The title of the painting is Chaos, and it looks sort of like a pizza. The pizza seems to feature pepperoni, olives, and mozzarella, and although the toppings look delicious, they are unevenly spread across the face of the pie, curbing any hope of capturing all three in one bite. To be fair, the painting is probably an abstraction of a pizza. To be really fair, it's not a pizza at all; it's a flattened explosion of cartoon eyes, noses, and mouths that look like toppings if the viewer is hungry. But whatever. The painting sells for $134,500.
Takashi Murakami's Chaos is exactly the kind of work you'd expect to find in the Lehman Brothers corporate art collection: It is loud, vacuous, self-satisfied. On a recent Saturday morning—a morning two years and 11 days after the fourth-largest U.S. investment bank filed for bankruptcy—Sotheby's is auctioning off an after-the-gold-rush bundle of the firm's contemporary-art assets so that Lehman can repay a fraction of the $600 billion it owes creditors. A very, very, small fraction. Somewhere in the neighborhood of .00002 percent.
The hammer-wielding auctioneer is Tobias Meyer, 47, the worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby's. He's a velvety Continental type in a navy suit so slim it looks vacuum-sealed. He is flanked by 25 Sotheby's sources taking international and anonymous bids over the phone. The Sotheby's men wear their hair long and pomaded, like Dracula. One of them expresses surprise that Valentino hasn't shown up. "He's here all the time," the source says. "His skin really is that color, by the way. Like a Werther's Original." The collectors who fill the room are preppy baby boomers, for the most part. They sit in rows of folding chairs, sipping take-out coffee and flipping through the catalog, which weighs a pound and a half. Nobody has bothered to dress up.
There's a protocol for buyers, and the protocol is this: You do not wave your paddle in the air to place a bid. You raise a finger, perhaps a palm. If you win, you lift your paddle so that your number can be noted. The paddles are blue and white and printed with PLEASE RETURN THIS PADDLE TO THE REGISTRATION DESK. The bidding climbs in increments of $500, and current bids are listed on a screen in six currencies: the dollar, the euro, the British pound, the yen, the Swiss franc, and the Hong Kong dollar. Curiously, the ruble is absent. "Russian oligarchs began to swoop in right as the global economy was tanking," a Sotheby's source says, shrugging. "They were dropping millions on paintings while laying off thousands of what were literally serfs. It was bad P.R."
Anxiety about bad P.R. may also explain the context of today's auction, which is half empty and scheduled on an off day. The only hint of the tone of the undertaking lies with Meyer, whose auctioneering style is by turns coy, withholding, generous, and teasing. "At $75,000 it's a ladies bid," he says. "Shall we say 80? One more?" A pause. Meyer gestures toward a hesitant collector, smiling to himself. The bid comes in. It's surprisingly easy to forget what, exactly, is being sold here. Art auctions don't always have much to do with art, and dissolving a corporate collection demonstrates this fact in a beautifully cold, unclouded manner. There is a collector in the back of the room leaning directly against a Neo Rauch canvas, his iced coffee sweating two inches from the work. There is the painting whose illustration is printed sideways in the catalog. That one demands $50,000.
By one o'clock the crowd has thinned to stragglers, re-creating the scene in Groundhog Day when Larry is sold for two bits at the bachelor auction, with the Larry in this case being a Melissa Meyer piece that barely nudges its lowest estimate. If a lot fails to sell at auction—if it "buys in"—it goes back to the consigner. Given that today's consigner is Lehman Brothers, the notion of a buy-in is interesting to consider. Where, in a physical sense, would an unsold painting go? To Lichtenstein? The Cayman Islands? Well, yes, maybe: In fact, according to a Sotheby's source, either tax haven is as good a guess as any.
When the auction is over, the collectors trickle outside to York Avenue, where they meet the disembodied head of Dick Fuld. Fuld's head is the focus of a canvas by an artist named Geoffrey Raymond, who has spent the past two years painting scorned financiers and selling the pieces for tens of thousands of dollars (and milking this ongoing act of creative dissent for a steady stream of publicity). The former Lehman Brothers CEO is rendered in profile and surrounded with phrases like GREED KILLS! and YOU TURD YOU COST ME AND MY CLIENTS MONEY. Fuld's skin is blue. Raymond, who formerly ran a P.R. agency and is not affiliated with Sotheby's, makes a habit of inviting passersby to scribble comments on his work—phrases like GOODBYE GORDON GEKKO and $ CANT BUY U LOVE. "I've exhibited in front of the New York Stock Exchange and in the public plaza behind 85 Broad Street," he says, referring to the former Goldman Sachs headquarters. "Sometimes I wander over to the World Financial Center, but it's a schlep."
By lunchtime 40 people have signed the Fuld painting.