The Transom

Tracey Emin’s Return

Last week Monday, which was Halloween, Tracey Emin’s new drawings were already in place in her gallery, Lehmann Maupin. But her new neon work was still being manufactured, though the exhibition would open on Saturday night. One piece, Sleeping with You, was being modeled from a long, jagged line that she had drawn on the wall by hand, and would be revealed on Saturday as a saddening and pretty falling streak of white light.

In her second and most recent solo show in New York, just back in 2002, the neon was blue and had spelled out the words “People like you need to fuck people like me.”

Things were still being put into place on Monday morning, like a small, worn trolley cart filled with what looked like splintered lattice slats. Also, one unwitting preparator had moved a sculpture that morning, resulting in a bit of being yelled at by Ms. Emin. “I asked him if he knew exactly where it had been, and he didn’t,” she said later. “And neither did I.”

After that, her tall art dealer, David Maupin, peeled off a few hundred bucks in cash—some walking-around money—and sent Ms. Emin out to the black car waiting.

In the car, distressed, she talked on the phone. At the gallery, she had been exhausted, and eagle-eyed for any signs of things about to go wrong: with the day’s lunch, with the show itself, with anyone’s behavior—a hyper-vigilance for disaster. She wore sneakers and black pinstripe pants; a little sea-foam sweater over her low-riding black strap top; a big, beige, knee-length London-chichi veloury and furry coat; and a gold necklace and earrings.

She has a gorgeous, scrunchy face, eyelashes like a giraffe, and a famously harsh and fun Margate accent that has mellowed with time. She is famously fearsome, and has been engaged in a war with notoriety for much of the last decade—a war fought mostly with herself, and only then incidentally documented by the tabloids. Much of that war was also fought with chemicals and sex. In London, she has been, for most of the last eight or so years, treated (to make an American translation) as a cross between Paris Hilton and Elizabeth Taylor—a damaged goddess, drunk and disorderly, both scorn-worthy and a boldface name that moves papers. Her famous Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-95—believed to have been destroyed in the famous Saatchi warehouse fire in 2004—was a tent embroidered with names that met the title’s description, and was widely construed to be about penetration rather than what it actually was: a more domestic and straightforward use of the word “slept.”

The playwright Christopher Shinn once said something about why people think actors are crazy that applies to Ms. Emin as well: It’s because they openly face horror every day, and this disgusts and embarrasses people. Ms. Emin is also described by associates as a diva, and she said much the same thing herself, with a twist: “I am an icon for gay men,” she said.

Now, she is 42. (“But I’m all right,” she said.) She doesn’t smoke any more. Off and on—but seemingly mostly on these days—she doesn’t drink. She texts a lot. She doesn’t have blackouts on television programs and wander off-set. She sleeps only with her cat.

By 1 p.m., the car had gotten her uptown, to the converted mansion that is the Neue Galerie, where Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky have lent their collections of drawings by Egon Schiele for an exhibition.

In that show, packed among the overload of biographical information, there’s a copy of the last letter from Schiele’s wife, Edith. She died three days before he did, both so young, in an influenza epidemic. “I love you eternally,” Edith had scrawled, “and love you more and more immeasurably and boundlessly.”

Those could easily have been words from one of Ms. Emin’s drawings, which now circle the second room of Lehmann Maupin. Ms. Emin’s work in general is sometimes like a sewn or drawn record of the sort of words one might issue while dying, or perhaps what a Laura Palmer might scream on the side of an abandoned road while illuminated by motorcycle headlights: I LOVE YOU AAAGH I LOVE YOU DO YOU HATE ME? I LOVE YOU HEY I LOVE YOU DON’T YOU LOVE ME? BECAUSE I LOVE YOU GODDAMIT HELLO I LOVE YOU.

The Neue Galerie also has a Schiele death mask. “See, he was good-looking,” Ms. Emin said.

She read some wall text, which described how Schiele ditched his lover to marry better. “What a cunt,” she said. She walked off. “They were all selfish and chauvinist cunts then, weren’t they?”

Ms. Emin had eight solo exhibitions around the world last year. She used to make blankets—quilts, really, sometimes described as appliqué blankets. In her 1999 show at Lehmann Maupin, her first in New York, there was a blanket in which the largest text read “PSYCHO SLUT.” She can’t seem to make them right now, she said, because where she should see images, she sees only pounds and dollars. There’s a waiting list of collectors for these blankets—“10, maybe 15 people,” Ms. Emin said. “I know that doesn’t sound like much.” The list is actually a bit longer, and includes many museums. If any more blankets are made, they will probably fetch a price, give or take, of £100,000.

