Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Sotheby's: Behind the Scenes


Josh Spero

By the time it reached £8,000,000, the murmur in the room had become a roar. Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring had made a rapid progress up through the middle millions and was already well into record-setting territory. The focus was not on the piece, which sat on the rear wall, largely ignored at this moment, but on the auctioneer. As the debonair Tobias Meyer brought the gavel down Thursday night at £8.6m, the audience burst into wild applause.

Auction fever had clearly spread through this sale too, driven on by the earlier £19m for a Francis Bacon. But it is not just the six multi-million-pound sales of this mega-auction week which have been infected by it: behind the scenes, belying Sotheby’s calm grandeur, there has been a fortnight of the most refined and efficient frenzy you’ve ever seen.


“These walls were blue yesterday,” says Robin Woodhead, Sotheby’s Chief Executive for Europe and Asia, pointing around one of the cavernous galleries in Sotheby’s headquarters on New Bond Street. They are now white, for items in the Contemporary sales, and they are still wet. If anything suggests the lightning speed at which Sotheby’s has to work, this is it.

It is Wednesday in the week before the sales and more than 450 lots are being installed throughout the building, with paintings and photos affixed to every square inch of available wall. Workmen angle spotlights onto a Peter Doig painting, while Noble and Webster’s light sculpture Happy, complete with its rainbow of bulbs, rests against a wall, still protected by scrunched-up foam. Ladders of varying heights wait to trip up the unwary.

“What tends to happen with Impressionist and Contemporary is that they rehang a lot of things,” says Wyndham Plumptre, one of the gallery technicians responsible for the hanging, “and when you’ve done it seven or eight times and it’s ten o’clock at night, we do sometimes reach breaking point.”

In what looks like the calmest part of the room there is in reality artistic intensity. Four men are filling the Hirst cabinet, made from stainless steel with a mirrored back and composed of row upon row of brightly-coloured pills (actually individually cast from bronze then hand-painted). There are over 6,000 pills, hence it is a labour not just of love but of length: it will take them four days to finish. There is an electric tension between the pain-staking pill-placing and the need to have it done before the galleries open to the public, as they do for every sale Sotheby’s has.

In the next room too things are in flux. The Francis Bacon self-portrait, one of the week’s highlights with an £8-12m estimate, is at the far end, but will finish up by the entrance come Sunday. A central partition, to accommodate more pieces, has not even been assembled yet. Further rooms, painted in navy blue for the Impressionist and Modern auctions, are calmer, although minute nudges are still being made to make the paintings (which include a first rate proto-abstract Waterlilies and a sensational Matisse) level.

Two days later and the same restrained rush to put up pictures is occurring in nearby Hanover Square. For a second year, Sotheby’s has taken over half the square with a marquee, in which workmen install 300 items from the Contemporary day sale (that is, the slightly lower-value works).

Many of the pieces are up already, but there are still ubiquitous ladders and piles of bubble-wrap blocking the view, as well as workmen’s benches with their assortment of tools. A Donald Judd steel sculpture is in its box and a Jake and Dinos Chapman piece sits unassembled, its conjoined twins lying on the floor separated from their base, while a dozen workmen run photos up pulleys, standing back and squinting at their alignment. Next to a bag of nails is a creased map showing where each work has to go, although come the preview brunch on Saturday everything will have been thoroughly rearranged.

Both here and in the main building on Wednesday, the chaos has been quiet. Hundreds of man hours are spent over just a few days setting up the shows, and the work is the odd combination of calm professionalism and frenzied urgency. The wonder is that everyone remains so unruffled when the weight of a week of auctions presses down.


If the first week is frenzy with a peaceful appearance, then the weekend is peace with a frenzied appearance. Two events are held to show off the collections to clients and interested members of the public, the first a brunch in the marquee on Saturday, the second a soiree on Sunday in Sotheby’s itself.

Stepping into the marquee, the most noticeable thing is how pristine and orderly everything looks. Less than 24 hours earlier, you could hardly move for boxes and bubble-wrap. Now a bronze rat by Banksy sits on a pillar behind waiters laden with champagne, and the waitress with full English breakfast canapés weaves around a modern terracotta warrior by Yue Minjun.

The marquee is filled with the contented hum of young patrons of the arts admiring imminent purchases. One woman brays that she wouldn’t pay £200,000 for an enormous Sigmar Polke – she could do it herself in 15 minutes. The single sign of the effort that went into arranging the marquee is when a new photo has to be displayed, but it is done with customary grace.

Sunday evening is a different beast entirely, in no way low-key. 700 fabulously dressed, fabulously wealthy clients converge on the New Bond Street galleries, where waitresses in hot pink mini-dresses distribute croustades like theatrical ushers – except ushers’ trays never glowed purple. The rooms are packed and everywhere you turn is a conversation in a different language, reflecting the global reach of today’s art market.

Two men have their photo taken in front of the Hirst cabinet and someone walking past a Giacometti bust almost knocks it off its pediment. Several people gape at an explicit Tom Wesselman painting (open-lipped applies to both) and at points it’s nearly impossible to hear yourself. One client wants to see a painting, so it is taken off the wall, leaving the spotlight illuminating an empty square.

This weekend is completely unlike the days preceding it. A social whirl replaces artistic concentration. Despite the busy surface, largely nothing happens beyond socialising and eyeing up the art, inverting the week’s quiet intensity.


