Entry 4

Welcome to Christie's!
Welcome to Christie’s!
Vintage Burge
Vintage Burge
Verdict: Happy! (Credit: Roy Lichtenstein, Happy Tears, courtesy Christie's)
Verdict: Happy! (Credit: Roy Lichtenstein, Happy Tears, courtesy Christie’s)

I have to admit, between the Big Two, as Sotheby’s and Christie’s are often called, I myself have always been rather partial to Christie’s. Partly it’s because Christie’s has a lot of style. They have this personality-packed doorman, Gil Perez, who greets visitors he knows warmly, often by name (and this year he has finally at least begun to recognize my face). They also have a terrific auctioneer, Christopher Burge, who always puts on a very entertaining performance. Burge is a type I can really appreciate—he’s jocular in a very English way (and I’m usually partial to anyone English because my parents are English, too). Of course he handles the usual hills and valleys, highs and lows, with aplomb—but at the same time, he keeps up an ironic sideline patter, as though he were standing beside himself and simultaneously commentating on the action, as well as his own performance. Last night, for instance, after pushing a Hans Hoffman painting up past its $400,000 high estimate, he said, quietly, “Five hundred thousand? Five hundred thousand and ten?” Then he pleaded, “Give me twenty …  Pleeeeaaase!!!”

Part of being an auctioneer seems to be that you must really make personal contact with your bidders. (And that ain’t easy, in such a crowd; in fact the house usually has spotters in the audience, to point out bids the auctioneer might have missed.) Once contact is achieved, there’s a seemingly endless amount of gazing, intensity, and stylish cajoling. But Burge also teases. When the bidding is fast and furious between two bidders, he’ll admonish one, “Give him a chance, too.” When someone shakes his head—i.e., I’m out—he’s liable to sniff, “You said that the last time!”Similarly, an auctioneer has to know when to keep the pressure up and when to bring the hammer down. After swiftly pushing a Jasper Johns, last night’s top lot, to the top of its $6-to-8 million estimate, Burge dangled 8 million around for a while then kidded, “Oh, surprise me!” Once he’d got it up to 9, he kept repeating the last bid. “Nine million dollars? Nine. Million. Dollars.” Then, “I will keep saying that!” (In the end, he hammered it down at 9 million.) But what I really appreciate most is that Christie’s seems so intellectually on the ball. When the Big Two were really going at it a few years ago, Sotheby’s seemed to spend so much energy on promotion, with flashy installations and impressive coffee-table book-type catalogues. They also bought a couple of contemporary galleries—something that drove dealers absolutely insane—and this just seemed sort of unholy to me, like boiling a calf in its mother’s milk. Meanwhile Christie’s was doing something more structural: Sometime in the late 1990s, they totally realigned their auction categories for the new millennium. For instance: Instead of putting Impressionism in the same sale as Modernism, as has been done since the dawn of time, they lumped it together with 19th-century academic art. Though many considered this move utterly lunatic and outrageous, it also made total sense, for in the 19th century, Impressionism and academic art did truly coexist. (There’s nothing more fun than going to a 19th-century show where you get to see paintings of exactly the same subject matter—ladies with parasols, mothers with children, etc.—rendered in two totally different techniques!) Plus, the decision to sell the two together nicely paralleled cutting-edge critical thinking, as well as all the gyrations museum curators were then going through in preparation for the new millennium. In practice, however, the category realignments didn’t work too well, and Christie’s is now back to the old ones. But at least they tried. After the auction, everyone seemed to be going downtown to Art & Auction’s party at a new museum in Chelsea, New York’s new gallery district. A group of us took a car together. On the way, I ventured something about my fondness for Christie’s, but this went over like a lead balloon. Apparently, everyone else was really appalled by and wondering about the fact that Christie’s has managed to get off relatively scot-free with the feds. Added to which, someone pointed out, poor Sotheby’s had just been fined a second time for the same two-bit, victimless offense—this time by the European Union—while Christie’s somehow managed to wriggle out of it again. “That’s what I mean,” I bleated, “Christie’s is smart!” But that was just to save face. Secretly, I must admit, I am rather shocked, too.