The bidding for the Durer watercolor began at 50,000 pounds ($92,000). Pencils were discreetly raised, heads nodded quietly. The price jumped 10,000 pounds at a time, then 20,000 pounds, then 30,000 pounds. The less-determined dealers froze.
At 620,000 pounds - more than $1 million - Peter Wilson, the balding and cherubic chairman of Sotheby Parke Bernet and auctioneer for the night, raised his small ivory hammer and looked solemnly to the rear. "At the back of room, the bid is to you, sir."
A hush fell over the steamy gallery crammed with 300 dealers sweating under spotlights. The handful of very rich collectors, who, in their style, still stayed cool, were quiet too. It was the kind of respectful hush reserved for big money.
At the back of the room was Marianne Feilchenfeldt, who runs a gallery in Zurich with her son, Walter, and who nodded the price up another 20,000 pounds. The Durer was hers - at least until she resells it to the museum who had commissioned her. A few people even applauded.
By the time she pays Sotheby's 10 percent, Feilchenfeldt will have laid out $1.3 million for a watercolor of a church and hill that measures 6.5 inches by 8.5 inches. No matter if the work harbors only a hint of Durer's powerful line: Price has more to do with scarcity than with esthetics, and Durer watercolors are notoriously scarce.
The Tuesday night scene at Sotheby Parke Bernet was the opening round in a week-long series of auctions to dispose of the collection of Robert von Hirsch, a German-Swiss businessman who died last year at the age of 94. Hirsch assembled a remarkable collection of medieval and Renaissance works during the 1920s and early 1930s, and he and his advisers also had the wit to spot Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec well before most German businessmen.
Hirsch instructed that after his death his works be sold off at auction, so that other collectors could have the thrill of competing for art that he remembered fondly.
Sotheby's billed the auction as the "sale of the century," a phrase it had used only the year before in promoting an auction at Mentmore Towers, Lord Rosebery's Buckinhamshire estate.
And within three minutes Tuesday night, the all-time record for watercolors had been set by the Durer. The mark, set by a Cezanne, had been $460,000.
But as tiny object replaced tiny object on the green easel, even hawkeyed dealers gave up trying to see what they were buying and the event turned anti-climatic. The electric scoreboard, flashing bids in pounds are translating them simultaneously into lire, marks, yen, Swiss and French francs and dollars, blinked. But the drama had gone.
To be sure, Feilchenfeldt picked up another Durer drawing for $550,000. Several Rembrandt sketches, none with the brilliant chiaroscuro, the dramatic play of light and dark that distinguishes his genius, fetched well over 100,000 pounds.
Yvonne Tan Bunzl, a London dealer, brought along Alain Delon, the French actor and collector, and she took one of the small Rembrandts for just short of $250,000. An American who politely declined to give his name, quietly nodded his way into $95,000 worth of Rembrandt nude - before commission.
Sotheby's has taken great pains to promote Hirsch, a German Jewish leather goods maker, as almost the greatest collector since the Medicis.
Sotheby's branch in New York took a full page ad on page two of the April number of International Art Market; the paper ran a lead story on the Hirsch sale and described it as "The Peak of This Century," L'Oeil, a glossly Lausanne monthly, called the Hirsch ivories, bronzes and enamels, "Without doubt one of the last collections of this importance that one will have the chance to see." Sotheby's had taken a full page ad showing one of the enamels in color.
The first lots Tuesday were of drawing by Old Masters, and the sale will end with Impressionist and modern drawings and watercolors. Also to be auctioned are early ivories; Venetian and Roman glass; Renaissance paintings; sculpture and carvings representing nearly 700 years of changing styles; and assorted furniture, carpets, textiles and porcelain.
As for the dealers, they have been wined and dined for days - and the sale goes on until Tuesday.
When it is over, the Hirsch sale is almost certain to exceed the $11 million worth of paintings, cooking utensils and chamber pots that Sotheby's sold from Mentmore Castle last year. On the first night alone, the Hirsch drawings racked up $5,100,000. The next day - Wednesday - the same brisk pace prevailed. A Madonna by Giovanni di Paolo brought $920,000 from the Norton Simon foundation.
What these comparisons illustrate best is Sotheby's long-range sales strategy. The Mentmore collection, critics now agree, was a poor example of Rothschild collecting. Indeed, the castle's best paintings - a David, a Titian and three Tiepolos - had been sold off before Sotheby's got there.
