Helena Newman was clearly nervous last night as she began the Evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby's. A seasoned auctioneer and art market professional, Newman's demeanor in the box is usually more commanding and operatic. The immediate question forming in viewer's minds was whether Newman had a tell. Eighteen lots later, it appeared that she did. The Evening's focal point lot, Modigliani's Nu Couché sold to its guarantor for $157m or a price within 8% of the record set by Liu Yiqian two and half years ago for another Modigliani nude.
Throughout the run-up to the sale and during its immediate aftermath, it has been easy to find any number of opinions on the sale and whether the painting would or should get a bid in advance of the pre-determined one Sotheby's had arranged.
Because it seems to matter, we can add to that debate a question—heightened in this era of extensive or pervasive Irrevocable Bids and third-party guarantees—about whether the atmospherics of the auction room with its frisson of drama and voyeurism matter to bidders, the majority of whom participate by hearsay clutching a phone and listening to a play-by-play narration from their representative.
As far as the lot of the evening goes, there was clearly some confusion about who would bid and how much. It is worth noting that the scene at Sotheby's was nearly identical to last week's scene at Christie's when auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen stood at the podium eyeing a specialist during the crying of the top lot from the Rockefeller sale.
Both Pylkkanen and Newman, with so much riding on their respective transactions were tense (though with Pylkkanen's armor of insouciance it is harder to see when he is perturbed.) Both lost some patience waiting for an expected bid that never materialized finally calling out the specialist's name in the vain hope a bid would materialize.
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