Earlier this year, a debate erupted over plans to take down the famous Picasso curtain that hung for decades at the Four Seasons restaurant off Park Avenue. Pitting Old New York money, the heiress to the Seagram fortune, against the brash real estate mogul and art collector Aby Rosen, who owns the Seagram Building, the fight, slugged out in the press and in courts, turned into one of the most spectacular and entertaining feuds in the New York art world.
Rosen’s critics feared that he would replace their beloved curtain with one of the artists he favors, like Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, whose 33-foot sculpture “The Virgin Mother,” a pregnant woman exposing her unborn fetus, had already offended the refined sensibilities of his neighbors on Long Island.
They could not have imagined that the very spot so grandly occupied by their precious Picasso would one day be taken up by nothing so blatantly commercial as a row of Birkin handbags.
But there they were Sunday night, glistening like talismans in their own mirrored displays and spotlight, nine Birkins lined up next to each other on a specially constructed set in front of the sacred wall. Picasso Alley had been replaced by Hermès Corridor.
Svetlana Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya, a Paris-based collector and the wife of the Russian billionaire Alexey Kuzmichev, convinced Koons to reimagine Birkins donated by well-known owners — Sofia Coppola, Marc Jacobs, Princess Caroline of Hanover, among others — to auction them off to raise money for her charity, Project Perpetual.
“She had this idea about Birkin bags, that a lot of people have these bags and it’s such a symbol of luxury, ‘Could we redirect that wealth towards charity?’” Koons said. “I wanted to make a symbol of charity.”
The artist didn’t just create individual pieces with the bags, each starting with bids of $25,000, but also created a sculpture featuring a child begging a woman for soup, his take on Picasso’s painting “La Soupe.” In Koons’ version, also up for auction, the woman is bearing three Birkin bags.
For her part, Kuzmicheva-Uspenskaya — who gave Koons her own Birkin, a gift from her husband, natch — couldn’t venture a guess as to what has made the Birkin such a sought-after status symbol.
“You always want the best if you have a chance to have the best. It’s like Leonardo DiCaprio was once asked why he’s dating [sic] models and he said, ‘Because I can,’” the young Russian said. “It’s the same with the bag. You get Birkin because you can.”
Koons, coming off his blockbuster retrospective at the Whitney Museum, had many of his fans filling out the Four Seasons’ Pool Room — the collectors Alberto Mugrabi, Maria and William Bell, Gael Neeson and Stefan Edlis as well as Coppola, Usher, Maxwell, Naomi Campbell, the artist Maurizio Cattelan and someone who anyone should have predicted would appreciate Koons’ sunny sculptures, Drew Barrymore.
“I often like hearts and flowers because they’re devoid of negativity or misconstrued insults. Jeff Koons’ artwork is very similar,” the actress chirped in her plucky singsong.
Looming large over the room was Koons’ pièce de résistance, the life-size “Gazing Ball (Charity).” When Mary J. Blige got up to perform “One,” it might have been the first time the queen of hip-hop soul was upstaged by an inanimate object.
The auction, which raised $5.5 million to benefit the United Nations Foundation’s Shot @ Life vaccine campaign, began with a bidding war between the art dealer Larry Gagosian, the photographer Todd Eberle and the Christie’s art expert Xin Li for a Kelly bag with Princess Grace’s likeness on it. Blige made her way out even before the gavel had come down on Li’s winning bid — $600,000.