With a swift tongue and ready hammer, auctioneer Andrea Fiuczynski whips the bidding to a climactic close. "Do I hear 195, yes, 195, 195, 195. Do I hear 200? 195, going once, going twice, gone for 195 Elmer Bischoff's 'Woman With Yellow Flowers,' thank you."
Here at Christie's, one of the world's top auction houses, this painting by a California Impressionist created quite a stir recently when it sold for $195,000, almost double the estimate in the catalog. In so doing, it underscored what art-world afficionados say is one of the central functions of many auctions today - to create drama around a work of art and invite a compelling interest distinct from what occurs in an art gallery or museum.
(Who, for instance, wouldn't be just a tad curious to see a painting that sold for $82.5 million, as Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" did in 1990?)
This power to put a spotlight (and a price) on culture is fueling a new discussion among art professionals about the role of auctions in the art world and their ability to create public awareness or understanding of art. Interviews with experts at auction houses, museum directors, gallery owners, and art dealers show that while some traditions remain constant, this venerable institution is also changing for the better - and worse, depending on your perspective and your pocketbook.
"It is the purest form of capitalism," says Rick Wolf, Sotheby's West Coast managing director, describing the oldest role of auctions. "There is no artifice in pricing." Auctions of the estates of celebrities, in particular, such as Andy Warhol or Jackie Onassis, allow a personal look at major players on the cultural scene. Indeed, prior ownership, or provenance, is a powerful motivator in getting people to buy.
But pressure from stiff competition, slim profit margins (4 to 5 percent at most auction houses), and the recent wobbly stock market have forced the industry to innovate. One priority is to remake the image of auction houses. "We keep trying to break down this perception of being intimidating," Sotheby's Mr. Wolf sighs.
Certainly, watching impeccably dressed art mavens dropping hundreds of thousands of dollars with an imperceptible flutter of a bidding paddle can be daunting to a newcomer. As a result, auction houses have adopted ideas from museums and galleries, such as educational programs.
"We hope we can demystify the process," says Marcia Hobbs, who heads the Beverly Hills, Calif., office of Christie's, Sotheby's main competitor. Auctions must do what museums don't, which is "to provide superior client services, to get [clients] to come back." That translates into long-term relationships, as well as instruction.
"By offering educational opportunities to the public, we attract more people to participate in our market," agrees Wolf. In addition to formal, accredited graduate-level courses, auction houses host informal events such as mock auctions and day- or weekend-long courses on topics as varied as the cabinetmakers of Savannah, Ga., or a tour of Napa Valley's gardens.
High-priced events send the message that not only experience but money - and lots of it - is a prerequisite for auction-going. But Wolf points out that the average price of a Sotheby's item worldwide hovers around $8,000 and "a lot sold well below that." He points to the news media as giving the impression that auctions are only for the rich. "It's the big-bucks sales that make the nightly news," he says.
An informed public will become a buying public, Ms. Hobbs says. Education about art not just as an investment but for its aesthetic value is a high priority. "We try to get people to buy according to their passions," she says. Christie's has assembled a large staff of specialists at its 18-month-old Beverly Hills branch office. While people think of museums as the best way to gain an art education, she says nothing beats auctions for personal contact with art. "We want [customers] to touch [the artwork], hold it, roll it around, wear it.... You can't do that in a museum."
Some in the art world object to thinking of art as just another commodity to be bought and sold. But Graham Beal, the director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, says high-priced auctions can represent "highly informed individuals ... trying to gain a work of art that has terrific value to them for intrinsic reasons." Museums can benefit from the hoopla around high-profile auctions, Mr. Beal says.
Van Gogh's "Irises" sold for $53.9 million in 1987 - and draws audiences to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Director John Walsh says the hoopla can be a fruitful beginning to art appreciation. "Who's to say that what starts out as curiosity and fun doesn't get deeper," he says, adding that "if the art is fine and deep and rich, maybe it will seduce [the viewer]."
As auctions have become more friendly to ordinary buyers, art dealers and gallery owners who used to be the go-betweens for artists and the public can be left out. Michael Miller, director for Dyansen Galleries, with branches nationwide, points out that this shift to eliminate the middle man is part of a larger trend in society.
"The same do-it-yourselfers who now buy stocks directly over the Internet instead of from a broker want to get their art cheap and make a buck," he says.
Pierrette Van Cleve, a San Diego art consultant and dealer, bemoans cutting out dealers who used to educate buyers: "That selling mentality has come from the hype around the big auctions, trying to show how art is a great investment." But if you don't know what you're doing, you're more likely to lose money buying a lesser-known artist than strike it rich buying an established piece, she adds.
"If you're going to auctions for [making] money, you're missing the point," she muses. "Artists are the truly gifted visionaries of our society," and owning a work is part of sharing that vision. Auctions can play a role in that, but only "if you're educated enough to figure it out. If you're not, it's just money passing out of your hands."
Everyone may be welcome, but bidding at an auction is still not quite like buying a vase at Macy's. Participants can't just walk in the door, sit down, and bid. You have to register beforehand and allow the auction house to check your references. Also, the price hammered by the auctioneer is not the total bill - a buyer's premium between 10 and 15 percent goes on top.
Here's some of the lingo you may encounter at an art auction:
Provenance: An all-important criterion - who owned the artwork before.
Lot number: Every item is listed in a catalog and auctioned by its lot number.
Private treaty sale: Art sold directly to a private party without going on the auction block.
Reserve: The confidential minimum price agreed on by the auction house and the seller. If bids don't reach this price, the auctioneer will "pass" on the sale.