The auction revolution will be televised

WarholBids.jpgClearly, there’s a huge difference between watching an auction live and watching it virtually, closely akin to the difference between attending theater and viewing films. Live, it’s a visceral, all-engulfing experience, as if one were getting a contact high from the massive endorphin rush of all the interested parties. Remote, it’s mind-numbing. Here’s a perfect example: Watch the Christie’s video of Andy Warhol’s “Green Car Crash” blasting past its high estimate to hit $64 million. I’m sure it was spellbinding to be in that room, but when one of Artworld Salon’s faithful readers e-mailed me the clip last night, I rapidly started multitasking in my email and IM windows until the the last couple of bids. Let’s face it, folks, unless you’ve got money on the line, auctions are boring television.

Interestingly, this week’s issue of New York Magazine has an Intelligencer item from Alexandra Peers, Sotheby’s Shuts Out Auction Regulars, relating how some grumpy auction attendees found themselves watching the sales on closed-circuit television rather than live. Based on differing versions I’ve heard – all from people well-connected inside the auction house – there were several possible motivations for this move, including: 1) making it easier for Tobias Meyer to keep track of bidders in the back of the (now-shortened) room; 2) making the auctions feel more exclusive for those allowed in (i.e. ye old velvet-rope nightclub trick); 3) reducing the traffic jam at the doors, which had previously made it impossible for some latecomers to get paddles in time to bid; 4) slick consultants told them it would raise profits.

Naturally, insiders long used to watching live auctions are dismayed at the prospect of following them on-screen instead. Although CultureGrrl managed to score some thrills tracking the Sotheby’s sales online, as a rule people getting shunted into the spillover room will feel personally slighted. One rejected regular, dealer Ellen Marie Donahue, told Peers that “she was told she could still get a ticket if she passed along her primary clients’ financial information to the house.” She refused the deal. And I’m betting veteran artworld types will get belligerent at the notion that they now must prove their worthiness to attend an auction live, especially given that the houses have taken to positing themselves as the democratic alternative to the “elitist” gallery scene.

That said, from a sales standpoint, the move seemed to have very zero effect at Sotheby’s. Which kind of undercuts my fundamental notions about what makes auctions such a powerful selling platform – namely that the right auctioneer and the right setting, with the right pacing of lots, can seduce people into paying significantly higher prices. But in the age of the telephone bidder, the monster guarantee and the massive marketing campaign, maybe the auctioneer is more like an MC than a master seducer. Thoughts?

One thought on “The auction revolution will be televised

  1. I was there on Tuesday night for the sale of the “Rockefeller Rothko” and all the other record-setting pictures. While the clip from Wednesday’s sale–including Larry Gagosian’s epically timed late entry into the bidding–do convey a palpable excitement, I’m sorry to say those moments are, irrespective of which house you’re talking about, exceedingly rare. And getting rarer.

    The reason is simple. We live a world of intermediation, and so it is with auctions. Every year the number of bidders outside the salesroom grows, to the point where you can now go through several lots without seeing a single paddle wave in the air– and this is especially true of the most expensive lots. What you almost never get is the sight of dueling collectors, duking it out for the prize.

    That magic moment of irrational crowd exuberance, the celebratory clap afforded to the victorious bidder, is also headed to exctinction. What good is clapping when the hero is nowhere to be seen?

    Auctions, it has often been said, are pure theater. But this theater now resembles a surreal performance where the audience, dressed to the nines, eagerly seeks to follow the auction, but half of the performing cast is off the stage.

    We find ourselves in the grip of a paradox. The ablity to project auctions beyond their physical confines has helped prices rise–since transcontinentally dispersed buyers can now directly partipate in the action (nobody missed the addition of Rubles on the big boards of both houses last week). However, this virtual expansion of the auction room has, as elsewhere, dranied some of the vibrancy out of the experience.

    As with greenhouse vegetables, the results are bigger, but less flavorful.

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