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I consider myself a fairly fearless traveler. I've eaten things indigenous that were inedible (goat stomach, anyone?), hitched rides from people whose language I didn't speak, and bartered the shirt off my back for a souvenir.
Until recently, though, I'd been too timid to explore a New York City auction house. Scared off, perhaps, by half-remembered television sitcoms, I half-believed that auction houses were chilly with hauteur and home to smooth operators eager to exploit my sketchy knowledge of art history. I'd scratch my eyebrow and find myself owning a pair of elephant foot ottomans.
True, too, some highly public shenanigans have recently exposed an off-putting underside to the $4 billion-a-year auction business.
Due to a price-fixing scheme between Christie's and Sotheby's, executives from the latter are in prison or under house arrest. And L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chairman and CEO of Tyco International, was recently in- dicted on charges of tax evasion on paintings and sculptures he'd bought at auction.
If wolves like these could get trapped, how would a little lost lamb like me fare?
Just fine, in fact. Through time spent earlier this year at Doyle, Sotheby's, Christie's and Swann, I discovered these places are actually museums with temporary exhibitions that you are encouraged to touch, and stores where the sales help are truly helpful.
With autumn's blockbuster sales season about to begin, now is the perfect time to learn how New York auction houses really work by visiting them yourself. So, step right up, folks. We'll begin the bidding at ...
On a sunny Tuesday morning around 10 a.m., Doyle New York on East 87th Street was a busy, buzzing hive. This, as it happened, was "walk-in" day, so people were lined up, waiting to present tattered cardboard boxes to a panel of appraisers who gingerly sifted these nuggets gleaned from today's version of the gold rush.
Thanks in part to PBS' popular TV program Antiques Roadshow (on which Doyle was an early collaborator), people are no longer digging in them 'thar hills, but in their attics, basements or the church rummage sale.
"You never know what's going to come in," said Kathleen Doyle, the company's chairman and CEO. "Walk-ins are always a source of property for us."
This, however, is not how Doyle or other auction houses usually find their goods. Unless the items for sale are being de-acquisitioned by a fickle collector, often a celebrity (the auction world still cackles over Barbra Streisand's much-reviled art deco furniture that sold tepidly at Christie's in 1999), things usually appear at auction through a loss of fortune or of life.
Executors or heirs then invite auction houses to appraise the estate and present competing sales proposals. If there is sufficient merchandise to merit a single-owner sale -- as was the case with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, at Sotheby's in 1996 -- a whole marketing campaign may be mounted, including advertising and a catalog.
Most often, though, an estate will be broken up and individual pieces slotted into a variety of niche auctions through the year.
Doyle's Fine Furnishings, Decorations and Paintings sale in June had 645 different lots, or individual bidding transactions, culled from 90 different estates. Price points were modest (an average of $750) and the merchandise was a grab bag.
Indeed, Doyle's two large exhibition rooms resemble a well-appointed junk shop. Things are put on the floor in an "as-is" condition, though nothing smells or is dusty.
The lighting is superb -- racks of high voltage spots line the ceiling, so nothing is left in shadow. Smaller items are often lumped into one lot: mismatched pieces of china, linens or women's purses. Larger pieces are arranged into decorative vignettes that don't stay in place for too long.
Exhibitions are hands-on affairs. People flip the tables or plop themselves down into armchairs. Collectors of American furniture, referred to within the industry as "termites," are notorious for slicing into upholstery to research a piece's frame or "secondary woods." The less intrusive carry tape measures, yardsticks, Polaroid cameras and, inevitably, cell phones.
"I could definitely see them up on the Vineyard," one woman was screaming into her phone as she poked at a pair of chintz-covered headboards.
Not quite sure what defines the Georgian, Regency and Federal styles? Are you unable to distinguish between a fauteuil and a poudreuse? Don't worry. On preview days, there are specialists to field all such inquiries. One of them, Jane Munson, said, "Sometimes people ask about a piece's history, sometimes it's a bit of decorating advice."
While we chatted, a guy dumped a box of silver onto the floor. Not trusting the count printed in the catalog, he began making neat piles of all the knives, forks and spoons. Observing this, Munson's smile tightened ever so slightly.
On auction day, rows of folding chairs were set up for nearly 200 people. There is no admission charge at Doyle (or any auction house, for that matter), but to obtain the numbered paddle that is a prerequisite for bidding, one must fill in a brief application form and supply a credit card number.
With no preamble, the auctioneer begins the sale. He speaks quickly, but articulately -- a slight British accent evident in his clipped consonants.
The proceedings move unnervingly fast, and Doyle's handlers sometimes barely manage to hoist an item up onto a display platform before the gavel crashes downward. Sold!
For all the frenzy, bear in mind that you are completely invisible until you forcibly enter the fray. Take a moment, then, to observe the varying techniques. Some people start bidding immediately; others wait until a certain price point is reached. Still others keep their paddle raised as the volleying goes back and forth -- a calculatedly provocative move, as a brandished paddle is like a loaded gun.
