January 11, 2011 an auspicious day unlike any other began early with the Christie’s Interiors auction of the Estate of Dennis Hopper.
A two day sale of 964 items were to be sold at auction by Christie’s of New York City. These were the third and fourth auctions in a series of artwork and other materials, which were owned by Mr. Hopper.
During the big contemporary art auctions of November Christie’s sold, in two separate groupings, some of the larger and more valuable paintings from the Hopper estate, Warhol, Schnabel, Duchamp, Haring, Lichtenstein… These auctions realized quite a bit of money as you could imagine and made national headlines. This was not where a person of my own means could bid on something at a bargain price, this was the world of high end art dealing.
What I was hoping for was to be able to pick up something at auction during the Winter Interiors Sale perhaps some wine glasses, maybe a curio of some sort.
This past Autumn on separate occasions and over the course of a few months, 3 moving vans pulled up to the Hopper house just across the street from the Ranchos Church Plaza. Items were selected packed up and shipped off to NYC, where they would be photographed to be included in a catalogue and listed for 2 auctions to be held January 11 & 12, 2011. Dennis, squirreled away a lot of stuff, and those lots were to be listed by Christie’s.
When Christie’s posted on their website what the items selected were and the price estimates I was a bit disappointed that there were no wine goblets or special little item that perhaps I could bid on and purchase. Instead there was a lot of the art from the “Hopper at the Harwood” Museum exhibit of his local Taos artist friends, and a great deal of the smaller artworks from his vast art collection. Two of the featured artworks were Andy Warhol silk-screens, a red Marilyn and a blue Mao. Hopper had shot the Mao canvas twice then brought it to Warhol who decided to add some notations to it and announce it to now be a “Hopper/Warhol” collaboration! Also included a selection of posters from films he starred in, even the very recently awarded Hollywood Walk of Fame plaque and a rather small group of items, which were not art related yet more in keeping with the ‘Interiors’ theme of the sale.
In my opinion there were a few jewels, and hopefully ‘sleepers’, which would be well worth bidding on. The best of these were two groups of four pots by our dear friend Mary Witkop, a tiny 3” x 4” photograph of a tree by Mike and Doug Starn, a shallow relief sign, a pair of paintings by the Honorable Lady Dorothy Brett, and two early artworks by R.C. Gorman.
Having saved a bit of money for this sale since last October I expected to bid on 2 items. Not being able to put enough money together for a run at the Witkop pottery, instead, I brought them to the attention of a well-loved Taos art dealer and also an admirer of this wonderful pottery. A few days before, the Witkop family announced on their website that these pots would be included in this sale, and at that point I felt I didn’t stand a chance of being the winning bidder. With the Bretts, these too were pointed out to a separate Taos art dealer, not quite my cup of tea, yet desirable pieces to bring back to Taos. Having a lot of R.C. Gorman already, and the market for Gorman rather flooded and a bit soft, I thought these to not be as desirable. There were other items I thought would be of interest to friends of Mr. Hopper, and told each one of them about the particular pieces.
My sights were set on the “Starn Twins” photograph, the estimate at $500-700. and the Ron Gardner shallow relief wooden sign with an estimate of $400-600. These two pieces seemed within reach of me becoming the winning bidder.
Christie’s has a few ways to become a bidder of their auctions, an online ‘live’ bidder, an online pre-auction bidder, a telephone bidder, a proxy ‘live’ in-house bidder or an in-house ‘live’ bidder. Since I wasn’t going to be making the trip to NYC or asking someone to go for me, I chose the next best route, to be a telephone bidder. The week before I called to set up an account, a representative assured me that I would be called 5-10 minutes before my item numbers came up and that my bids would be placed as per my instruction.
