My introduction to Sotheby’s happened by chance. I was early to meet a friend for lunch at Sant Ambroeus and, following the receptionist’s suggestion, I take a look at the 4th floor exhibit. Getting off the elevator, I find myself in 19th century India in the company of Hindu pilgrims, an Indoor Elephant Procession, The Maharaja of Kashmir’s State Barge, and Butterfly Sellers. The 30 photos are part of Sotheby’s exhibit “The Great Within: Photographs of India and the British Raj In the 19th Century.” Created in an era when India was a treasure trove of the British Crown, the photos accomplish something never possible before: portraying the life of an entire nation, thanks to the invention of photography, as perfected by Clark Worswick, a renowned photo historian. Having a soft spot for India, which I visited years ago, I find the photos so compelling, I keep on returning to take another look.
“Are they going to be auctioned?” I wonder.
In addition to being an auction house, Sotheby’s is also a gallery, and as such, is going to sell the photos at a set price. Sure enough, when I pick up the printed catalogue of the exhibit, I notice that my much admired Thousand of Hindu Pilgrims photo is marked to sell for $10,000, while The Indoor Elephant Procession sells for a mere $4,500. The specific value, I learn, depends on many things, among which are who took the picture, its provenance and how it was preserved.
The next exhibit “A Beautiful Life: Photographs From The Collection of Leland Hirsch”, occupies the entire 10th floor. The front cover of the catalogue shows a model in a Dior evening dress, casually standing between two elephants.
While the photo is bizarre enough, its ultimate value depends on who arranged and took the picture. Richard Avedon, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Irving Penn are highly represented; so is Man Ray. Man Ray? The name sounds familiar, but I can’t figure out why? Then I remember: Man Ray and his buddy, Marcel Duchamp, had been ardent chess players. Both designed fabulous chess boards and frequently played chess together. A devoted chess player myself, I had once considered to buy one Man Ray’s chess sets. Three out of the 51 photographs to be auctioned are by Man Ray. Reason enough for me to watch the upcoming auction.
Mindful of novices like myself, Sotheby’s provides an explanation of the terminology of auction terms: Hammer price + the buyer’s premium, bidding in person, absentee bidding, telephone bidding, and online bidding. Thus informed, I show up at 10:00 AM on April 10 on the 7th floor. It’s remarkably sedate and quiet. None of the hoopla I had expected. At least ten to fifteen Sotheby’s employees man the telephones. The auctioneer, a young-looking man, welcomes everybody and mentions where to pick up the purchased photos. To my surprise, there are only a few people in the room who have come as “in person bidders;” others take notes, or, like myself, just come to watch.
It takes me a while to get used to the auction procedure. Each photo up for auction appears on a big screen and can be checked on the official catalogue and subscription copy. Avedon’s Model/Elephants photo, no. 27, sells for the anticipated hammer prize of $300.000, plus. The biggest surprise is no. 40, the photos of Andy Warhol and Jean- Michael Basquiat. Estimated to sell between $15,000-$25,000, it sells for $40.000.
When photo No. 36 – showing Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis taking photo lessons while in Greece – appears, the bidding gets wild. Most bids come via the phones. Starting with $25.000, it ends up with $47.000, each bet making it more and more desirable.
The second auction will follow shortly. I toy around with the idea of going upstairs, have an espresso and return! But, I’m exhausted. I go upstairs; the café is pretty crowded. I order a Caprese salad to go and walk back home.
Bidding – whether for class, money, or sheer power – dates back to biblical times. One of the most significant historical auctions occurred in 193 A.D. when the Praetorian Guards put the entire Roman Empire on the auction block. Outbidding his rival, Sulpicianus, the wealthy senator Didius Julianus bought the Roman Empire for the price of 6250 drachmas per soldier and declared himself emperor.
Surrounded by hospitals and high rise buildings, located on the 10th floor, Sant Ambroeus is like a breath of fresh air. It’s Saturday afternoon. I’ve secured a table next to the floor to ceiling window, meeting a friend for a lecture at Bohemian National Hall.
“Sant Ambroeus? The fancy Italian place?”
My friend is surprised. But, this has none of the chichi allure of Sant Ambroeus on Madison Avenue & 77th Street. It is a casual place that offers an assortment of small pre-made Italian sandwiches, excellent pastries, and a variety of coffees. Think of it as Sant Ambroeus “Light.”
The café is open the same hours as Sotheby’s. It doesn’t accept reservations and functions similar to Amy’s Bread which I had encountered at the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts (you secure a table, stand in line, place your order, pay, and pick up your food when it is ready.) However, this is not a student cafeteria, but an attractive place that caters to a well-mannered, well-dressed group of people who seem to be part of a private club.
This is my fifth visit and I’m beginning to feel like a member myself. I have my preferences down pat. My favorites are their cold panini, soft home-baked rolls, filled with a variety of cold cuts, cheeses, and salads. I particularly like the one with tuna salad and tomato. The soup of the day – particularly asparagus – is excellent. Cold farro salad and mushrooms puzzle me. Farro? I never heard of it! Then I learn that it is an ancient grain that is becoming popular again.
My only gripe is the way they present their salads. The Cento Colori comes in a plastic container that is difficult to open and obviously needs an additional plate and separate utensils. Not wanting to take any chances, I order their Caprese Salad to go and take it home.
Once it gets warmer, you can take your food on the outdoor wrap-around terrace. Even just sitting outside on the 10th floor on New York’s upper East side is a treat. Alas, Sotheby’s is going to close during the summer for extensive renovation. I’ll have to wait till September.