She made her rise fairly contemporaneously with the artist Damien Hirst, who once was notoriously constantly drunk, and is now 40 and has graying hair and two sons and lives on a farm, and who was the first living Briton to be paid one million pounds for a piece of art. While Mr. Hirst’s success, and that of many of the other Young British Artists who are decidedly Ms. Emin’s contemporaries, may have much to do with being purchased early and often by mega-collector Charles Saatchi, Ms. Emin said that she actually didn’t “allow him to buy my work until 1997.” Since the early 90’s, Mr. Saatchi was buying up much by the London artists—but Ms. Emin’s earnest work doesn’t really fit in with the heavy-on-the-irony shock-and-wow Saatchi context. Also, the vast amount of control his collecting has over an artist’s financial prospects was fearsome as well.

There was a Schiele drawing of a woman in perspective, from knee height, that Ms. Emin was incredibly taken with. And the fashion in some of the drawings—not the actual drawings made by Schiele for fashion purposes, but one depicting a girl in a swirly, poufy, stripey colored skirt turned up completely around the crucial regions—that she thought was balls-out gorgeous. “Imagine Marc Jacobs doing that,” she said. And the 1910 self-portraits: amazing. “Yeah, it’s brilliant,” she said.

Ms. Emin waited in line for a seat in the Café Sabarsky. In London, she never waits for anything. There, she’s recognized on the street more often than not. She’s used to it, and so what anyway? “But then David Bowie comes over on the Tube with a baseball hat on, so …. ” Still, being out of London is like an unnerving vacation. In the café, she ordered the goulash and a salad—and the spaetzle came with it, which was delicious. She was captivated by a number of women who were eating there alone, particularly a woman of possibly 60, who sat by the window, not reading her paper.

“The second one, I wasn’t happy about,” Ms. Emin said of her most previous New York show. “It was like getting married on your birthday.” It was the very first show in Lehmann Maupin’s then-new Rem Koolhaas–designed space, and surprises and uncertainty upset her. More and more friends would be arriving in New York for just the weekend as Saturday approached—which Ms. Emin didn’t understand, as she suffers from terrible jetlag. She said that although her primary market is in London, it’s important to show in New York—and she worries quite a bit about reviews, in part at least because it’s not good when word gets back to London that an artist has bombed in New York. This time, she took the installation so seriously that no collectors were allowed in for early peeks. It wouldn’t be until the Wednesday before the opening, after a week and a half of work, that proper appointments for collectors would be permitted.

In Ms. Emin’s new book, a really quite good memoir called Strangeland, she recounts an earlier trip to New York. “The last thing I remember is having mad sex on a pier looking out across the Hudson River as the bats flew above us, and little ships glided past like shooting stars. Woke up Sunday feeling great.”

This trip would clearly be different, although there were still parties every night. Tuesday would be something for Yves St. Laurent, and Wednesday was something about Elton John, and Thursday was a Fendi party, and Friday was some foundation party, and on “Monday I’m flying to L.A. to see the Rolling Stones.”

The café’s staff brought her some cake in a bag to take away. In the Neue Galerie’s gift shop, she looked at everything and bought a good book of Schiele drawings, and also a copy of Hermann Hesse’s Demian, which she gave to The Transom, though she said it didn’t need to be read, as it might not have held up, or just might not have been actually good, as she thought it had been when she read it many years ago. The introduction has an epigraph. It reads, “All I really wanted was to try and live the life that was spontaneously welling up within me. Why was that so very difficult?”

By 6 p.m. on Saturday night, half the work in the show would be sold; the least expensive drawing in the show is priced at £3,000. And by 7 p.m., Sting, looking healthy and as if his face had been buffed and waxed, would slide in. Trudie Styler, his wife, would walk as if she had something horribly wrong with her pelvis, as if terrible amounts of yoga had led her to a bad place. Vogue’s Hamish Bowles and Miami artist Naomi Fisher would smile, and Cecilia Dean, the Visionaire queen, would wear a severe black trench coat and extreme, barely-there shoes that none of the women present would be able to stop looking at. A limo would pull up out front and one blonde, two blondes, three blondes and a small boy-child would pop out. Ms. Emin would wear big oxblood or rust-colored boots with buckles on the side and a ruffley white top and look great and even just plain normal-nervous. In the back room of the gallery, a washy film would play, shot in Cyprus, of a dog at the seaside slowly, sadly licking its left rear leg and then shuffling off away from the beach. “To know your smile, the touch of your skin,” Ms. Emin’s scratchy writing flickering on the film would plead, “I love you.”

—Choire Sicha

#@!‡*% Puppies

Susan Stroman was thrilled to have completed her duties as director of the film version of The Producers just the day before, she said on Monday night, after a long year and a half’s work. “I can no longer change it,” she said, and laughed. “It’s done.”

