I consider myself a fairly fearless traveler. I've eaten thingsindigenous that were inedible (goat stomach, anyone?), hitched rides frompeople whose language I didn't speak, and bartered the shirt off my back for asouvenir.
Until recently, though, I'd been too timid to explore a New York Cityauction house. Scared off, perhaps, by half-remembered television sitcoms, Ihalf-believed that auction houses were chilly with hauteur and home to smoothoperators eager to exploit my sketchy knowledge of art history. I'd scratch myeyebrow and find myself owning a pair of elephant foot ottomans.
True, too, some highly public shenanigans have recently exposed anoff-putting underside to the $4 billion-a-year auction business.
Due to a price-fixing scheme between Christie's and Sotheby's, executivesfrom 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 oncharges 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 likeme fare?
Just fine, in fact. Through time spent earlier this year at Doyle,Sotheby's, Christie's and Swann, I discovered these places are actuallymuseums with temporary exhibitions that you are encouraged to touch, andstores where the sales help are truly helpful.
With autumn's blockbuster sales season about to begin, now is the perfecttime to learn how New York auction houses really work by visiting themyourself. 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 87thStreet was a busy, buzzing hive. This, as it happened, was "walk-in" day, sopeople were lined up, waiting to present tattered cardboard boxes to a panelof appraisers who gingerly sifted these nuggets gleaned from today's versionof the gold rush.
Thanks in part to PBS' popular TV program Antiques Roadshow (on which Doylewas 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, thecompany'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 theirgoods. Unless the items for sale are being de-acquisitioned by a ficklecollector, often a celebrity (the auction world still cackles over BarbraStreisand's much-reviled art deco furniture that sold tepidly at Christie's in1999), things usually appear at auction through a loss of fortune or of life.
Executors or heirs then invite auction houses to appraise the estate andpresent competing sales proposals. If there is sufficient merchandise to merita single-owner sale -- as was the case with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, atSotheby's in 1996 -- a whole marketing campaign may be mounted, includingadvertising and a catalog.
Most often, though, an estate will be broken up and individual piecesslotted into a variety of niche auctions through the year.
Doyle's Fine Furnishings, Decorations and Paintings sale in June had 645different lots, or individual bidding transactions, culled from 90 differentestates. Price points were modest (an average of $750) and the merchandise wasa grab bag.
Indeed, Doyle's two large exhibition rooms resemble a well-appointed junkshop. Things are put on the floor in an "as-is" condition, though nothingsmells or is dusty.
The lighting is superb -- racks of high voltage spots line the ceiling, sonothing is left in shadow. Smaller items are often lumped into one lot:mismatched pieces of china, linens or women's purses. Larger pieces arearranged into decorative vignettes that don't stay in place for too long.
Exhibitions are hands-on affairs. People flip the tables or plop themselvesdown into armchairs. Collectors of American furniture, referred to within theindustry as "termites," are notorious for slicing into upholstery to researcha 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 screaminginto her phone as she poked at a pair of chintz-covered headboards.
Not quite sure what defines the Georgian, Regency and Federal styles? Areyou unable to distinguish between a fauteuil and a poudreuse? Don't worry. Onpreview days, there are specialists to field all such inquiries. One of them,Jane Munson, said, "Sometimes people ask about a piece's history, sometimesit's a bit of decorating advice."
While we chatted, a guy dumped a box of silver onto the floor. Not trustingthe count printed in the catalog, he began making neat piles of all theknives, forks and spoons. Observing this, Munson's smile tightened ever soslightly.
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 mustfill in a brief application form and supply a credit card number.
With no preamble, the auctioneer begins the sale. He speaks quickly, butarticulately -- a slight British accent evident in his clipped consonants.
The proceedings move unnervingly fast, and Doyle's handlers sometimesbarely manage to hoist an item up onto a display platform before the gavelcrashes downward. Sold!
For all the frenzy, bear in mind that you are completely invisible untilyou forcibly enter the fray. Take a moment, then, to observe the varyingtechniques. Some people start bidding immediately; others wait until a certainprice point is reached. Still others keep their paddle raised as the volleyinggoes back and forth -- a calculatedly provocative move, as a brandished paddleis like a loaded gun.
If it's good, it's worth waiting for. This, apparently, was the motto ofMary Jane Bauer, an interior designer from Newburgh, N.Y., who worked steadilyaway 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 feelI overpaid."
This, then, is the conundrum of an auction. With all distinctions betweenvalue and price in flux, only you can decide what something is worth.
Sotheby's starkly modern glass and steel facade is strangely at odds withhow frequently the words "established in 1744" appear on the auction house'swalls, posters and catalogs.
Venerable Sotheby's may be, though its location on York Avenue between ahospital and a nursing home is an unsettling reminder that what you're aboutto bid on has passed through other lives. In other words, regardless of howgreat 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-raiserfor the New York Academy of Art. Most of the paintings for sale were by theacademy's students -- though there was also a sprinkling of works by betterknown artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Bo Bartlett and Matthew Barney.
