Checking Out the Action at the Auction House
- Published on Wednesday, 16 May 2012 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
It’s Amazing the Crap
People Will Buy – Twice
Where else can you find a genuine Botero hanging right next to a dogs-playing-pool painting?
I happen to live just a few blocks away from Paris’s main auction house, Salle Drouot, and I like to drop in once in a while to see what’s on sale. Admission is free, and with all the diverse and sundry stuff on view it’s like visiting either the world’s most luxurious flea market or the world’s motliest museum.
On most days there are a half-dozen auctions and another half-dozen rooms where you can peruse the goods to be offered in upcoming auctions. On my most recent visit, there was a room full of jewelry:
17, 28, 55, 69... If they were prices instead of lot numbers, some of these baubles would be in my price range.
...a room full of books:
Just a bunch of old books. But take a closer look at that tome in the upper right...
Published in 1739, it contains a treatise on “astrologie judiciaire” – “legal astrology.” Must have been the 18th-century equivalent of DNA testing.
...a room full (and I mean full) of Oriental rugs:
Can you believe it? They wouldn’t let me in just because I was carrying a large takeout coffee and having a sneezing fit. Go figure.
...and a couple of estate sales whose inventory could only be described as “miscellaneous”:
Right next to these slobber-stained teddy bears was a batch of sorry “Surrealist” paintings...
Lot number 143: an ounce of skill, a gram of imagination, and a metric ton of admiration for Salvador Dalí.
The crowd at Drouot – and it’s always crowded – is every bit as miscellaneous as the merchandise, but essentially it breaks down into three groups of approximately equal size. First there are the gawkers, like me, who are there merely to see what there is to see. Then there are the collectors and bargain hunters who come to bid at the auctions.
And the third group is the professionals, the dealers in antiques, collectibles, objets d’art and art, who are there to get their hands on underpriced items that they can resell for a profit. Naturally, these people approach the whole experience differently. For them, time is money. Although judging from the way some of them behave, time must also be food, sex and possibly air.
I wouldn’t call them rude. I would call them rude merdeheaded jerks who can kiss my asking price.
I’ve been going to Salle Drouot off and on for more than 20 years, and there are always a few pros who seem to resent the fact that the place is open to the public. They are not shy about shoving people out of their way to get into a crowded auction room. Or hurling insults at anyone who has the audacity to complain about their audacity.
Exacerbating this situation, Salle Drouot has the narrowest escalators in town. They’re only wide enough for one non-Boteroesque person per step, and yet some of the serious auction-goers somehow manage to run up and down, plowing through the throng like a bull in a china shop. Or a jerk in an auction house.
After nosing around, and getting professionally elbowed, for half an hour, I decided to stay put for a while and watch an auction in progress. The one I picked was selling off the resalable chattels of a branch of a prominent family of French industrialists.
Judging from the fact that their artworks, furniture, silver, crystal, clocks and keepsakes were on sale in an auction house, I would have to guess that the family members who owned the stuff are now deceased. And judging from some of the artworks, I would have to guess that at least one of them died of bad taste.
Most of the paintings were actually quite good, although not outstanding, and sold for around €200 apiece. But it seemed that as soon as a truly heinous waste of canvas came up for sale, the bidding went through the roof.
This painting was offered at €50 and sold for €800:
I don’t know which is worse: the painting itself or this photo of it from Drouot’s online catalogue.
This indifferent vase of flowers sold for €3,000, up from the starting price of €100:
It has a kind of Matisse-y quality, I guess, but I didn’t see what the fuss was about.
But the painting that I would have nominated for the Stomach Turner Prize fetched the highest price of all, selling for €6,000. Here it is on the Salle Drouot Web site:
Suggestion for the Drouot “To-Do List”: find someone who knows how to use a camera.
If that grotesquerie had been hanging in my house when I was a child, I would still be in therapy. And this was not the only disquieting item in the sale. There were hundred of lots, comprising thousands of pieces, some of which were, to put it diplomatically, pretty freaking weird.
Three of them in particular caught my eye, starting with this paragon of fine traditional craftsmanship:
Let’s be generous and call it a “decorative piece.”
And the osseous relics on offer extended beyond the bovine family. In a display case nearby was this precious curio:
As Jack Kerouac would have said, looks like a hip joint.
Wouldn’t that make a nice paperweight? Or bludgeon?
But strangest of all was this – and I choose the term carefully – thing:
I hope it’s a carrying case, but it sure looks like a burying case.
This raises several questions:
What exactly happened to little Daphné?
Was that hip bone hers?
Is the rest of her still in there?
I never did find out the whole story – before the Daphné casket came under the gavel, I had had enough of the close air, close quarters and close calls with pitiless pros and decided to get out of there.
I came away empty-handed, but with a full wallet. And a new understanding of the expression “skeletons in the closet.”
Note: In a bald-faced violation of C’est Ironique policy, here is some actual useful information: Salle Drouot is located at 9, rue Drouot in the 9th arrondissement, Métro Richelieu-Drouot, and is open Monday through Saturday, 11am to 6pm. Most of the auctions start at 2pm.
Follow C’est Ironique on Facebook
Click here for more C’est Ironique! columns.
© 2012 Paris Update