Breakfast at Christie’s: Attending a New York City Art Auction

You need one of these “paddles” to bid. Also shown is the $45 catalog (a.k.a. my future coffee table book) that documents all the lots in the auction. On the cover is Oscar Bluemner’s modernist landscape “Illusion of a Prairie, New Jersey.”

November marks the start of the fall auction season in New York City, so it is fitting that the month went out with a bang with Christie’s Important American Painting, Drawing and Sculpture auction on Nov. 30. The event featured art from the 19th and 20th century and included works by Georgia O’Keefe and Oscar Bluemner whose modernist landscape, “Illusion of a Prairie, New Jersey,” sold for a world record for the artist.

Overall, the auction was a tasteful mish-mash of representational works that included pretty landscapes, realistic sculptures, still lives, portraits and abstract art.

The mood at the event was upbeat—maybe too much at times—as any who attended cheerfully chit-chatted during the entire auction, with a grande Starbucks in hand and some even had a breakfast pastry (Christie’s was also serving coffee). [Note to self: you can bring take-out to a fine art auction.] This is not a jab at Christie’s, and its gracious staff who were all impeccably dressed, very helpful, genuinely sweet and, on top of all that, very attractive. However, I came to the realization that upscale auctions are no longer considered insider events where only members of the art world attend. Gone are the days when auctions were attended by men with mid-Atlantic accents and women in white dainty gloves who sat in silence and made small gestures when they wanted to bid (oh wait, that might have been a silly notion stuck in my head).

The gallery space at Christie’s where art from the auction was displayed for bidder’s perusal.

The screening room for bidders who could not fit in auction room before auction began; the calm before the storm.

Christie’s staff is shown working with phone bidders.

Auctions are now a spectator sport, much like Fashion Week or The Interior Design Show in NYC. And, unlike the city’s museums—where one can pay up to $20 to see fine art—auctions and their previews are free to attend. Buying the full color, coffee-table-worthy catalog for $45, so you can easily follow the bidding process, is optional. I am not implying that the crowd that attended was not well-heeled. That was not the case at all. But I believe a good number of folks who were in attendance can be considered art groupies, and they came to see a good show while catching up with friends.

The auction ended on a positive note. Every lot sold. Many of the days purchases were made by high rollers who opted to compete by phone or online. The bidding war of the day was for the Oscar Bluemner painting mentioned earlier, where the crowd had the opportunity to witness two phone bidders duking it out for the prize. When the dust settled, the winner earned the right to pay $4,700,000 (or $5,300,000 when you add in the 12-percent buyer’s premium) to own “Illusion of a Prairie, New Jersey.”

New York City Skyline as seen from the 20th floor at Christie’s.

Frederick William MacMonnies’ “Nathan Hale,” with a spectator’s cup of coffee provided by Christie’s. A guard quickly whisked the cup away shortly after photo was taken. The hammer price on the statue, $120,000 (with buyer’s premium, $146,500).

A personal favorite of mine did not make its presale estimated selling price. Lot 18, Milton Avery’s “Sitting Hen” was estimated at $80,000-$120,000 but fell short at $55,000 not including the buyer’s premium. There were, however, a few surprises, including Lot 35, Alexander Phimister Proctor’s bronze figure, “Indian Warrior” that was estimated to fetch $30,000 at best, but incited a small bidding frenzy and sold for $130,000 not including Christie’s fee.

It was reassuring that every piece at the auction found a home, but you could sense collectors were reluctant to really pony up and spend big on this day. That could be a reflection of the unstable economy or perhaps it’s because the auction lacked big-ticket works that would demand an eight- or nine-digit price tag. Either way, it was a wonderful way to spend the morning, the auctioneer Christopher Burge was charming and the auction space and gallery was warm and welcoming.

Plus, I learned a lesson: Whenever I need a fine art fix, I will skip paying double-digits in order to go to a NYC museum. I will pack a snack, grab a few friends and seek out a gallery preview or auction instead.

DeDe Sullivan is a retrophile with a particular fondness for junktiques; discarded vintage treasures whose aesthetic worth far exceeds its monetary value. Her blog, VintageandFlea.com, documents her junking and antiquing adventures. This includes sharing her favorite places to score unique items, the history behind unusually finds, along with display and upcycling ideas. Have a question or story to tell? Shoot her an e-mail at dede@vintageandflea.com!

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