The elegant ladies, who had gathered in the decadent Crystal Room at Tavern on the Green for a fête in honor of Ms. Stroman by Primary Stages, may have looked deceptively sweet in their brooches, shawls and pearls, but their tongues belied a darker wit.

“Who do you have to fuck to get out of this?” cracked a bawdy old lass as a photographer dallied too long in setting up a shot.

“I made chili for Elizabeth Taylor, you know,” said Diane Judge, a Broadway press agent for more than 40 years. “We were in France. And she couldn’t wear her engagement ring on the set, so she asked me to wear it. So there I was, making chili with this giant ring on, and her fucking puppies were jumping all over me.”

Fucking puppies! Nathan Lane honored Ms. Stroman, 51, in a heartfelt speech, his trademark showmanship and broad vowels front and center.

“You may not have noticed during dinner, but three people were mugged outside,” he said, gesturing to the wall of windows behind him, “and two waiters consummated their relationship.”

“Not funny!” barked Ms. Judge, though the rest of the room laughed. She was a little miffed from an earlier conversation with Mr. Lane.

“He’s a diva,” she said. “A diva! He was very dismissive of me.” She shook her head and took another sip of wine.

Mr. Lane was spotted draining his own glass after the festivities.

The Transom congratulated him on wrapping up The Producers. “Annnnnnnd?” he responded impatiently.

How had the evening gone? Had he enjoyed himself? “Yes.”

He thawed slightly when speaking of Ms. Stroman. “I love her,” he said. “I just think she’s so talented.” He then turned to reveal the back of his head, and took another sip of his wine.

—Nicole Pesce

The Safra Sale

At last week’s Sotheby’s auction of the Edmond and Lily Safra collection, Madison Avenue map dealer W. Graham Arader III introduced a new technique. Forget the lowly $1,000 and $10,000 bidding jumps—Mr. Arader, who sometimes buys for Bill Gates and was bidding by phone on a pair of Regency globes, ratcheted up his successive bids by $100,000 increments. The audience was aghast at his pricey bravado.

It used to be that antiques auctions were the musty dull cousins of the art world’s exciting to-dos. But with bidders like Mr. Arader, Sotheby’s cleaned up big time—to the tune of $48.9 million, in fact, with some items fetching 10 times their expected price. The auction has now gone down in history for the highest total ever achieved at a decorative-arts auction in Manhattan, and it may be just the beginning.

Of course, the Safra name comes laden with a considerable pedigree; the banking family’s roots stretch back to the Ottoman Empire. Sadly, they were, shall we say, extinguished when Edmond Safra was killed in an intentional blaze in his Monte Carlo digs back in 1999.

And Lily Safra hardly came to her taste from humble circumstances. Her father made a fortune in Brazil importing decrepit railway carriages and spiffing them up, and her choices in wealthy husbands outshines practically all others among the major leagues. Her second husband left her with £200 million, and Safra, her fourth, sold off his Republic Bank of N.Y. and Safra Republic Holding Co. for a staggering $9.6 billion just before his death. Now Ms. Safra is believed to be richer than the Queen of England.

When it came to household furnishings, Ms. Safra took to the task the way Imelda Marcus took to shoes. She and her husband shopped nonstop for antiques and objets d’art at the tonier dealers internationally and at auctions regularly. They had a lot to furnish, after all: multiple homes on the Riviera (it’s the former Agnelli estate called La Leopolda), London (she paid £23 million for an Eaton Square townhouse several years ago but now opts to reside in a Belgravia flat), Paris, Geneva and, of course, Manhattan.

They craved the ultimate luxury brands: André-Charles Boulle (ébéniste to Sun King Louis XIV) and Carl Fabergé (court jeweler to the Romanovs), among others. Provenance was the key to their shopping selections—if John Paul Getty had owned a particular piece, they threw it on the cart.

“Her taste is exquisite,” cooed Mario Tavella, Sotheby’s Europe deputy chairman, of the 68-year-old Ms. Safra, whose surgically tweaked appearance has been compared to that of “a lacquered china doll,” according to one London hostess.

But why was Ms. Safra ditching her hard-won antiques? “Since Edmond’s passing,” she herself wrote in the sale’s catalog, “I no longer have the time nor the scale of residences to enjoy our collection as I once did.” She described it as “a difficult decision.”

Mr. Tavella added another spin to her housecleaning. “She’s changing her style,” he said, noting that Giacometti’s spare cast-bronze furniture flecked with tiny birds and frogs are her latest taste.

And so, at the auction, dealers, designers, advisors and Russians practically clawed each over the Safra holdings: $4.7 million for a Louis XVI desk; $2 million for a Persian rug; $1.2 million for a pair of Chinese porcelain ewers.

