A spring deluge is apparently no match for a collector of postwar and contemporary art. It is 10 a.m. on a Thursday, and it’s standing-room-only at Christie’s First Open auction in Manhattan. The sale is known for its more “accessible” lots: works that aren’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination, but are available at price points not generally seen at this address. Throughout the room potential buyers are kicking sodden umbrellas aside or gently flattening damp tresses with swift hands, careful not to accidentally signal the auctioneer. The men tend toward well-tailored suits, crisp and prim in toothsome houndstooth checks or solid tones of navy, black and gray. Some answer their phones quietly, and some speak in foreign accents.
“$61,500!” offers a young man standing toward the back of the room. He is clad in jeans and a leather jacket, and is bidding on a solvent transfer and fabric collage by Robert Rauschenberg.
This story first appeared in the April 8, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“6-1-5? Wrong house, sir…” The auctioneer’s laugh is gentle, but not kind. This is the 245-year-old grand dame of the auction world, and they have set the bid increase on this piece at $5,000. This is not an offer-what-you-feel-like establishment.
“We don’t take IOUs either,” the auctioneer jokes, before explaining, “We’ll take 6-5.” She pauses, looking directly at him.
“6-3?” The young man asks, as a scruffily bearded cohort smiles into his paper cup of coffee.
“Not 6-3 and not 6-4,” the auctioneer laughs again, and begins scanning the rest of the crowd, the staff working the telephones and her colleague manning the Christie’s LIVE Internet bidders. So warned, the man in jeans ponies up the $65,000 (not including buyer’s premium), and the Rauschenberg is his. A jokey fist-pump, an approving grin from his friend and it’s on to the next piece, an untitled Ray Johnson cardboard creation that depicts a large spoon with the Lucky Strike logo slapped across it.
As the bid enters the ledger, one of the several attractive young women manning the telephones smiles to herself. She is wearing a teal shift dress, and her energetic demeanor, more cheerleader than art expert, makes her fellow Christie’s employees seem muted. Her name is Sara Friedlander, and one could argue that this young collector — and the large contingent of his 40-and-under cohorts in the room — are here because of her.
Friedlander, 27, was promoted to head of the First Open in January. Her expertise lies in post-Sixties American paintings and photography, with an emphasis on work by female artists. She almost vibrates when she talks about works she likes, and she’s prone to wild gestures and wide grins. The house has tapped her, along with her co-worker, Max Carter — a 24-year-old associate specialist for Impressionist and Modern Art (and son of Vanity Fair’s Graydon) — to help lead its recent efforts to attract a more youthful clientele, an initiative that recently has moved Christie’s a bit out of its comfort zone. On March 7, for example, it held a cocktail event in honor of the First Open based around performance artist Kalup Linzy, the first event of its kind for the auction house. In February, it co-hosted a cocktail party with Gucci, previewing some of the lots from the First Open. A few small works were actually inside the display cases at the Italian fashion giant’s Madison Avenue boutique. (“If you’ll spend $5,000 on a handbag,” Friedlander told WWD in the run-up to the First Open, “why not spend it on a painting?”)
And, last week, Christie’s and Vogue teamed for “Runway to Green,” a black-tie event for the cocktail-swilling environmentally aware smart set that boasted a live auction (emceed by Seth Meyers), a runway show (featuring looks from Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs, Thakoon, Jason Wu and others) and a performance by the not-exactly-conservative rapper Nicki Minaj -— complete with gravity-defying green-and-yellow-highlighter-hued bouffant. The red carpet outside 20 Rockefeller Plaza was lined with a wall-size green hedge, in front of which luminaries from the art, fashion and social realms posed for photographers alongside Hollywood starlets.
Christie’s is making a statement, loud and clear: We are not your grandfather’s auction house.
The effort, at least for now, seems to be working. The March 10 auction exceeded its estimate by $2 million, and its ultimate tally of $10.3 million makes it the highest grossing First Open sale since the pre-recession days of March 2007.
“The average age of a patron of the Met has gone down to 58,” says Carter. “They are so incredibly excited by that, because it’s under 60 for once. We’re not quite as bad as that at Christie’s, but when we have major collectors in their mid- to late 30s, we’re pretty pleased about it.”
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On a private tour of the catacomblike underbelly of Christie’s during the week leading up to the sale, Friedlander is hands-on. “Touch it,” she grins, offering up a painting. “Feel the texture [of the paint]. And look at the back of the frame: Sometimes, the back of the frame is my favorite part, because most people never get to see it.”