If it's good, it's worth waiting for. This, apparently, was the motto of Mary Jane Bauer, an interior designer from Newburgh, N.Y., who worked steadily away at her needlepoint of a lobster while keeping an ear cocked for Lot 326, a set of dining room chairs. Eventually, she placed the winning bid of $6,000. Was she happy?
"No. Now I'm nervous," Bauer said. "Whenever I get something, I always feel I overpaid."
This, then, is the conundrum of an auction. With all distinctions between value and price in flux, only you can decide what something is worth.
Sotheby's starkly modern glass and steel facade is strangely at odds with how frequently the words "established in 1744" appear on the auction house's walls, posters and catalogs.
Venerable Sotheby's may be, though its location on York Avenue between a hospital and a nursing home is an unsettling reminder that what you're about to bid on has passed through other lives. In other words, regardless of how great a bargain you may get, ultimately you can't take it with you.
In late June, Sotheby's held a "Take Home a Nude" auction as a fund-raiser for the New York Academy of Art. Most of the paintings for sale were by the academy's students -- though there was also a sprinkling of works by better known artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Bo Bartlett and Matthew Barney.
Despite the auction's leering title, this was far from an erotic show. In almost all the paintings of women, contrived bits of modesty -- a draped bedsheet, the curve of an elbow -- were deployed. In contrast, male subjects, such as a Jamie Wyeth drawing of the dancer Rudolph Nureyev, wore their birthday suits with a vaguely embarrassing zeal.
I was quite alone with such thoughts, as the charmless exhibition rooms were completely empty and silent, save for the clatter of escalators carrying no one from floor to floor. On my way out, I passed a Sotheby's Real Estate office where multimillion-dollar properties are for sale. Did the same person who bought a 27-room villa in Barbados then dash upstairs and buy a few nudes to hang in the guest bathrooms?
Visit Sotheby's on a sultry summer afternoon, and one feels pity for the very rich. As the old saying goes, it's lonely at the top.
Things were perkier at the auction, because someone had the dubious brainstorm to hire a group of nearly nude go-go dancers. Painted with fluorescent swirls, these men and women writhed, sweating, beneath strobe lights. Guests gave wide berth to the dance floor, as they did to those canvases with the most flesh visible.
"I actually don't think I even like nudes," said Kim Van Dang, an editor at InStyle magazine.
There was something puzzling about a room full of people who have flocked to a "Take Home a Nude" art auction, yet like Van Dang, didn't appear to like nudes. As the essence of bidding is to publicly avow one's desire for something, this auction was, frankly, a bust. Not until the Nureyev drawing was up on the block, eventually selling for $28,000, did things briefly become exciting. In what was a perfect irony, however, the winner remained anonymous. She, or he, was concealed behind the fig leaf of a telephone bid.
A few days later, at Christie's gleaming new headquarters in Rockefeller Center, I previewed a sale of Fine American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture. Gallery spaces with high ceilings and diffused natural light displayed minor works by major names such as Ben Shahn, Joseph Stella and Milton Avery.
Every painting had a background sheet, which included notes on the canvas' condition, its provenance and whether it had been exhibited in a prestigious museum show or art gallery -- all of which help vet an artwork.
A quick inspection under a black light can also reveal hidden truths. Aaron Payne, a private dealer, explained: "Catalog photographs can make things look brighter than they are. A black light will also reveal if a canvas was repainted by someone other than the artist -- which would diminish its value."
Mia Schlappi, a Christie's specialist, agreed with Payne, but added, "at this sale people are buying art they want to live with, not for investment. They are looking for fresh property."
Fresh, meaning new to the market, again hints at why people come to a place like Christie's. Often what appears for sale has been hidden from view for decades in a private collection and is about to return to another private collection. For the interested visitor, an auction, then, may be the aesthetic equivalent of a lunar eclipse -- an opportunity to see something rare before it vanishes.
As the sale began, the auctioneer's demeanor had all the drama of Kabuki theater: terrifyingly sudden hand gestures and strategic stares with his ice-cold blue eyes.
A digital display board clicked forward at each new bid, converting dollar amounts into British pounds, euros, Japanese yen and Swiss francs.
During the bidding for one painting, Helene Wasserman, a dealer of fine arts in New York, folded when the dollar amount exceeded $15,000. About to award the prize to another, the auctioneer glared at her. "No regrets?" he asked.
Wasserman jumped back into the bidding, paying many thousands more than when she'd bailed out earlier.
Later, I asked if she'd felt coerced by the auctioneer.
"Oh no, not at all," she said. "He was just doing his job. And I would have had regrets if I hadn't won."
Fusty and crusty
I'm holding a 19th-century book, Urania's Mirror, and each page is perforated in the pattern of yet another astrological sign. Held up to the light, there appeared Centaurus, Sagittarius and Canis Major. Unaware such a thing existed, at once I am enchanted. Jeremy Markowitz, an expert in books at Swann, an auction house on East 25th Street that specializes in antiquities on paper, is not surprised by my sudden infatuation.
"People get paper. It is instantly understandable," he said. "And, the price range is great, so it's accessible to almost everyone."
Of any auction house in New York, Swann is by far the most fusty and crusty. A few hideous vases are indifferently filled with faded silk flowers. Paper clips are affixed at the corners of an etching or lithograph, and these are thumbtacked to partitions covered in burlap.