The auctions were to run from 10AM to 5PM (Eastern time), with just over 500 of the listings to be auctioned off the first day. The two pieces I chose to bid on were to come up on the morning of the first day, in Taos Mountain time this meant the Christie’s New York auction would start for me at 8AM. For the first 2 ½ hours I watched online, excitedly calling, and emailing friends, along with adding posts to my Facebook page of how things were going. The Mao painting went for $300,000. ten times the estimate, the Bruce Connor and George Herms assemblage pieces went for 4 times the high estimates and a few for much more. Everything was selling much higher than expected! Over an hour of this had me reeling and beginning to feel a bit embarrassed of my position and plan to snatch something up that I was lulled into believing wouldn’t really bring a lot of money, after all Christie’s themselves had estimated these two items to be not very valuable. They’re the experts at this, I thought don’t they go by auction records on this sort of thing, perhaps not. My head said escape, just don’t answer the phone and it will all be alright, no one’s twisting my arm to actually place a bid and I haven’t bid on anything, not even promised to, they couldn’t possibly fine me or charge me for not bidding and wasting their time. Could they? Miraculously, things changed, a lull in sales with a few items going for under the estimate. An auction can be tuned to a point, and timed to create waves of excitement, this just might be the sotto voce moment of this particular auction, and my item numbers were coming up right in time for it. Hope. My pride said, do it, pick up the phone and ask a few questions, don’t show fear, and bid if I could. The woman calling told me the auction was going quite well, and assured me that I had yet to make any commitment. She also told me there was a lot of interest in the room towards my selection of the Starn photo. Ah, the old auction house ploy of chatting up interest in the item in question. Did she actually think I’d just fallen off the proverbial turnip truck. Before I knew it she was rapidly and softly whispering the bids in my ear, 500, 700, 1000, 1500, 2000, it was gone and I never uttered a word. Yes, the fine art of seduction one might say. This auction house had definitely fine tuned it, from the low estimates to entice you, raise your hopes and pull you in, to the soft and gentle sales people helping you with your bidding. Was I now in a movie, or in a dream, it seemed a whole lot like a movie I’d seen, or did that actually just happen! Egads, what a fool, did I really think I could bid on something, anything in a Christie’s auction!
Years ago, through the kindness of someone who collected my own artwork, I attended the Warhol Estate auctions, it was fun, but I knew my place and had no intention of bidding on anything. This, was different, as they say, this was personal.
Within 20 minutes she called back, we chatted and I told her how I went to school with the Starns and how Mr. Hopper lived just across the street, that right here and now I could see his house from where I sat talking to her on the phone. I told her how bidding on something from Mr. Hopper’s estate was for sentimental reasons. ‘Yes, of course dear, you sentimental old fool’, I’m sure she thought at this point, yet she remained extremely seductive, kind and helpful. Perhaps sensing my fear she told me she’d worked for Christie’s for about 5 years and how a recent sale of Star Trek memorabilia was quite fun with bidders and colleagues dressed in Star Trek gear. OK, your item is about to start, and, you’re off once again like a horse at a racetrack trying to catch up to the pack. The bidding starts at 200, will you do 250, yes, now 300, will you do 350, yes. I’m holding on for dear life here and trying not to fall off this fast paced thing I’m latched onto. 400 will you do 450, yes, 500 will you do 550, yes. In the real world I would keep my bidding paddle held high for all to see, which tends to intimidate all other potential bidders. 600, will you do 650 yes. That’s it we’re done you’ve got it thank you very much. Wait! Don’t go now, I fumble trying to catch my breath, how do I make my payment, how do I pick it up, I ask. She tells me the phone number to call and that’s it, we’re done. With a buyer’s premium attached by Christie’s, my $650 sign will now cost me $813. At least a friend in NYC has offered to pick it up and send it out to Taos, otherwise I’d be charged another $200 or more for shipping and packing by Christie’s.
Am I glad I did it, bid at a mysterious (to an outsider like myself) auction in New York City? Yes.
Will I do it again, perhaps. Could I really afford it, no. Was it fun, yes.
A few good reasons to have had this experience:
1.) I bought “Dennis Hopper, Works of Art”
2.) I had the experience of bidding in a Christie’s auction, which most people would never even think of doing. By the way, try it you may enjoy yourself.
3.) Bragging Rights
4.) Having an incredible story to tell and a great ‘conversation’ piece to hang in my Gallery Two Graces.
5.) That was a whole lot of fun!
When the piece arrives from NYC, I’ll hang it proudly at Two Graces Gallery in Ranchos de Taos, by the famous San Francisco de Asis Church in Ranchos de Taos, just across the street from the former home of Dennis Hopper. Perhaps someday soon someone who knew Dennis will come by and see it, and remark on a time in Taos that I can only wildly imagine. What I know about the piece is that Dennis had it made by Ron Gardner to hang outside the Return Gallery his brother David ran for about 9 years in the Taos Plaza, and too where the pottery of Mary Witkop was exhibited.
Thank you Mr. Hopper, it was a wild ride…