A Master of the Auction Art
When bidding for a Franz Kline painting stalled at $5.8 million at Christie's auction house in New York last May, auctioneer Christopher Burge leaned over the rostrum, gazed at a bidder, and said in a warm, confidential voice, "We've come this far. Why not $6 million?" The bidder paused for a moment. Then he raised his auction paddle. In the end, the painting sold for $6.4 million--Burge's coaxing had netted the company an extra $600,000.
Part art historian, salesman, and broadcaster, a fine-art auctioneer performs a fine art indeed. At 59, Burge is the profession's elder statesman and one of its most successful practitioners. After more than 20 years as Christie's top auctioneer, he regularly averages $1 million a minute in sales and has hammered the gavel on everything from the most expensive sculpture (a $27.5 million Constantin Brancusi) to the priciest collection (the $206 million Victor and Sally Ganz collection). "Burge is the best," says Judd Tully, editor at large at the magazine Art + Auction. "There is no one else who comes close."
Burge's greatest challenge may still lie ahead. If art market skeptics are correct, he will have to work to avoid a Black Friday-like crash at Christie's benchmark modern and contemporary art auctions next month. Prices have been rising at seemingly irrationally exuberant levels, with the values of top works jumping 24 percent in the past year alone, according to artprice.com. "Burge is under a lot of pressure," says RenÃÂÃÂÃÂVara, a private art adviser in New York. "If the auction goes south, the confidence level of everyone will go south. The art market is very, very fragile."
Eyebrow magic. Born in England, Burge never planned to become an auctioneer. He joined Christie's in 1970 as a specialist in the Impressionist and modern art department. Then one morning in 1971, his boss gave him a gavel. As Burge tells it, the auction was a disaster. He mumbled bids, stalled to make calculations, and injected little drama into the sale. "People were yawning, checking their watches," he says.
But Burge himself found the auction thrilling, and so he began practicing, reviewing his performance on videos, even visiting voice coaches. And today, having auctioned off everything from multimillion-dollar Picassos to Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade floats, his sales are anything but boring. "He physically connects with every person in the room, using his hands, his body, even his eyebrows," says Jamie Krass, director of auctions at Christie's. "[Burge] conveys that your bid matters." Most of all, Burge is renowned for his stage presence, a commanding mix of levelheaded and lighthearted. "Burge does have this laid-back attitude even when there are pictures in the tens of millions of dollars," says Tully. "If something doesn't sell, he just chuckles into the mike."
Burge's easygoing style reflects the transformation of high-end art auctioneering into a retail business. For centuries, the auctions at Christie's--and its major rival, Sotheby's--were wholesale; the buyers were largely tweedy, ascot-wearing art dealers. But now the firms sell directly to collectors. "People should be able to come in off the street and make a bid," says Burge.