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The Biddable Muse

If it had been up to me—and it really should have been—Playboy wouldn’t have abandoned its voyeuristic legacy of naked-lady photo spreads and centerfolds. Instead, I would’ve doubled down, expanded the magazine to the epic scale that, say, Vogue attains at the height of the fashion season. In the process, I’d also have revived the tradition of publishing heavy-hitting writing from the likes of Nabokov, Atwood, and Dahl (yes, Roald Dahl once published in Playboy). And just out of spite, I would’ve included two centerfolds instead of one, stipulating that the magazine commission the kind of photographers who could rejuvenate the art world’s long-standing relationship with the “nude.” 

In fact, my vision for Playboy’s relaunch might have wound up looking not so terribly different from the catalog for Christie’s The Artist’s Muse: A Curated Evening Sale, held this past Monday. The thirty-four works on offer included a portrait of the artist fondling the breast of his porn-star wife (Koons, Hand on Breast), a painting of a couple making out in bed (Toulouse-Lautrec, Au Lit: Le baiser), a range of work appealing to nurse-fetishists (by Prince and Lichtenstein), and most pertinently, several centerfold-style nudes (Courbet, Freud, and Modigliani). These works—the last of which had festooned the lavish buyer’s catalog for the big-ticket Christie’s auction—are just the kind of thing that you wish Playboy had been publishing all these years instead of an interminable string of listless and interchangeable Midwestern maidens, fetching enough to elicit a single glance, but perfectly incapable of inspiring a second.

I managed to attend this high-end sale by calling Christie’s late Monday afternoon and speaking much too quickly to be understood, really, about my credentials.

I arrived early, which was prudent because a potentially historic auction—one of several this week that had a chance of becoming the must lucrative art sale in history—may be the only thing in the world that can get very wealthy people to hustle up a bit. Once I arrived at the posh selling quarters Christie’s maintains at Rockefeller Center, I was relieved to see, in that shabby populist way of mine, that even rich folks sometimes have to stand in line.

I found my way to the press area of the main auction room, which was understood by everyone to be a far better venue for art-appraising than the “Woods Room,” an overflow accommodation down the hall that was sort of like watching your team’s home game from the bar rather than the stadium. 

The auction room was pretty empty still; I returned downstairs to size up the crowd. 

There’s a certain irony in the spectacle of very well-dressed ladies arriving to view and perhaps purchase depictions of undressed ladies. It was an in-between time of year, weather-and-fashion-wise, so on display was a combination of furs and silk wrap dresses, miniskirts and Burberry trenches. A lot of people seemed to know each other, and for a moment I felt as though I’d walked into a Wes Anderson movie. I found a spot against a wall that looked like I was trying to get out of the way, but actually was in the middle of the way.

Almost at once a man sidled up beside me, glanced at the credential around my neck, and breathed, “Are you with the press?”

He wore an eccentric colorful suit, had Einstein’s hair (a good portion of it coming out of his ears), and there was an eyeball-sized lump on his forehead that was so captivatingly circular and marbled with capillaries that it nearly qualified as a work of art all of its own.

“Well, I’m a writer . . .” I said.

The man nodded. Then he nodded at someone else who seemed to know him, and then another person tapped him on the shoulder to say hello, and I realized that this guy was probably the art-world equivalent of Bravo TV’s reality impresario Andy Cohen: all scene-making, all the time. When he turned back to me, because we’d very nearly been having a conversation, he was ready to start dropping names. I see now that this was inevitable. He said he knew Scorsese, and Harold Ramis, and Tom Wolfe. Not to be one-upped, I told him that I had once been compared to Tom Wolfe.

“You don’t look like him at all!”

“No,” I said. “Our work.”

“Oh,” the man said, and he walked away.

I stayed where I was, which was in the middle of the queues for those classic, three-number auction paddles. A man walked past me carrying a metal, military-grade suitcase that it was impossible not to picture stuffed with crisp currency. Another bespoke-looking gent asked if I was in line, and I thrilled for a moment at the suggestion that I was in and of the Christie’s element—that I belonged. (Maybe I did look like Tom Wolfe after all!) But then I realized he was just politely telling me to get the fuck out of the way. I let him slip by, and returned to the designated press-warren, to await the start of the main event.

