It was my first time to join an art auction and I was more curious than excited. In my years of buying art I have always bid down and never up. I have successfully gotten art dealers to agree to a twenty five to thirty percent discount off the quoted price and, once they agree, haggle for payment terms. I suspect though that this was less because of my negotiating skills than the fact that the transactions took place in harder times, when art didn’t figure in peoples’ hierarchy of needs except, of course, if you were an artist. Not so now with the economy clocking seven percent GDP growth, a condo building boom that has all the indications of a bubble, and Rolls Royce opening a dealership in the country.
The room soon filled with people carrying their programs and paddles, each deliberately choosing his or her seat as part of a carefully planned bidding strategy. I took my place near the front of the room – I figured that the less I saw of the other bidders the less personal the bidding process would be and the less likely that my competitive spirit would have me jump up and scream a winning bid consisting of my nine-year old daughter’s tuition until college. Wealth was in the house. From the actor whom internal revenue filed tax evasion charges against, to several young Filipino-Chinese males (who were each to win on bids equivalent to my daughter’s tuition all the way to MBA), to eager bejeweled and well-coiffed elderly ladies whom I suspect attended as sellers, not buyers. I was not in my element. I had arrived by cab.
Soon the bidding went underway as the British auctioneer took bids on the lots by peppering the crowd with ever-increasing prices. I had thought that he was contracted to lend the event a certain upper crustiness, but realized that he played a much more important role: that of ensuring that the auction proceeded in the most efficient and profitable manner. With over a hundred fifty pieces on auction any foul-ups could result in the crowd becoming restless and impatient, dampen their ardor, thus resulting in less than satisfactory values. The British auction house tradition embodied by Sotheby’s and Christies was alive that day in Makati. In his self-deprecating manner – he mispronounced every Filipino title and painter – the auctioneer presided over and charmed his way into the participants’ acquisitive psyches and into their checkbooks.
Several attempts to get in on the action proved futile as I put in bids on a Lee Aguinaldo, a Malang, and an Olazo, whose prices went beyond my relatively modest budget. Fortune favors the bold, however. I had been eyeing an oil painting by Emmanuel Garibay. With the unlikely title “Town Fiesta” it shows a circle of dancers, their eyes closed, writhing as though in a trance, the scene reminiscent of a voodoo seance. The artist’s muddy palette and elongated brush strokes conjures an ominous air without, however, slowing the frenzy of the dancers’ movements. It is a frenetic picture. Purgatory in the City, would have been a more appropriate title, as darkness and motion met to create a disturbing, yet strangely, redemptive scene of life in the city’s nether parts.
A world away from Amorsolo’s sunlit pastorals the piece’s unsettling tone was to work in my favor, limiting the bidding to just three participants: myself, a distinguished gentleman whom I recognized to be a savvy investor, and an unidentified hand that kept popping up somewhere in the crowd behind me. The opening bid was modest but, as I was to discover, the auctioneer was also a psychologist, playing us off against one another, luring us with reasonable increments and, as he saw surging urgency among the three of us, increasing the spreads between bids. At that moment the epiphany that all serious bidders experience happened to me: I had to have that painting! It was, in fact, speaking to me to buy it! I resolved not to leave the hall empty-handed. With greater resolve (and a fair bit of hand-wringing – what was to be the winning price? More importantly, what would my wife say?) I met the challenges of Mr. Savvy Investor and The Hand. At 4x multiple of opening price I was about to throw in the towel when I noticed the hand had stopped popping up and Savvy seemed to think long and hard about meeting my latest bid. Finally, with a resigned air he shook his head at the auctioneer. Down came the hammer. Mr. Savvy Investor turned to me and nodded imperceptibly. I nodded back in understanding: the Bidding Warriors’ Code.
And so I own the painting. Here it is.
Emmanuel Garibay, Town Fiesta (1995), oil on canvas 36” x 48” (91.4 cm. x 121.9 cm.)
I was to bid on and win another painting that day, a delicate nude done with pastel on paper. It now hangs in our bedroom, together with other nudes that my wife and I have accumulated through the years. It’s quite charming – true to the painting’s nature the languor of the subject matched the more relaxed bidding pace.
Serafin Serna, Nude, pastel on paper, 19” x 25” (48.2 cm. x 63.5 cm.)
In all, it was a good haul. I realized that the challenge of the auction is to make careful choices in an environment of controlled chaos, all the while enjoying the thrill of the chase, whether it’s you or someone else doing the chasing. Have I changed my art buying habits? Put it this way: three days later I was at my regular art dealer cajoling him to bring down his price by forty percent on an intriguing abstract work. I just had to have it.