The young man showing the lots during the Christie's sale of Impressionist and Modern Art, on the 28th of November 2007 in South Kensington, was quite charming. Holding up a lot upside down is no shame and it actually contributed to the informal atmosphere in the room. The lady auctioneer was the embodiment of charm. Her smooth style of auctioning, friendly voice and sharp wit were very entertaining for the attendees. Even the hallway in which the auction was held, created quite an interesting, and indeed charming, scene. Movers walked by all the time, carrying the most fascinating and random objects. The passing-by of antique chairs on their shoulders, sculpted unicorns on their carts and painted crucifixions in their hands made this auction visit feel like being in a cabinet of curiosities.
Despite all this charm, there were also some trouble spots. There was a moment of agitation when an employee who bid on behalf of a client on the phone didn’t know what her winning bid had been. Rather more serious was Christie's treatment of the works in their care. With no intention of telling Christie’s how to run their business, some things have to be noted and shared. The paintings that were sold during the afternoon were piled against the wall, with no protection in between, like a pile of books. In some of the paintings, the canvas could be seen trembling when they were picked up and handed from hands to hands. The people showing them in front of the room were not wearing any gloves. The thing with most works is that they are framed. Still, it is not a great idea to even touch the frames, especially when they are originals.
I was visiting the auction with a Courtauld colleague and ambulances could almost have been called for us when two drawings by René Magritte were auctioned, not only because of our love for drawings, these being particularly interesting ones, but mostly because they were unframed and held up like a just-received diploma on ones graduation day. However, I must admit, I was more careful posing with my diploma, than the charming young man was with these drawings. He didn’t even try to balance them on their sides in his fingers, but bluntly touched the fronts and backs. His fingerprints might show up in future scientific analysis. Let's hope they are not mistaken for Magritte’s own!
These concerns might sound very panicked and far-fetched, but touch can really damage art works in the long term. Have these people never visited a museum and seen all the “please do not touch” signs? They are there for a reason. Whether art is bought as investment of for pure enjoyment, it should be treated as carefully as possible. I would have certainly expected this attitude to be in evidence at an established auction house like Christies. As a relative novice to the world of auction houses and despite the first impression of charm all around, it made me wonder afterwards about the atmosphere in the current art market. Which attitude will prevail when all else is lost, cash or care?