First, though, there was to be another small mistaken-identity misadventure. Five minutes before the proceedings began, one more reporter snuck in from the overflow room and walked right up beside me.

“I’m not supposed to be here,” she whispered. “I’m supposed to be in the closed-caption room. They saw me sneak by. They’re coming for me. Just pretend you know me!”

I looked back toward the entrance, and yes, here were a couple ushers coming to take her to the dreaded Woods Room.

I was poised for some upper-class intrigue right out of the famed auction scene in North by Northwest. But no such luck: The woman argued for a bit, and tried explaining that she had to complete a conversation with her colleague—i.e., me. That was my cue, but I missed it. They insisted that she accompany them. “I’m a working member of the press!” I heard her announce in protest, but the mild hue and cry was abruptly drowned out by an amplified voice issuing from the front of the room. The auction was ready to begin.

An auction is a strange milieu. Even though it’s a bunch of people sitting in rows, all facing the same way, it’s neither an audience gathered for a performance nor a congregation massed for a ceremony, though it shares certain features with both. There were about five hundred people in the room. In lieu of a stage, there was a large wall, front and center, that rotated on a central spindle like a secret door in castle. The first painting on sale, Picasso’s Le peintre et son modèle, was already hanging there so that it could be viewed during bidding. (It sold for $1.4 million within a minute of the start of the event. I’ll give Christie’s this: while it can breezily compel the members of the art-collecting overclass to queue up for their open seating spots, when it comes to the actual exchange of cash for aesthetic value, there’s no dawdling whatsoever.)

Likewise, there was a certain overheated air of ritual attached to the act of display. As soon as a work was purchased, the wall swiveled around, and the next lot was there on the other side, and in that moment of rotation you could see the gloved attendants in the back doing the hurried work of hanging and unhanging paintings. It was not unlike visiting Willy Wonka’s candy factory and catching a glimpse of the Oompa Loompas doing the thankless work of grinding and tempering the chocolate that you savor with no thought of them at all. 

Just to the right of the rotating wall was the auctioneer’s lectern, raised like a pulpit. The Christie’s auctioneer, like my Einstein interlocutor, is probably a famous guy in the art world, but I don’t think he was introduced at the start of the event. And weirdly enough, this was the chief instant when the proceedings began to slow down, as though the auction house intended to savor in hushed reverence the sacred act of nudging bids into the nine-figure stratosphere. Unlike flea market auctioneers, who seem to glory in their own rapid-fire unintelligibility, the Christie’s man was calm and exhibited clear and deliberate diction throughout. Not coincidentally, he probably wound up saying the word “million” several thousand times over the course of the evening.

Someone said that the Freud nude didn’t sell because, well, look at her—she just wasn’t that attractive.

The auctioneer had a couple signature moves. Sometimes, at the end of a sale, he would raise one hand high into the air, gesturing skyward for no particular reason, and he would hold the hammer in his other hand, tucked under his opposite elbow. In this pose, he would lower the hammer (it occurred to me then that this is probably where that phrase comes from). And even though for each and every sale the auctioneer offered several warnings that he was about to lower said hammer, it continually caused the crowd to jump a bit in response to its sudden stone-on-wood crack.

And sometimes, when the auctioneer was poised right on this hammer-lowering brink, he would sense that a bidder had not yet taken himself fully out of the running. In these cases, the auctioneer would suddenly melt from a more classic raised-hammer position, to a deep lean over the front of the lectern. For a moment he would stare penetratingly at the undecided bidder, like a fire-and-brimstone pastor singling out an especially accomplished sinner with a fearsome gaze, and he would hold that pose until the bidder either jacked the price with a nod, or lowered his paddle, impotently, into his lap. 

High on the wall to the auctioneer’s right was a board that listed bids as they came in, and that immediately converted U.S. dollars into euros, pounds, yen, Swiss francs, Hong Kong dollars, and rubles. One could almost imagine that it was to this frenzied display of numbers that the auctioneer was raising his hammer, in a Thor-like summons: it wasn’t until the sale of the fifth lot, Gauguin’s Thése, that I figured out that an auction’s “realized price” was the “hammer price” plus the “buyer’s premium” (a misnomer, this—it’s actually Christie’s cut). This meant that the amount paid for Thérèse, which had the interesting provenance of having gone missing from art-world scrutiny for thirty-five years, in the hands of a private London collector, was the $27.5 million hammer price, plus an extra $3.465 million for Christie’s. At $5 million above the upper end of Christie’s estimated range for Thérèse, this amounted to a world record for a Gauguin sculpture. The buyer remained anonymous, suggesting that the unclad Thérèse may wind up sequestered for decades more from the public’s prying eyes.

