Have you ever been to an art auction? Do you think Sotheby’s or Christies, with snooty rich people giving subtle signals to art dealer types to bid on thousands of dollars per square centimeters of art? That’s what I thought before moving to Moscow. Being a little desperate for mid-winter entertainment on a Saturday afternoon, I took the bait at the Shishkin Gallery of 20th Century Art and got in line for my numbered laminated card. I try to forget that I brought my credit card, and sit quietly and sip my wine and nibble my cheese that the gallery has generously offered to – um – loosen up the inhibitions?
Looks like there are 100 paintings on the auction block. I am much relieved to see that the only painting I might really like to have is number #97 and there is no way I am staying to see 96 other paintings auctioned. Good — I might get out of the gallery with only a souvenir catalogue and a nice glass of wine.
My plan is to settle down to watch the action. Not much action to start with. It seems that others are also sitting on their hands and our auctioneer, Mr. Shishkin, has to prod and push us a little to get the bidding going. What’s that? He’s offering a drawing for – 10 dollars?? Clever man, since that certainly got our attention. A few hands shoot up and soon the drawing is bid up to $100. So OK, $100 isn’t so bad for a drawing from the Soviet era of the 1930’s. I could handle that if I was the lucky final bid. But I wasn’t, and I settle back down to see what happens next. Wow! This is getting serious, as another painting has bid up to $20,000. OK, so it is quite a large painting; so per square centimeter that only comes to, let’s see, $1.50. Thank goodness, it’s not my style; so I am safely out of the running once again.
Oh no! A photograph is being brought up to the front of the auction hall. I am a sucker for black and white photos and I have never seen anything like this photo! It is a young woman driving a convertible with a gas mask completely covering her face. This could only be from the early Great Patriotic War days, when Moscow was practicing air raid drills and poison gas was on everybody’s mind. How unique, how odd, and how desirable!
I can’t resist and here I go – my hand shoots up and I look around shyly. Looks like I am the only one in the whole auction hall who might want this odd and eccentric piece of 20th century art. (Well, at least the only one who is stubborn enough to out-bid everyone else who sees the intrinsic value of such a strange photo). As I begin to beat back the competition in the bidding, I finally “get” the thrill of the auction and I think I might just wait around for painting #97 after all.