Despite the auction's leering title, this was far from an erotic show. Inalmost all the paintings of women, contrived bits of modesty -- a drapedbedsheet, the curve of an elbow -- were deployed. In contrast, male subjects,such as a Jamie Wyeth drawing of the dancer Rudolph Nureyev, wore theirbirthday suits with a vaguely embarrassing zeal.
I was quite alone with such thoughts, as the charmless exhibition roomswere completely empty and silent, save for the clatter of escalators carryingno one from floor to floor. On my way out, I passed a Sotheby's Real Estateoffice where multimillion-dollar properties are for sale. Did the same personwho bought a 27-room villa in Barbados then dash upstairs and buy a few nudesto hang in the guest bathrooms?
Visit Sotheby's on a sultry summer afternoon, and one feels pity for thevery rich. As the old saying goes, it's lonely at the top.
Things were perkier at the auction, because someone had the dubiousbrainstorm to hire a group of nearly nude go-go dancers. Painted withfluorescent swirls, these men and women writhed, sweating, beneath strobelights. Guests gave wide berth to the dance floor, as they did to thosecanvases with the most flesh visible.
"I actually don't think I even like nudes," said Kim Van Dang, an editor atInStyle magazine.
There was something puzzling about a room full of people who have flockedto a "Take Home a Nude" art auction, yet like Van Dang, didn't appear to likenudes. As the essence of bidding is to publicly avow one's desire forsomething, this auction was, frankly, a bust. Not until the Nureyev drawingwas up on the block, eventually selling for $28,000, did things briefly becomeexciting. 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 RockefellerCenter, I previewed a sale of Fine American Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture.Gallery spaces with high ceilings and diffused natural light displayed minorworks 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 prestigiousmuseum show or art gallery -- all of which help vet an artwork.
A quick inspection under a black light can also reveal hidden truths. AaronPayne, a private dealer, explained: "Catalog photographs can make things lookbrighter than they are. A black light will also reveal if a canvas wasrepainted by someone other than the artist -- which would diminish its value."
Mia Schlappi, a Christie's specialist, agreed with Payne, but added, "atthis 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 placelike Christie's. Often what appears for sale has been hidden from view fordecades in a private collection and is about to return to another privatecollection. For the interested visitor, an auction, then, may be the aestheticequivalent of a lunar eclipse -- an opportunity to see something rare beforeit vanishes.
As the sale began, the auctioneer's demeanor had all the drama of Kabukitheater: terrifyingly sudden hand gestures and strategic stares with hisice-cold blue eyes.
A digital display board clicked forward at each new bid, converting dollaramounts into British pounds, euros, Japanese yen and Swiss francs.
During the bidding for one painting, Helene Wasserman, a dealer of finearts in New York, folded when the dollar amount exceeded $15,000. About toaward the prize to another, the auctioneer glared at her. "No regrets?" heasked.
Wasserman jumped back into the bidding, paying many thousands more thanwhen 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 havehad regrets if I hadn't won."
Fusty and crusty
I'm holding a 19th-century book, Urania's Mirror, and each page isperforated in the pattern of yet another astrological sign. Held up to thelight, there appeared Centaurus, Sagittarius and Canis Major. Unaware such athing existed, at once I am enchanted. Jeremy Markowitz, an expert in books atSwann, an auction house on East 25th Street that specializes in antiquities onpaper, is not surprised by my sudden infatuation.
"People get paper. It is instantly understandable," he said. "And, theprice range is great, so it's accessible to almost everyone."
Of any auction house in New York, Swann is by far the most fusty andcrusty. A few hideous vases are indifferently filled with faded silk flowers.Paper clips are affixed at the corners of an etching or lithograph, and theseare thumbtacked to partitions covered in burlap.
Therein, however, lies Swann's unique appeal. Visitors treat the place likethe used bookstore it is, and feel free to spend hours browsing throughforgotten volumes and studying centuries-old maps with a magnifying glass.
Value here is based on condition, condition and condition. Paper isfragile, of course. It rips, fades or is besmirched by mold, what's calledfoxing.
What makes a particular printed item precious is that though many weremass-produced, few are still extant. Beware of fakes, however, which areeasier to attempt on paper than any other art form.
"I get three calls a week saying, 'I have an original copy of theDeclaration 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, mostlyfusty and crusty old men. Befitting the esoterica on sale, the auctioneerinjects an obscure wit into the goings-on.
As a John Gould print comes up for sale, for instance, he mentions thatthis illustrated bird was named for Queen Victoria's daughter, Augusta. Whenthe 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. DanWechsler, a Manhattan dealer in rare books and prints, claims that afterbidding here for the past five years, he's learned to enjoy Swann'seccentricities.
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
* 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
* 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
* 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
* Oct. 31, 10:30 a.m.: Magic, featuring the Manny Weltman HoudiniCollection
* Nov. 6, 4 p.m.: 100 Important Old Master Prints* Dec. 5, 10:30 a.m.: Photographic Literature & PhotographsLodging:
* A small, stylish boutique hotel across the street from Doyle New York.There's a rate of $179 for those attending auctions at Doyle.
* A pair of restored 19th-century townhouses, with Edith Wharton-eraambience, that are walking distance to Swann Galleries and an easy taxi rideto Christie's. Rooms start at $325.