into PaperBall and spend money. “I think it makes them feel better.” I guess that’d be a Post-9/11 Syndrome variant. After the collectors left, Phillips held a brief press post-mortem. I didn’t hear much of it because my friend David Ebony and I were too busy taking photographs of each other. (He’s the associate managing editor of Art in America, another magazine I write for.) But it didn’t really matter, because we’d gotten what we came to find out a quarter of the way through: that the market is still alive.