Several pieces on offer did not have an estimated range at all. They were listed only as “Estimate on Request”—which basically meant “Buckle up, it’s going to be assloads of money.” These included Lichtenstein’s Nurse (realized price, $95.365 million), Picasso’s Homme à l’épée ($22.565 million), and the star of the evening, Modigliani’s Nu Couché. This latter work was the first “Estimate on Request” offering to appear on the rotating wall. It was also the first full nude of the night. There was a palpable shift in the mood of the room at the moment that it was rotated forward for viewing. Through most of the evening, the auction was a scene of divided attentions, but now everyone fixated on the sexy image that had been used to advertise the sale for weeks.

Prurient interest was all well and good, but the currency-converting bidding board would not wait. The auctioneer seemed to pull a figure out of his head to get things going. Why not start at $75 million? Why not indeed? He got that sum at once, and there was quick series of bids in $5 million increments. The bidding stalled for a moment at $110 million—this is when the click of camera shutters in the room became apparent, pulsing like locusts—and then the price ticked up again to $115 million and beyond. At $135 million, it slowed again, and a bidder’s representative asked whether the auctioneer would take $136 million, but the auctioneer sneered at this and insisted on at least $138 million. He got that, and in short order, the bid was bumped up to $140 million, and then $142 million. There was a long pause at this point, followed by another jump to $145 million, and then $148 million, and then $150 million, which saw another pause, and then a funny moment when another bidder’s representative pleaded for more time, “One second,” and the auctioneer misheard him as saying “One-seventy,” and nearly announced a bid of $170 million. But the mistake was caught and acknowledged, and the eager collector’s factotum was thus permitted to live another day.

There was just one final bid, $152 million, and the auctioneer lowered the hammer, which doubled here as the first clap in a hearty round of applause.

We later learned that Nu Couché had been purchased for a realized price of $170,405,000 by Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian, who boasted an interesting provenance of his own, having once worked as a taxi driver. The amount he paid for the Modigliani represented 12.5 percent of his net worth. By the time I got home, Nu Couché was already listed on Wikipedia as the sixth most expensive piece of art in history, and news stories listed its realized price as the second highest ever paid at auction for any artwork. 

I figured there would be an exodus from the room once the Modigliani sold, but for the most part, people stuck around till the end. Another nude, Femme nue couchée, sold for $15.3 million, a world record for Courbet, and thirty seconds later the hammer fell (ouch!) on Hand on Breast for $1.2 million, though I couldn’t tell whether this amounted to a sale—it was below the Christie’s estimate for the Koons. Another notable failure was Lucian Freud’s nude, Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa, which didn’t make it to the lower end of the $20 million estimate, and later, as the journalists milled about waiting for the press conference, someone said that the Freud nude didn’t sell because, well, look at her—she just wasn’t that attractive.

Not like the Modigliani. Here’s something I haven’t told you: Earlier in the day, I came to the sale’s preview with my friend Joe, who is a poet from Brooklyn, and who is the kind of guy who prides himself on wearing sweatshirts to formal events. That morning, Joe got up close with the Modigliani—amazingly, we still live in a world where that’s possible—and he pointed out areas in the painting that seemed to rise off the canvas, alongside some other parts of the composition in which the depth seemed a little off.

He was right, but that’s not what I noticed, later that evening, after the press conference where only a single uninteresting question was asked. Then, for a few minutes, the writers were permitted to walk back among the paintings. And so I had a moment alone with the Modigliani that had just sold for $170 million, and what struck me about it was not that it was sexy—though it was—but that it had a luminous quality that showed up in none of the representations of it I’d seen. The painting glowed. And in glowing it seemed that its real subject was desire—a desire that refuses to be photographed, or otherwise reproduced, let alone toted up as a column of numbers on the big Christie’s board.