"I want to welcome you to the Seventh Street Sotheby's . . . the Parke-Bernet on the Potomac," deadpanned Aaron Levine, president of the board of directors of the Washington Project for the Arts at last night's third annual art auction to benefit the WPA.
And Levine and his colleagues offered a mixed-media grab bag: 132 pieces donated by local artists, collectors and gallery owners, from schlock art to rock art, all to get the WPA out-of-hock art.
Auctioneer David Ellington, formerly with Sloan's, tried to bring out the impulse buyers in the serious art crowd. He delivered his pitch in a rapid-fire monotone, devoting about 60 seconds to each piece, while some artists squirmed in agony.
"$100 to start that piece $75 -- $50 to start. Let me see that thing. Let's go, where are you. Who'll say $60? You're out! $65. Any more? It's yours, sir -- $65."
"When your piece comes up, you run and hide because it's your ego up on the block," said artist Lenore Winters, who had a cut-out paper piece up for grabs. "Then when it's over you run back in and find out how you did."
The crowd, wearing a me'lange of outfits from severe black-and-white suits to Kandinsky-like explosions of color, gossiped, whispered about the art and washed down homemade chocolate-chip cookies with Spanish champagne.
WPA director Al Nodal tried a novel way of selling "The Sentinels," Gene Davis' striking pair of red and blue neon stipes, which was sold in situ, but had been previewed upstairs before the auction. Arms stretched over his head, Nodal quivered like an electric filament. But despite his method acting, the Davis piece went for a disappointing $475.
"My job is to get folks a little drunk -- it loosens up their bidding arms," said artist Michael Clark, who donated three works, including a psychedelic birdhouse. Clark, in black tie, has poured champagne at every auction. "Last year, they were all bidding against Joe Hirshhorn," he said. "This crowd was watching him; every time his arm moved, they would bid, too. I overheard these guys saying, 'I don't care how much I have to pay, I'm going to outbid him,' " Clark said. "It fetched some pretty outrageous prices."
"I gotta bring handcuffs to these things -- last year I bought three pieces," said Zenith Gallery owner Margery Goldberg, eye-grabbing herself in an outrageous knee-length coat of frothy turquoise and black ostrich feathers. "Too many auctions are kind of dangerous -- they can hurt the galleries. But it's the least the community can do to support WPA. A lot of the money goes back to supporting these artists."
Bidding was sluggish at first, but picked up for some of the better-known names. "C'mon -- this is the director of the Phillips," urged Chris Middendorf, displaying Willem de Looper's untitled acrylic on canvas to the bidders. "If you buy it for $500, I'll appraise it at $1,200 and you can sell it to the Knox."
Goldberg was outbid on her heart's desire, Martha Jackson-Jarvis' mutant seashell in ceramic raku, by James Fitzgerald of the WPA board of directors. "I could kill him," Goldberg fumed. "I never bid against a client. He could outbid me 16 ways to Tuesday . . . Well, I really have no place to put it anyway."