This might seem absolutely ridiculous but I admit it, the one thing that has been nagging my curiosity for the past four or five years – ever since I got serious about this art “stuff” – is what the hell the auctioneer’s book looks like on the inside. That little black book that is printed an hour before the auction begins and is meant for the for the eyes of the auctioneer only and a couple of other top gear, auction house employees. So many people wish they could get their hands on it to see how many bidders have pre-bided on a lot (absentee bids), who is consigning the work (we all like a little gossip here and there), and names, newly scribbled bids and the amount of eager telephone bidders that want each lot.
If you’re still lost let me put it in simpler terms: it’s physically a book whose pages the auctioneer skims and doodles on as the auction progresses. Are we on the same page now?
Today after years of waiting, asking around, plotting and scheming I finally got a glimpse of the Holy Grail. And when I say a glimpse, I mean I was at a lecture given by the Head of Bids from Sotheby’s London and he showed a page from an old auctioneer book… it was glorious, glorious I tell you!
You see, sales are almost preordained by the man standing on the podium with the hammer. He knows (roughly) how the night is going to play out and he masterfully entertains an anxious auction room, raising people’s blood pressure, making them sweat bullets, and throwing in a joke here and there. Every ‘cheat-sheet’ is carefully printed and color-coded on a half sheet of A4 paper (two lots per page) that he quickly skims before he shakes the auction crowd at his will. For an hour or two he is God; he is a joker; he is the master puppeteer.
Okay I might have exaggerated a bit but you get the gist.
Just in case you ever happen to stumble upon the Holy Grail (at least the Sotheby’s one because Christie’s might be different) this is how you must interpret it. It’s color-coded remember? Pay close attention because nothing is labeled, everything is just scattered on the paper. It’s a crazy world out there.
Anything in RED is the reserve – meaning the lowest price the auctioneer can actually sell the work for and it’s not necessarily the lowest estimate! (gossip hint – why is the consigner willing to sell it for less? Did his wife catch him with his mistress in Barbados and now he’s paying a hefty divorce? Is he one of those ponzi schemers with debt?).
Getting back on track, anything in BLUE are the commission or absentee bids which are bids that have already been placed because the bidders aren’t present. This shows how much interest there is on a certain lot and what people are already willing to pay before the work actually goes up to the chopping block.
Moving on, anything in GREEN are silly announcements (if any) that must be made before the bidding starts – you know, just in case you as a buyer want to sue the auction house later because the painting you bought turned out to be two meters larger than it was advertised on the catalogue and it doesn’t fit on your wall – they can say they told you so.
Finally there’s plain, old BLACK for the consignor’s name and the magical symbol T (#) that stands for ‘telephone’ and X number inside the parenthesis indicating how many eager buyers that were too busy jet-setting and weren’t able to make it to the sale but are there in spirit, are waiting by the phone, Black American Express in hand, ready to go to battle for their work.
The rest of the paper is the auctioneer’s doodle pad; the coolest, most Top Secret doodle pad in the world; the doodle pad that I saw!
I can’t take you further than this, dear readers. It is up to you to use the wisdom I have bestowed upon you and decipher the hell out of the Holy Grail if you ever come upon it. May the force be with you!
**IMG: Warhol “Dollar Sign” 1982. Image courtesy of andywarhol.net