Go for broke

Why is the dizzying experience of putting up a fortune in mere seconds to secure an Andy Warhol or a rare diamond necklace so fascinating for so many? A look at how auctions work in New York, the city that has seen the sale of some of the priciest items in history.

Text: Margarita Solano




The big screen shows a shining pair of heart-shaped earrings. They’re small and delicate and don’t seem like much.
“The bidding starts at fifteen thousand,” says the auctioneer. That’s US$15,000. The earrings are made of platinum, gold and yellow diamonds. “Valentine’s Day is coming!” he adds with enthusiasm.

The audience takes the suggestion to heart, and the earrings go for US$18,000. Next on the screen is an impressive necklace with 49 diamonds. The opening bid is US$190,000, and hands pop up immediately in Sotheby’s spacious auction room in downtown Manhattan. Some 20 people have gathered on this winter morning to bid on hundreds of pieces of antique and collectible jewelry. Up for auction are sapphire and ruby broaches, a variety of oddly shaped and colored diamonds and necklaces that once belonged to prominent families. Nearly 400 items are going under the gavel.



The necklace that started at US$190,000 quickly jumps in price to US$230,000. A screen at the back of the room shows the bids in US dollars, euros, pounds, Swiss francs, Japanese yen and Hong Kong dollars. The prices rise with the speed of the stock market on a busy day. The 20-odd collectors seated in the room, thumbing through the catalog of items, are competing in real time with dozens of other interested parties around the world. Most of the bidders are tracking the event online and make their offers electronically. Others phone in their bids. About 20 employees sit on one the side of the room, phone in hand, quietly informing their clients of developments. When the long-distance bidder decides to make an offer, the proxy raises a hand.

And that’s what happens now with the necklace: someone has offered US$240,000 over the phone. “US$240,000 – final offer,” warns the auctioneer. Nobody raises a hand. “Sold!” The auctioneer bangs his gavel, the deal is sealed. He who hesitates… loses.

Objects of desire

New York is home to the world’s most important auction houses. Sotheby’s and Christie’s are the best known and, by far, the institutions that generate the most in sales. Sotheby’s, for example, holds more than 100 auctions in New York every year, and in the past three years alone, this auction house has sold more than US$5 billion worth of goods. The most expensive piece was Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, which in 2012 went for nearly US$120 million.




Nighttime art sales are the most spectacular events, and they draw the biggest crowds. Paintings by legends like Picasso and Warhol easily go for tens of millions of dollars. Christie’s boasts the record for having sold the most expensive piece in history, also in New York: in 2013, Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud started at US$80 million and finally sold for US$142 million. Right behind Sotheby’s and Christie’s, there’s Phillips, a house specializing in contemporary art.


Lot 32 Bacon - triptych



The British house Bonham’s, which recently opened a location in New York, focuses on items from popular culture, like Paul McCartney’s birth certificate. In April, Bonham’s will auction off manuscripts from the British mathematician Alan Turing (the subject of the recent film The Imitation Game) that outline his famous theory of computation developed in the 1940s.

Back at Sotheby’s, the jewelry auction has already being going for three hours. Now it’s time for lot 190. The screen simply shows a small pink stone in the shape of a pear. It’s actually a fancy, five-karat pink diamond necklace, and by all appearances, it’s highly coveted because bidding starts at US$300,000. In a matter of seconds, it jumps to US$400,000, but the offers keep coming. US$500,000. US$520,000. “Sold!”in

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