Secret Bidder at Christie’s

Secret Bidder

New collectors flush with new money, a resurgent art market–whatever the reasons that an auction by Christie’s of contemporary art on May 19 racked up a dizzying $9.5 million and set records for 11 artists, speculation just won’t quit that the auction house’s new owner, French billionaire François Pinault, contributed to the event’s success by fueling some of the feverish bidding that took place at Christie’s in its swank new Rockefeller Center digs.

Just two days after the auction, art-world denizens were buzzing about an on-line description of the sale by the writer Andrew Decker that appeared on Artnet.com. Mr. Decker’s story recounted how, during the auction, Christie’s contemporary art specialist Philippe Ségalot was having trouble with one of the phones that connected him to a bidder. In the third paragraph of the story, readers were offered a prompt: “[for a darker take on this story, click here]”. Those who clicked arrived at a sidebar which reported that according to “a reliable source,” the person on the other end of Mr. Ségalot’s phone was Mr. Pinault, who purchased Christie’s last June for approximately $1.2 billion and took it private.

According to Mr. Decker’s column, Mr. Pinault was the winning bidder on Robert Gober’s Untitled (Leg With Candle) , which went for $794,500, essentially twice the presale estimate of $300,000 to $400,000 and a record for the artist; Charles Ray’s Ink Drawing for $376,500; and Agnes Martin’s Kali for $217,000. And then, according to Mr. Decker, Mr. Pinault changed bidding representatives, “going from Ségalot to Dominique Levy.… She used bidder number 1726, which until then had been Ségalot’s.” Mr. Decker noted that this could be interpreted two ways. Either “Ségalot’s phone went wacky,” Mr. Decker wrote, or there’s the “skeptical version,” which “is that Pinault was trying to hide his participation in the auction.”

According to Mr. Decker, Mr. Pinault was also the underbidder on a Jeff Koons sculpture that ended up selling to art dealer Anthony d’Offay for $409,500, a record for the artist. Mr. Decker estimated that Mr. Pinault’s participation in the bidding added at least $70,000 to the price of the artwork. (Mr. Decker was not the only one to hint at Mr. Pinault’s involvement. New York Times art reporter Carol Vogel noted that during the sale of the Gober sculpture, “Mr. Ségalot was seen looking up at a sky box where François Pinault, owner of Christie’s, was sitting. Many people in the audience said after the sale that they could see the two speaking.” Referring to the sale of the Ray piece later in her story, Ms. Vogel wrote that Ink Drawing was “bought by Mr. Ségalot, believed to be bidding on the phone again for Mr. Pinault.”)

Christie’s spokesman Andrée Corroon would neither confirm nor deny Mr. Pinault’s involvement in the auction. She said that “unless a client comes forward” on his or her own, “we never comment on who buys or who bids on our sales. That’s Christie’s policy.” She also said that “there’s no way that anyone can tell who’s on the phone with our specialists.”

If Mr. Pinault did bid in the May 19 auction, he apparently did nothing wrong. Although auction house employees are governed by a set of restrictions that limit their ability to bid on items offered by their own houses, auction house owners are permitted to bid. Indeed, most art-world sources contacted by The Transom indicated that A. Alfred Taubman, the owner of Sotheby’s, also bids in his house’s auctions. A spokesman for Sotheby’s, Diana Phillips, said that Mr. Taubman “happily bids at Sotheby’s but does not have any information, such as reserves, that is not available to all bidders.” Moreover, Mr. Pinault, who is a serious collector of modern and contemporary art, was a longtime Christie’s client before he bought the auction house.

Yet those who were talking about Mr. Decker’s story, including one of the underbidders at the May 19 auction, said that the prospect of Mr. Pinault’s involvement in the auction could create the perception that he was helping to create some heat for his investment and for the auction house’s relatively new contemporary division. “It was all done fair and square. I just think it’s more scary from the point of view of the market. That it inflates things beyond what’s real,” the underbidder, who requested anonymity, told The Transom.

Ms. Corroon noted, however, that Christie’s has had “a number of successful sales of contemporary art for the past three or four seasons. This is nothing new.”

Other participants in the May 19 auction seemed to care little about whether Mr. Pinault was bidding. Said art dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes: “So long as they’re bidding in line with the rules of the Department of Consumer Affairs and with the auction house’s house rules, I don’t think it’s anybody’s business, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it.”

Mudd in Your Eye

On May 17, former Mudd Club owner Steve Mass arrived at Bowery Bar in a coffin to tell his old friends that he was still alive.