Moreover, and to Sotheby's embarrassment, a Mentmore Fragonard that might have brought $1 million by itself was sold as a work by a minor artist, Carle Van Loo, it was auctioned for a mere $16,200 to a delighted London dealer, David Carritt.
The Hirsch collection is an astonishing accumulation of many big names in Western art from the Renaissance through Picasso. Critics, however, have observed that Hirsch's names are frequently more dazzling than the works themselves. The prize Renoir, for example, is a curiously flat painting of skaters, devoid of the sensual flesh tones and play of light normally associated with the great Impressionist. The most touted Picasso, the second work Hirsch bought, is expressionist rather than Cubist. The biggest Matisse boasts the familiar colors but lacks their vibrancy.
Above all, the collection of everything from Medieval book leaves to Georges Roualt has a miscellaneous quality that tells little of Hirsch's personality as a man and collector.
"The answer is simple," a Swiss expert observed. "This is clearly the collection of a successful German-Seiss businessman with a sound eye for investment values."
Hirsch was born in Frankfurt and went into his uncle's noted firm as a young man. The company's Offenbacker luggage was the Mark Cross of its day, a label demanded by the wealthy and the well-born. One grateful customer, the grand duke of Hessen, added the "von" to Hirsch's name by the time the nephew had succeeded his uncle.
When the Nazis came to power, Hirsch quietly emigrated to Basel, the most art-conscious city in Switzerland.
He took his collection with him by bribing Hermann Goering with a famous Cranach painting, "The Judgment of Paris."
Hirsch sat out the war and got his Cranach back when Hitler fell. In gratitude, he gave it to the Basel museum.
The curious history in no way deterred German dealers who showed up by the dozens - along with Dutch, Swiss, French and Americans - for the break-up of Hirsch's collection.
After Tuesday night's opening sales, one German dealer, Heinz Reichert, lingered on the sidewalk, sniffing the mayfair air. He had hoped to buy a vigorous 16th-century Burgkmair drawing of a fight between a knight and a wild man. But at 80,000 sterling - $147,000 - it was too rich for his customers' blood.
"Frieburg is too small for that," he said sadly.
But Reichert will be back tomorrow for the porcelain. That's the sort of stuff you can handle and touch, and they will pay for that in Frieburg.
The auction house will do well out of Hirsch. If the 700 items sell for $20 million - a plausible figure - the house will take 10 percent from each buyer or $2 million in all. Normally, Sotheby's would pick up another 10 percent from the seller, but the executors of Hirsch's estate were too canny for that.
They negotiated a flat selling fee; what it is Sotheby will not say. Neither will the executors, Swiss lawyers, who also decline to reveal the identity of the beneficiaries of Hirsch's will.
This sounds like big money but that is not the sale's principal value of Sotheby's. The real point of the hoopla lies in a strategy devised 20 years ago by a Reuter reporter, Stanley Clark. He believed that Sotheby's revenue really comes from the mass and not just the class market. Clark graduated from Reuter to direct Sotheby's publicity and now presides amiably over his own marketing creation.
The key point, Clark recognized, is that there are a finite number of Durers, Titians, Cezannes and Picassos. (Although the expanding supply of Utrillos has long worried both logicians and the trade.) Sotheby's can only collect on these works when they come up for a sale.
How then to find an ever-expanding supply of objects for sale.
Clark's ingenious answer was in part, items that might be found in an attic, sold with Sotheby's imprimatur, gilded by well-publicized sales of masters.
In recent months, the house has auctioned off old Mickey Mouse toys, lead soldiers, cigarette cards, enamel soft drinks ads, pictures of pop singers, parts from a Erector Set, toy trains, a ship's stool, slot machines and more. All are labeled with the solemnity resembling that given master works.
"A Felix the Cat soft toy, the plush-covered figure with hands held behind back and wearing toothy grin, 15 in., 38 cm. high C 1928" and auctioned off with Sotheby's low-key pomp.
Clark estimates that no less than 70 percent of last year's revenues of $220 million were generated by lots auctioned at $500 or less.
"We are bringing fine art to the common man," says Clark with a cheerful grin.
The Hirsch sale fits this strategy neatly. The heavily publicized event suggests that art is a one-way ticket to wealth, and that prices only go up.