It is hard to tell if you are at an auction house or the opera when you go to see a sale at Sotheby’s. Certainly things get sold, but with a smartly-dressed audience filing in at the start, the auctioneer conducting his bidders with his gavel and the high drama of ever-increasing sums of cash, you might be forgiven for getting confused.

The two large galleries on the first floor of Sotheby’s New Bond Street have been merged into one, with room for 400 in the stalls. At the front is the rostrum, where Henry Wyndham, Chairman of Sotheby’s in Europe and tonight’s auctioneer, will soon stand, while on the right is a bank of 40 phones, each manned by a Sotheby’s expert (house term for the specialists) connected to a client who wants to bid privately.

An hour before the auction starts, the sign giving the sale’s name – Impressionist and Modern Art – is still being screwed into the wall above the rostrum, while the star of the show, Monet’s Waterlilies, is being nudged up and down and having a spotlight fixed onto it. This doesn’t reflect disorder or carelessness on Sotheby’s part but reveals the absurdly high speed they have to work at. The day before, this room was still two rooms, with paintings lining every surface; now it has been transformed into a commercial arena.

The star of the preview week’s festivities, Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinet, languishes unnoticed at the back of the room.

The audience – buyers, sellers, spectators, press, experts – drift in by dribs and drabs while a lady from the BBC delivers the ‘and finally’ item for the six o’clock national news in front of the Monet, which is expected to fetch £10-15m. Melanie Clore, worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, stands at the centre of the whirling preparations and directs everything with cool grace.

Everyone you might expect at a million-pound auction is here: the gentleman staggering in wearing painterly garb (all he lacks is a smear of eggshell blue across his cheek); some Russotrash in high heels and higher skirts, taking over the bleached-blonde mantle from minor European royals; and a global array of the wealthy and well-dressed. The increasing influence of those from emerging markets is reflected by the Russian rouble denomination on the bid board, a new entrant.

At seven o’clock, Mr. Wyndham – already a tall man at six foot six – climbs onto the rostrum, towering over the room, and starts the bidding on a beautiful Post-Impressionist by Henri-Edmond Cross. A preconception about auctions is instantly shattered: they are not conducted in reverent silence, with the spectators giving their rapt attention to the ever-increasing millions being chucked about on canvas and oils. There is more noise than almost seems decent, and not just dealers on their mobiles and the bank of telephone proxies but general chit-chat, murmuring about the art and dinner afterwards and why is she wearing that top. Mr. Wyndham carries on in his gently cajoling style, his focus absolutely directed onto his bidders.

Bidders – another place for illusions to be cracked. The rise of the telephone bidder is no surprise, but the effect it has had on the atmosphere is poisonous. Instead of being able to watch two keen buyers compete over one item, psyching each other out, playing with the tension in the room like a long volley at Wimbledon, the bids are delivered mostly by their eager telephone substitutes. This does create tension over high-value items, but mostly it leaves you underwhelmed.

Even the bidders in the room it is almost impossible to see. They do not flail about with their paddles but instead catch Mr. Wyndham’s eye with a gesture undetectable to anyone else, thus when he announces the next bid, he may as well be making it up so hard is to tell where it has come from. On occasion he will banter with a bidder to try and persuade them to offer more, and his smooth, saturnine style and dry wit make it hard to refuse.

A few lots catch fire. The Monet eventually reaches £18.5m, but it takes an age, with Mr. Wyndham giving long pauses between bids, just repeating the last one like a mantra until he has secured the next. It is agonising getting to the final price for the Monet, and it is not much better with the gorgeous Matisse, although this does set a world record at £11m. For items like these, there is silence and complete attention.

The rapidity seen before the auction started is shown as each painting is whipped off the easel after it is sold (or passed on, that is, unsold) by one of the porters, who stands next to it with a look of dignified boredom. Off comes the Schiele, on goes the Picasso, a speedy conveyor belt of masterpieces.

As the auction progresses, the room empties out, and by lot 45, it is only half full. Still, the murmuring continues. Much like at the opera, it is hard to sustain tension for the full length of your performance, and the sale drags increasingly. It is not that the pictures are not nice to look at, or that it is not interesting to see millions change hands in a second, but the rapid fire of lots, the insubstantial sums mentioned tend towards monotony. It is really just the same thing, 45 times.

Once the auction is over, there is no clapping or cheering for the £90m raised, possibly because the sale has been pale in comparison with Christie’s the night before, or possibly just because everyone is tired from having to sustain their enthusiasm for such a long period. There is just relief, because legs can be stretched, and the memory of the slow trek towards £20m for the Monet.


Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of the Contemporary Art department in Europe, described these weeks as pervaded by “auction fever”, driving prices ever higher and pushing bidders into a frenzy.

In fact, however, the fever strikes when you would least expect it: outside of the sales, there are paintings to be hung and re-hung and then hung again, all in the space of a day. There are walls to be repainted and marquees to be installed. There are lights to focus, catalogues to distribute, members of the press to assuage. These are all when it feels most feverish, when it seems like everything is being done on the hop and nothing will be ready in time.

Oddly enough, the auctions themselves are some of the calmest times. Apart from the highest value lots – and especially those which unexpectedly become high value – most items get rattled through, with a distracted crowd murmuring and attending to themselves.

In a year where we have seen every record for works of art fall – both in auction houses and outside – the most exciting, most feverish times at Sotheby’s were not determined by the imminent fall of the hammer but by the frenzied grace of the circus surrounding the sales.

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