Specialists David Norman and Stephane Connery take telephone bids for The Scream

NEW YORK - In my twenty-seven years at Sotheby’s, I can say that record-setting prices have always come with more than their fair share of fretting and eleventh-hour surprises.

In 1979, when I was still in college and switching from pre-med to art history, I was completely unaware of the fact that Sotheby’s had broken the mythic $1 million barrier (yes, $1 million – seems so quaint now).  The work was not by a European Impressionist or Modernist, but rather by Frederick Edwin Church, the American landscape painter.  It was a breathtaking scene of icebergs.  This luminous view of a frigid and barren seascape contained the broken mast of a ship – a seemingly incidental detail, which on reflection, spoke of tragedy and of man’s        precarious place in the world. As we sold Edvard Munch’s The Scream for a new world record, I couldn’t help seeing the connection between the two images of our fearful human state.

Frederic Edwin Church’s ‘The Icebergs’ courtesy of  Dallas Museum of Art, gift of Norma and Lamar Hunt 

In 1985, my first year at Sotheby’s, buried in the back of the library, occasionally being summoned to get carbon paper or leave a note for the overnight telex man, anticipation mounted for the first $10 million sale in history.  The work was Van Gogh’s Landscape with Rising Sun part of the Florence J. Gould auction of April 1985.  The work was listed as ‘estimate on request’ in the catalogue.  Today, a work expected to sell within the region of $10 million is almost commonplace and ‘estimate on request’ is only reserved for a painting that is expected to sell for over $50 million.

My job for that sale was to sit in a small dark room behind the screen at the front of the auction room and operate the slide carousel.  With each new lot, I would press the button on the projector to shine the next image up on the reverse of the screen.  Everyone was on the edge of their seats as the van Gogh climbed all the way to $9.9 million, but stopped just a hair’s breath away.  The landmark sum of $10 million was finally reached just a short while later with the sale to the J. Paul Getty Museum of Adoration of the Magi by the Old Master Andrea Mantegna. 

Just two years later, in 1987, van Gogh’s Sunflowers sold for $40 million at a sale in London, upending all notions about the price of a masterwork.  By 1990, on successive nights, a Renoir sold for $78 million and a van Gogh portrait of the famous Dr. Gachet for over $80 million (to the same Japanese buyer).  It became clear that a $100 million price was now within striking distance.

(left) Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Landscape with Rising Sun', (right) Vincent van Gogh’s portrait of Dr. Paul Gachet


Then came the crash.  The Japanese bidders withdrew from the market and it was a long time before we reached such dizzying heights again.  It took until 2004, when we secured a true masterpiece for sale; a work that we believed might finally reach  $100 million: Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe from the Whitney Collection.  We had often dreamed of having that Picasso, which was one of the last great 20th-century works still remaining in private hands.  With paintings of such high value, prospective bidders rarely show their full hands and make their intentions directly known.  Nothing is given and the result is never a certainty.

I showed the painting to a collector, whom I know well, about a month before the sale.  I was sure he would want it, yet after a moment with the work, he told me it was not for him.  I was crestfallen.  He came back and saw it on exhibition, and then later, in one of the more remarkable moments of my career, he called my office about twenty minutes before the start of the sale, and asked to see the work one more time.

We rushed the picture from its holding bin backstage and hung it in a small viewing room nearby.  The collector came in.  I was still trying to get my bowtie on (it was the last sale for which we dressed in black tie) and we sat before the work and talked about it.  We discussed the work’s emotive power, its place in the artist’s oeuvre, the impact living with it would have, its effect on the rest of his collection.  Art handlers waited outside the door with urgency as the sale time approached, but we talked as if we had all the time in the world.  We took our leave, and a few moments later a major art dealer told Sotheby’s that he would be bidding on the piece.  We knew it was for this collector.  He pursued the work, but finally lost it to another interested party.  He did, however, succeed in driving the price up to a record $104 million.

            Pablo Picasso's 'Boy with a Pipe'                                                                      

Fast forward to last week when Sotheby’s sold The Scream, one of the most recognized images in the story of art.  I described the pursuit of this work in my last blog post.  No work like this had ever turned the revolving easel to appear on the auction block.  Though the suggested value was $80 million, the auctioneer began the bidding at $40 million.  A first hand rose at $48 million and then hands began to fly up in every direction.  We always knew this was going to be about momentum – if the bidding started early and quickly, the price would rise and rise.  For this reason, we worked with the owner, who agreed to allow the bidding and the selling price to be set well below $80 million.  When many parties pursue a work, there are often waves of bidders.  The initial bidders, more often than not, drop out a good 30% below the final price.  The work climbed quickly to $60 and $70 million.

A few of my colleagues and I were on the phone, trying to get our bids in.  I shouted out what was, in retrospect, an excessively low bid of $53 million, but the action whizzed past me.  Many of those on the other end of our telephone lines were prepared to bid higher and higher, but the shouts and raised hands were everywhere, and it was hard to get the auctioneer’s attention.  Finally, the last two bidders jumped into the action.  Often the final bidders bide their time.  They listen until the action slows down and as if to dash the hopes of the others, they launch into their bidding very suddenly and unexpectedly.  These two bidders battled it out, raising the stakes to the final hammer price of $107 million ($120 million with buyer’s premium).

Normally, as the final bidders proceed, we all look on as if we were watching a tennis game, but in this one, the timing of the volleys was uneven.  One bidder, with my colleague Charlie Moffett, was making immediate returns, taking no time from one bid to the next.  The second bidder, with Stephane Connery, would wait until the last moment before bidding again.  From where I was standing, beside Stephane, I could hear him repeating, “Do you want to bid again? Are we bidding? The auctioneer is holding the gavel up and is ready to end it.” 

Auctioneer Tobias Meyer sells ‘The Scream’ 

As everyone watched him, auctioneer Tobias Meyer waited what seemed like ages for the next bid – we all sensed it was coming.  Stephane got the ok and threw his hand up again.  I know what it is like to bid very high for a collector.  Your heart beats fast.  You close out the sounds of the room around you.  You concentrate all your attention on the phone as you stare at the auctioneer, keeping his attention so he won’t bring the gavel down before you get the go-ahead to bid again.

The twelve minutes this took seemed like a lifetime.  When the painting finally sold for a record $120 million we were exhilarated and exhausted. After two years of on-again, off-again discussions with the seller, months in preparation, research and catalogue production, weeks of discussion with bidders, countless dinners, events and press interviews, it was suddenly all over, after just twelve minutes.

As is always the case in the auction business, we met at 9:30 the next morning to start all over again.