Carter surveys a recent Dali acquisition with a black light. “This is what you want to see,” he says of the unmarred canvas, his teeth and eyes illuminated in the blackness like a Halloween decoration. “This is good news.”
Walking among stacks of framed works waiting to be hung, Friedlander enthuses over some and rolls her eyes at others. “With this one,” she shrugs, gesturing at a painting, a splash of colorful pigments and not much else, “you’ve seen one, you’ve kinda seen them all. Not my favorite. But some people’s.
“The First Open used to be a dumping ground, really, the cheaper lots, the sh-t nobody cared about,” Friedlander explains. “We’ve changed all that.”
A wall-size Roy Lichtenstein felt banner depicts a pistol with a disembodied hand wrapped around it, pointed straight at the viewer. “This is from 1964, it’s one of 20,” says Friedlander as she unfurls it and encourages all present to stroke the felt. “It’s the coolest. I’m obsessed with it.”
It is doubtful that most of Christie’s esteemed and established staff use words like “psyched,” “obsessed” or “sh-t” with any regularity when they speak with the press, but Carter and Friedlander make no bones about their youth and their vigor. Yet Christie’s is not the only institution courting the youth vote. Phillips de Pury, another auction house giant, had Simon de Pury appearing as a mentor to reality TV contestants on Bravo’s “Work of Art,” as well as the dandy-ish Alexander Gilkes as a draw for youthful collectors. Then there’s Exhibition A, a members-only Web site recently launched by Cynthia Rowley and Bill Powers, which has made an effort to make collectible art (the site boasts signed and numbered prints from artists like Richard Phillips, Nate Lowman, Terence Koh, David LaChapelle and Rene Ricard) available at lower prices.
“I love that Christie’s had Kalup [Linzy] perform. Art seems like this rarefied world, like you have to be a jet-setter or a high roller to participate,” says Rowley. “Efforts like that, with Christie’s and Kalup, or ours, to give younger people a way to be fully involved and learning about the artists and to start collecting now are genius. Get them while they’re young. If you can buy a Ryan McGinley photograph now for $5,000, you will probably be buying a John Currin painting for millions of dollars later in life. Art gets in your blood, you get passionate about it.”
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At Christie’s on the day before the First Open, Friedlander is lounging on one of four brightly colored Franz West chairs (that eventually sold for $25,000) in the midst of a gallery she has set up.
“I’m interested in educating a public who might not necessarily be in tune with the art market,” she explains. Works are available for viewing a day or two before they hit the auction block, and this is Friedlander’s first experience hanging so many. The lots have been shown salon-style, without their identifiers, and the result feels as if one is in the middle of a well-curated private collection instead of a sale.
“I put all the lot cards on at first, and it just looked like sh-t,” she laughs, “So, no lot cards, which is causing quite a stir.”
Both Carter and Friedlander use the word “intimidating” several times in describing the amount of responsibility they’ve been vested with. It is, of course, a business made of aged experts and their (typically) equally aged patron-peers.
“Your head is spinning for the first few months working here,” Carter explains. “But in a good way: It’s baptism by fire, and the challenge is good. You never want it to be normal. You always want to be challenged by new things, seeing new things.”
Friedlander agrees: “When I first came here, I was quite intimidated. The world’s leading auction business is a bit of a powerhouse!”
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Friedlander frequently references the cover lot of the First Open’s catalogue, whether to discuss its frame or its historical importance. “It’s my favorite piece in this sale,” she says, “the Jean Dubuffet [estimated at $300,000-$400,000, it sold for $698,500]. It’s from 1961, he’d just left the countryside and returned to Paris.…The title is ‘L’Erratique,’ or ‘The Erratic One,’ which I have to say I think is emblematic of me — with this sale and trying to shake things up a bit.
“It’s a labor of love,” she says. “Of course it’s hard to put yourself on the line. But it’s so exciting.”
Friedlander and Carter repeatedly go out of their way to emphasize the accessibility of Christie’s, and thus their devotion to the house. “You can find out anything you want about any picture,” Friedlander promises on multiple occasions. “I’m here for that. This is my entire life.”
Carter strikes a similar chord.
“I’ve become a very strange dinner guest, I realize,” he says. “I’m always noting people’s art and making these quick mental appraisals. You can’t exactly march up to someone’s painting and write down the information when you’re in their home. You’ve got to get good at the quick mental notes. But it’s my life. And I got that Dubuffet for the First Open, didn’t I?”