Adrenaline junkies have been known to bungee jump 1,035 feet from the Royal Gorge Bridge (the mysterious Larry Gottlieb), free climb Yosemite’s Sentinel (the charming and surprisingly nerdy Alex Honnold), and even try to leap the Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle (the incomparable Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel) all in search of that next high.
Do they have a death wish or are they just dense? Or maybe they’ve simply never been to an auction? That’s right, I’m here to tell that you can get almost the same rush (almost) by sitting comfortably in an auction house or art gallery trying desperately to outbid your friends, foes, and neighbors on a prized objet d’art or just object.
As we prepare for the upcoming auction at Film Biz Thursday I’ve been reminded of my first experience with a real deal, up close and personal, live auction. It occurred in 2004 at the annual benefit for the amazing Southern Exposure art space in San Francisco. Southern Exposure has been a constant on the Bay Area art scene for over 30 years and this event has been a key to the gallery’s survival for nearly its entire life.
This raucous affair begins with a silent auction where frantic bidders circle the best pieces placing their bids one after another after another, pushing prices higher and higher, until the final bell is rung. If you’re lucky you’ll head home with some fine pieces from big name artists. If you’re not so lucky, never fear because the main event has yet to begin.
Crowding the center of the gallery are fold up chairs prepared for the more civilized auction and you can feel the excitement building. The air is friendly—sort of. People are jockeying for views of what is about to be auctioned off and there is a clamoring amongst the guests about what will and what won’t sell and for how much. And then the toast of the party arrives—the auctioneer.
At this first auction we really scored because our auctioneer had a British accent. A British accent lends an air of authenticity and authority to any occasion. For instance, there is a Ping Pong table here at the Krrb offices. There are also a number of Englishmen here. Ping Pong tables usually conjure up images of frat houses and musty suburban basements but when the English take to the table it’s transformed into Wimbledon. While this manner of speaking is great for elevating Krrb’s Ping Pong persona it is not essential. But at an art auction a British accent is almost a must. Either British or Southern (preferably Virginian)—either will work, it really depends on the situation. Art = British. Real Estate, farm animals, and oil subsidiaries = southern.
Back to the story at hand; I grabbed a seat with my wife and nervously toyed with my auction paddle. Sounds dirty, I know, but it’s a perfectly normal thing for bidders to do as you sit politely through all the items up for grabs that you don’t really care about, silently prepping yourself for what’s to come.
And then it happens, that one thing you’ve had your eye on the whole night is wheeled out and the auctioneer gives his description. In this case the item in question was a small mechanical bird perched atop a bundle of sticks resting on a bright green layer of Astroturf. If you found yourself close to the piece you would happily see that the bird cocked its head to the side to the delight of all passers-by. This subtle movement and the fact that my wife and I had recently been obsessively watching the entire Twin Peaks series cinched the deal. The Bird would be mine!
I settled into my metal folding chair and watched intently as paintings, photographs, and lesser sculptures were paraded across the front of the room. Being a younger buck than I am now the prices were a bit frightening: “Do I hear $200? We’ve got $200 here in the front, do I hear three? We’ve got three!” Yikes! I could barely pay rent but I was in. Just gimme that damn bird! I was like a man obsessed. My pupils dilated, a slight sweat formed on my brow, I had a severe case of tunnel vision.
As my bird was wheeled out my stomach swarmed with butterflies. My eyes darted back and forth as I feverishly tried to size up my competition. Those kids in the front row with ripped up jean jackets—no worries. The giggling middle-aged couple—whatever, they didn’t grasp the significance of MY BIRD. And then it began. “We’re going to start this amazing piece at $250,” the auctioneer bluntly stated. Crap, there went my budget. So what, I was all in. Much like Evel Knievel approaching a leap across a 3,000 foot expanse of nothingness, once you decide your going after something at an auction there’s no turning back—roof over your head be damned!
I held my paddle up. “$250, we’ve got $250, do I hear $300. We’ve got $300 in the back there. Do I hear $350.” Damn you dude in your black turtle neck! We all know you LOVE art but gimme a break, I NEED that bird but I also have to eat. “$350 there in the front, do I hear $500? And we’ve got $500, do I hear six? We’ve got six, can I hear $700.00?”
WHAT!?!? $700 American Dollars!?!? You only live once right? I held up my paddle. “We’ve got $700 here, let’s go people, this is an incredible, one of a kind piece. Have you not seen Twin Peaks?!? Can I get $900?” Guess my wife and I weren’t the only ones whose nights and weekends were consumed by David Lynch’s twisted vision because as soon as he said that a paddle went up seven chairs down from us. Really?
The field had swiftly been narrowing with each progressive bid. It was now down to me and an impeccably dressed gay couple. They stared me down. I could feel their eyes burning through my soul as the hundreds in the gallery watched for my response. “$1,000, do I hear $1,000?” Hear $1,000? I had heard of $1,000 dollars before but never seen it and I certainly didn’t have it but, the American economy is based on debt is it not? With my credit card safely hidden in my wallet I nervously raised my paddle. I heard a few gasps. I glared down the aisle at the couple, challenging them with my glare. I had won! Or so I thought.
“We’ve got $1,000, $1,000 right here in the front, $1,000 do I hear $1,050? $1,050?” What? No way. There was NO WAY they were going to go higher. Was there? There was. They triumphantly raised their paddle together, smugly letting a smile creep across their faces. “$1,100,” I blurted out, thrusting my paddle into the air. I was living on the edge. My heart raced. “$1,100! We’ve got $1,100! Can I hear $1,200? Can I hear $1,200? $1,100 going once, going twice.” And then from down the row, “$1,200.” Unbelievable. “$1,200, we’ve got $1,200. Going once. Going twice. $1,200! Sold to number 35, the couple in the front. Congratulations!”
Drenched in sweat, I hung my head and put my paddle down. My wife sheepishly glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. The Lynchian bird had escaped my grasp. I was saddened and exhausted, my pride wounded. But I had gone down fighting. And at least I would be eating and have a roof over my head for the foreseeable future. Though I had lost, in a greater sense I had won. I conquered my fear of auction failure. The next time out, I would win.