Therein, however, lies Swann's unique appeal. Visitors treat the place like the used bookstore it is, and feel free to spend hours browsing through forgotten volumes and studying centuries-old maps with a magnifying glass.
Value here is based on condition, condition and condition. Paper is fragile, of course. It rips, fades or is besmirched by mold, what's called foxing.
What makes a particular printed item precious is that though many were mass-produced, few are still extant. Beware of fakes, however, which are easier to attempt on paper than any other art form.
"I get three calls a week saying, 'I have an original copy of the Declaration of Independence,' " Markowitz joked.
The crowd that shows up for Swann's auction of "Maps, Natural History & Historical Prints" is hardly a crowd -- a group of barely two dozen, mostly fusty and crusty old men. Befitting the esoterica on sale, the auctioneer injects an obscure wit into the goings-on.
As a John Gould print comes up for sale, for instance, he mentions that this illustrated bird was named for Queen Victoria's daughter, Augusta. When the auctioneer can't find anyone willing to pony up a minimum bid of $1,000, he cracks, "Well, that's what I get for trying to teach you something."
Sale prices vary wildly. One minute a postcard is being nickel-and-dimed, and the next an Audubon print is up into the tens of thousands of dollars. Dan Wechsler, a Manhattan dealer in rare books and prints, claims that after bidding here for the past five years, he's learned to enjoy Swann's eccentricities.
When asked about the predominance of elderly males among the customers, Wechsler laughed. "We all bemoan that there's such a lack of girls," he said. "Then again, it's much worse at auctions for stamps and coins."
An ideal day
7:30 a.m.: Wake up at the Franklin Hotel, go for a run or a head-clearing walk through Central Park. Say aloud the maximum total you are prepared to bid. Remember: An auction is not the place to get carried away with emotion.
8:45 a.m.: Breakfast at Sarabeth's Kitchen, on Madison Avenue between 92nd and 93rd streets. Sarabeth's is famous for its baked goods.
9:45 a.m.: Arrive at Doyle New York (or Sotheby's, Christies, or Swann). Sign in, get your paddle and be bold in your bidding -- but don't exceed your price limits.
1 p.m.: Lunch at E.A.T., on Madison Avenue between 80th and 81st streets. If you've purchased a treasure, celebrate. If you lost out on the bid, console yourself with some "haute nosh" cuisine -- the best salads, soups, breads and desserts in New York.
3 p.m.: Spend the afternoon browsing the museums of the Upper East Side: the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, the Frick, and the Jewish Museum of the City of New York, to name just a few.
6:30 p.m.: Head to the TKTS ticket booth at 47th Street and Broadway, and buy a ticket to see a Broadway show for half-price. (You're saving money for tomorrow's auction.)
10:45 p.m.: Have an after-theater dinner at Orso, 322 West 46th St. This is Tuscan cuisine relocated to midtown (don't miss the thin-crust pizzas), with plenty of celebrity spotting on the side.
Midnight: Dream of the bargains you'll find at tomorrow's sale.
When you go
Getting there: Amtrak has several departures each day from Baltimore to New York City's Penn Station. Go to www.amtrak.com for schedules and fares. By car, it's about a four-hour drive.
Auction schedule: Autumn is New York's main auction season. Listed below are several key sales happening in the next few months. Consult Web sites for more details, but exhibition or preview dates are usually the two or three days preceding the auction date listed.
Doyle New York, 175 East 87th Street, New York, NY 10128
* Oct. 8, 10 a.m.: Important Estate Jewelry
* Oct. 23, 10 a.m.: Important English and Continental Furniture and Decorations
* Nov. 5, 10 a.m.: 20th Century Art and Design
* Dec. 10, 1 p.m.: American and European Paintings and Drawings
Sotheby's, 1334 York Ave. (at 72nd Street), New York, NY 10021
* Oct. 23, 2 p.m.: Photographs from the Museum of the City of New York
* Nov. 5, 7 p.m.: Impressionist and Modern Art
* Nov. 12, 7 p.m.: Contemporary Art
Christie's, 20 Rockefeller Plaza, 49th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, New York, NY 10020
* Oct. 9, 10 a.m.: The Forbes Collection of American Historical Documents
* Nov. 6, 7 p.m.: Impressionist & Modern Art
* Nov. 13, 7 p.m.: Post-War and Contemporary Art
Swann Galleries, 104 East 25th St., New York, NY 10010
* Oct. 31, 10:30 a.m.: Magic, featuring the Manny Weltman Houdini Collection
* Nov. 6, 4 p.m.: 100 Important Old Master Prints * Dec. 5, 10:30 a.m.: Photographic Literature & Photographs
The Franklin, 164 East 87th St., New York, NY 10128
* A small, stylish boutique hotel across the street from Doyle New York. There's a rate of $179 for those attending auctions at Doyle.
The Inn at Irving Place, 56 Irving Place (between 17th and 18th streets), New York, NY 10003
* A pair of restored 19th-century townhouses, with Edith Wharton-era ambience, that are walking distance to Swann Galleries and an easy taxi ride to Christie's. Rooms start at $325.