A Master of the Auction Art
The new approach has worked. Big evening sales now bring in bold-faced names, from actors to hedge-fund managers, whose deep pockets boost business. While Christie's won't disclose its profits, the house says it posted $3.2 billion in sales last year. Sotheby's listed a profit of $63 million on sales of $2.75 billion. While Christie's takes a cut of each sale--20 percent on the first $200,000, 12 percent on the remainder--Burge and other art auctioneers are paid salaries to avoid conflicts of interest.
Nerves. Before a major auction, Burge spends weeks helping to structure the sale. Typically, the strongest works are placed in the middle. At Christie's modern art auction on May 2, for instance, van Gogh's L'Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux will hold a center spot, with the idea that big-ticket items increase the prices of later works. Just before he steps on stage for the sale, Burge drinks a snifter of scotch to ease his nerves. "I don't remember a thing about it when I'm done," he says. "I'm too exhausted."
Burge starts each lot by sprinting through the initial offers in order to exceed the reserve price and build momentum for the final bids. If the pace slows, Burge interjects friendly banter. When a bidder once said he had been overlooked during the auction of a Willem de Kooning charcoal drawing, Burge reopened the bidding and quickly sold the piece again to the original winner, jokingly noting that it went "to the same bidder for an additional $900,000."
For all the preparations, however, a successful sale can sometimes come down to deciding whether to ask a bidder to raise an offer. "You make eye contact, and you just sense if they're going to bid again," Burge says. Such skills have helped him land movie parts; he's played an auctioneer in Wall Street and The First Wives Club. But Burge prefers the audience at live auctions, he says: "The crowd here is often like the Romans at the Colosseum. They want blood or thrills, a disaster or a new record [for an artwork]."
Christie's May auctions shouldn't lack for spectacle. "There will be a big correction. It's inevitable," says Marvin Ross Friedman, a Miami art dealer. "A lot of things have become overpriced." Friedman and others are concerned that the new generation of art buyers might react to any art market weakness by dumping their paintings as if they were tech stocks, setting off a crash.
To be sure, the latest news from the auction houses has been nothing but good. In 2005, revenues from all fine-art sales exceeded $4 billion, a jump of 10 percent from the previous year. "We are not seeing signals that the market is overheated," Burge says.
Whatever happens at the May auctions, it's clear that art auctioneering is here to stay. "Everyone always jokes that we will be replaced by mechanical means," says Burge. But that will never happen, he believes, because "anyone going to make a bid on a $12 million object will want to see it first." He adds with a laugh, "I always try and give them their money's worth."