“I thought you’d died!” art gallery owner Tony Shafrazi had told Mr. Mass a couple of days before the party. In reality, Mr. Mass had closed the Mudd Club, the anti-Studio 54 located in a loft on White Street in TriBeCa, in 1984. He’d had a skirmish with the I.R.S. (“Nowhere as bad as Steve Rubell had it,” he assured The Transom.) He’d opened and closed a French restaurant. Ultimately, he began teaching art to inner-city school kids. The evening’s event was doubling as a P.R.-generator for Kings Court, an urban art program with which Mr. Mass is involved.

While a funeral dirge played, the closed casket was laid on a table. Performance artist Jon Flynn, in white pancake makeup, made the mistake of asking the crowd to hum together in order to rouse Mr. Mass’ corpse. Actor Billy Zane, in sunglasses, stood in back and merely smiled. Victoria’s Secret model Frederique Van Der Wal smoked in a nearby booth.

A few people hummed, among them old Mudd Club scenesters like Mr. Shafrazi, actress Debi Mazur and conceptual artist Dennis Oppenheim.

The anemic buzz suggested that reanimating Mr. Mass was not a high priority.

“No, it’s not good enough for Steve Mass!” implored Mr. Flynn, raising his hands in the air. More lame humming.

“Higher! Oh, that’s pathetic . Think of your muesli!”

Amid some impatient chattering, Mr. Mass hoisted himself out of the casket. He fell off the lip of the coffin and down into the booth’s banquette with a thud. A pair of tortoise shell glasses sat askew on his bald head. He looked more like an accountant than Lazarus.

“Now let’s get down and par -tay! ” shouted Mr. Mass, self-consciously.

At the back of the bar, one of Mr. Mass’ “pallbearers,” an artist named Douglas Kelly, was standing in front of a projector screen, watching a slide show of old Mudd Club days. He was looking for pictures of himself. Just then, the slide carousel clicked and Mr. Kelly pointed excitedly at the image of two women sitting next to one another on commodes.

“Oh, there’s Cookie Muller. A very famous picture by Nan Goldin of this period. Dead of AIIIIIDS . Sitting on the can there and stuff.” (Mr. Kelly has the Warholian habit of drawing certain one syllable words into four. He terminates most phrases with “and stuff.”)

The projector clicked. A woman dancing. “Hey, it’s Mary Boooone , when she was really yuuuung . The art dealer. The gallery has never quite recovered from working through all of [Julian] Schnabel’s characters and stuff.”

The projector clicked. “This is Stiiiiing, before he had Trudie Styler. But he looks good there. I had a band then and stuff.”

A young woman came over and told Mr. Kelly his big head was blocking the slide show.

“[Brian] Eno designed the sound system for the club,” said Mr. Kelly, “but it blew up every time they turned it on and stuff. He and Steve used to live together on Eighth Street but they were asked to leave because Eno brought so many women home, they thought it was a braaaaawthel . It made Steve jealous, because he never got anything.”

“I used to wear a lot of makeup,” Mr. Kelly said. “We were new romantics. I’m not wearing any makeup tonight, and I look like shit.

“You know who looks good though? Glenn O’Brien.” Mr. Kelly pointed across the room at Mr. O’Brien, the old Warhol cohort, who now runs a New York advertising agency. “He’s five years older than me and he looks fucking fantastic. Has he had a face lift?”

–Andrew Goldman

The Transom Also Hears

… Veronica Hearst is what you might call a full-service socialite. At the Americans for the Arts National Arts Awards Gala at the New York State Theater on May 24, Mrs. Hearst, who was the chair of the gala, not only gave a warm welcome to society doyenne Brooke Astor, who was the recipient of the night’s philanthropy award, but also spent several seconds replacing every errant strand of Mrs. Astor’s already orderly coiffure. By the way, when The Transom asked Mrs. Astor if she thought Hillary Clinton, who presented another award that night, should make a Senate run, she gave a faint smile and said: “I really don’t know.”

… This is what they call an all-star jam in Las Vegas. On May 22, a group of heavies including Barbara and Marvin Davis (he in his custom-made traveling throne), along with hotelier Jon Tisch and his movie producer brother Steve Tisch, got to catch Hootie & the Blowfish and rappers Coolio and Wyclef Jean joining Wayne Newton on a cover of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me.” Kitsch then gave way to irony, when, after Mr. Newton left the stage, the remaining members performed Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” for the group of powerful white men.

Secret Bidder at Christie’s