When it comes to “smalls”—those lady-like accessories that the decorators adore for setting on round, skirted tables—Safra buyers really raised the price bar. Now, for a diminutive six-inch-high desk clock or an enamel cigarette box, prices climbed over a million dollars.

Even the Safra trinkets cost a fortune. A bonbonniere (a jeweled box for stashing chocolates) by Fabergé cost $307,200. It’s only 13¼8 inches high, in enameled oyster set with teeny-tiny diamonds, sapphires and the occasional ruby.

And the Safra sale is actually the pinnacle of a spate of billionaire shopping expeditions. At Brian and Anna Haughton’s 17th Annual International Fine Art and Antique Dealers Show vernissage on Oct. 20, heavyweight tycoons and their shopping wives turned out in droves.

Spotted shopping were Ms. Safra herself, as well as Julia and David Koch, Calvin Klein, Christine and Stephen Schwartzman, and the boutique investment banker Roberto de Guardiola and his wife, the interior designer Joanne de Guardiola, who was bedecked in a cunning chinchilla shrug.

The de Guardiolas undoubtedly need some housewares, as they just sold their townhouse on East 64th Street for a cool $30 million and snared five apartments—pretty much an entire floor—in the Sherry Netherland Hotel.

On the fair floor, the London-based Ronald Phillips Ltd. touted an elaborate console with an eagle pedestal in the manner of William Kent, and closely related to one in the State Drawing Room of Chatsworth. Its price tag—in the region of a cool million—didn’t faze a New York client; in fact, it’s now out on approval. Jeremy Garfield Davies of Ronald Phillips believes that shoppers are drawn to powerhouse provenance. “Today’s modern counterparts to the young Duke of Newcastle, who commissioned these tables, certainly must experience the same challenges, aspirations and triumphs in building their similarly influential and powerful careers and great houses,” he said.

Plus, the tables still bore their original gild; that’s like catnip for antiques fanciers.

And over at the American Hospital in Paris designer showhouse, the excessive look is front and center. Manhattan designer Charlotte Moss created the latest spin on the 19th-century men’s retreat billiard room. Billiard chairs, horned sconces, and antlers filled the room, which Ms. Moss estimated cost $1.5 million for the trimmings. “There’s a high demand for opulence, and the luxury market couldn’t be stronger,” she said.

How true! Check around town: Dealer Tony Ingrao just packed up a pair of George III giltwood mirrors for a seven-figure price. The 1760 mirrors had all the right bells and whistles, and were from an important country house—that of Sir Arthur Cory-Wright, Ayot Place, Welwyn, Hertfordshire—and had been hawked by mega-dealer Charles Duveen back in 1920.

“They went to a Palm Beach collector,” said Mr. Ingrao. “People in Palm Beach want beautiful things in the same way that they did when their grand mansions were built in the 20’s. It’s all happening again down there.”

To keep such buyers happy, Mr. Ingrao has stocked his establishment with a bevy of million-dollar antiques, including a library table identical to one made for the English Treasury, as well as dining chairs circa 1755 by John Cobb, the queen’s cabinetmaker.

Those hyper-priced antiques are the talk of the town. Socialite-watcher and publicist R. Couri Hay dubs them “the new boy toys.” Still, what’s fueling such sales? Aren’t these supposed to be dire times?

Europe’s biggest bank, UBS, just reported a stunning 71 percent hike in its third-quarter profits. They attribute it to the blazing boom in oil-related wealth in the Middle East—and those oil riches could zoom even higher. Closer to home, Merrill Lynch is barreling forward with a 49 percent increase in earnings—and Apple’s profits quadrupled.

Still, why antiques? It’s almost a why-not—“Once you’ve got your Mercedes and a Rolex or two,” said Bob Israel of the Kentshire Galleries, “then it’s onto antiques.” Edward S. Cooke Jr., the art-history chair at Yale University, noted in an e-mail of the Safra sale in particular: “It sounds like this sale is a little more driven by spectacle—the fascination with celebrities, especially those whose end was mysterious—than by the consumer hedonism of the 1980s ‘Bobos in Paradise.’”

Just in time for Christmas shopping, on Dec. 14 and 15, Christie’s London is hawking the famed Nathan Wildenstein collection—he was shopkeeper to Henry Clay Frick, Sir Richard Wallace and Calouste Gulbenkian—which is filled with $1-million-plus (estimated) bureau plats. That auction is expected to fetch a cool $25 million—but with so many multimillionaires competing for de rigueur antiques, the Christie’s sale may rival even the Safra madness.

—Brook S. Mason The Transom