This morning, before the press preview of the 26 works expected to bring in some $10 million in the Artists For Haiti charity auction at Christie’s on Thursday, the assembled press waited in the foyer just beyond the entrance to the auction house. Flipping through the Raymond Pettibon-covered catalog, which includes works by Urs Fischer, Chuck Close, Neo Rauch and Luc Tuymans, the media representatives — mostly photographers — sat on red leather couches before giant videos of G.E. Smith of the Saturday Night Live Band hanging out with Richard Gere and playing his guitars (going to auction on Oct. 11 with 107 lots). Members of a Swedish TV crew stood near the entrance, fiddling with a boom mike with an unrecognizable logo.
“Ben!” said a press person with open arms, as Ben Stiller walked through the front door. Mr. Stiller greeted Chelsea art dealer David Zwirner, and he greeted Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of the Christie’s post-war and contemporary art department. He greeted representatives of charities in Haiti. Though there were only some 20 assembled people in total (there was another preview at the gallery earlier this month), it would be at least two minutes of greeting before he was even able to hand off his sunglasses to a woman trailing him, which he did as the group walked to the gallery off the main staircase.
In his welcoming remarks, Mr. Zwirner spoke of the trip he took to Haiti with Mr. Stiller shortly after the actor came to him with the idea for the auction, and thanked the participating artists and galleries, among them Acquavella, Gagosian and Hauser & Wirth.
“The dealers who represent these artists were equally generous, so I thank my colleagues,” Mr. Zwirner said. “It’s a very competitive field, and it’s a great experience to turn the in-fighting into a joint effort.”
After those welcoming words, Ms. Cappellazzo, Mr. Stiller and Mr. Zwirner took a stroll around the gallery as flashbulbs went off and the boom mike angled.
“By the way, that’s a bikini thong,” Mr. Stiller said, pausing at a crescent-shaped Jeff Koons silkscreen of a sunset. He explained that he’d met Mr. Koons at an event over a year ago and his was the first number he called when he had the idea for the auction. Mr Koons was instantly on board. “When I went to David and I said I got Jeff Koons, that really meant something to him, and I think it really kick-started the whole thing.
“So this thong is really meaningful to me,” he waved his hand over it to wrap up the speech, to laughter.
Mr. Stiller started his flirtation with the art world about a year ago, he told The Observer after the press event, and met Mr. Zwirner through Steve Martin. His interest in the Chelsea life sprang largely from friends like Owen Wilson who have already made their entrees to collecting. (Mr. Wilson apparently collects American contemporary work like Donald Judd). After securing the Koons, Mr. Zwirner made overtures to his artists and others, bringing Mr. Stiller with him on studio visits. The two stopped by Urs Fischer’s workspace in Red Hook together. “It was insane,” Ms Stiller said. “He gave me this crazy print of this he-she female guy I can’t even unroll because my children would freak out.”
“It’s not dirty, it’s just…” he trailed off. “Terrifying. In a fun way.”
Walking into the next room during the tour, Ms. Cappellazzo explained that not just up-and-coming artists were represented in the auction; plenty of the “old guard” was represented too. She led the pack to the Jasper Johns.
“This is a very classic work on Mylar, signature style, with the ink washed throughout the top,” she said. “For anyone who’s a sign-language aficionado, you will see that he spells his own name in sign language.”
“Can I just say something about Jasper Johns?” Mr. Stiller asked the assembled cluster, holding up his hands to stop the crawl. He pointed at the work. “Keep your eye on this guy.”
Mr. Johns is represented by Matthew Marks, who convinced the artist to join the cause.
“We’re just colleagues, Matthew and I,” Mr. Zwirner said. “We’re not friends. He doesn’t owe me a favor, so it was a very positive experience for him to say yes.”
Asked whether it was easier to go through galleries or artists for the auction, Mr. Zwirner said he found the artists to be easier, despite the fact that, unlike galleries, they cannot claim a tax deduction on anything besides the materials used in the work.
“It’s very hard for the artist to say no. One of the jobs of the galleries is to protect the artists,” he said. “Let me put it this way — quite often I got an initial ‘no’ and then asked for a second session where I got the ‘maybe’ and then the third where I got a ‘yes.’”
“I was sneaky,” he added. “I brought along a lot of photographs that we took down in Haiti.”
“We were way on-board before artists were committed,” Ms. Cappellazzo told The Observer. Christie’s has waved its fees and commissions for hosting the sale. “We were useful in suggesting what kinds of works would be the most commercial, helping to value them. We’re very involved in selling the sale, that is to say, reaching out to a lot of our clients who are interested in things here, who might not be David’s clients or other dealers’ clients. We know, for example, who buys Chris Ofili, who buys Rudi Stingel, because we sell them at auction.”
After the tour of the works and the end of a brief question session, Mr. Zwirner began to wander away, but Ms. Cappellazzo motioned him back with an arm swoop for a group photo in front of one of the works. A photographer poked his head out from behind his camera and recommended that they choose another piece, since the Dan Flavin — a diamond-shaped light installation — was so bright that it would have ruined any photos.
“Oh, not the Flavin — of course!” Mr. Cappellazzo said looking behind her as she waved the group to the right. “It wouldn’t become us!”
The works hit the block on Thursday evening at 7 p.m.