They Do Know Squat About Art

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 19, 2005

NEW YORK -- It's little more than a scribble, a quick slash of ink on a 12-by-18-inch piece of plain white paper. If you saw it at the office, you might ball it up and toss it into the trash, or fold it into an airplane and fling it down the hall. It is unlikely you'd do what Christie's auction house did last week: try to sell it for $20,000.

Artist Tom Friedman's ink squiggle on paper did sell at Christie's  --  for $26,400.
Artist Tom Friedman's ink squiggle on paper did sell at Christie's -- for $26,400.( - Christie's)
That was the low end of the estimated price for this "ink on paper," as it was dryly described in the Christie's catalogue, by an artist living in Massachusetts named Tom Friedman. It was on display last week during the preview for the house's annual spring auction, where potential buyers and interested gawkers get a chance to sniff over the merchandise before it hits the block. Even in the often mystifying alternative universe of contemporary art -- where you occasionally can't suppress philistine thoughts of the Wait, I could have done that variety -- this piece stood out.

There it was, amid the Warhols and Basquiats, not more than 100 feet from an Edward Hopper, hanging with the titans. "Starting an old dry pen on a piece of paper," explained the Christie's catalogue. Which is to say, this thing is exactly what it looks like.

And 20 grand seemed reasonable compared with another Friedman piece being sold at the same auction. This one, also untitled, is a two-foot white cube with a barely visible black speck set right in the middle of the top surface. Would you like to guess what that black speck is? You're advised to think outside the box.

To again quote Christie's, it is ".5mm of the artist's feces."

Yes, Tom Friedman put his poop on a pedestal, and last week Christie's tried to sell it, with bidding to start at $45,000. Auction season in Manhattan is a two-week spending spree of paddle-waving rich people and art dealers in Prada suits, all of them vying for highbrow booty at Christie's and its archrival, Sotheby's. The regulars were asking questions like "How much will the Hopper fetch?" and "Which house will gross more?" But if you'd never visited Planet Expensive Art, you didn't care about that, not after you spotted those Friedmans. After that, all you could wonder is: How does an artist peddle his doody, not to mention his doodle?

And here's another stumper: Who would buy it?

When it's showtime at Christie's, as it was last Wednesday night, the streets around Rockefeller Center in midtown Manhattan are crammed with black limousines. Nobody walks to a fine-art auction, or takes the subway or a cab. You get chauffeured to the event, then walk up a flight of stairs, and if you're a heavy hitter you're given a bidding paddle and a reserved seat, near the front of an expansive room. There's a row of bidders along one wall, all of them on the phone with collectors who are either too busy or too publicity-shy to show up in person. The art appears on a turntable at the front, or, if it's too large to fit or too small to see, on a video screen nearby. The auctioneer stands before everyone, to the right of the goodies, at a lectern.

"And one million two hundred thousand dollars starts it," said auctioneer Christopher Burge, selling a piece by artist Jeff Koons called "Small Vase of Flowers." To the untrained eye, this piece looked a lot like a small vase of flowers.

The wonder of this spectacle flows largely from the massive sums involved and how quickly the money is spent. In a busy 10 minutes, $15 million will change hands here. It's just like in the movies: The bidders motion so subtly that you hardly see them move, and when the numbers get large enough, the room starts to buzz.

"One million seven hundred thousand, one million eight hundred thousand," Burge said, motioning around the room. "Against you now," he added, pointing at someone.

Against you now. That's a prod to the underbidder that roughly translates to "Are you going to cough it up or not?" Like every house, Christie's earns its commissions -- a sliding scale that starts at 20 percent on the first $200,000 -- by turning these events into a sort of roller derby for the rich. Except that none of the rollers emotes or says much of anything.

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