Thursday, January 28, 2010

An Evening with an Old Master


"Young Woman Seated at the Virginals" - Johannes Vermeer

This was originally written on July 11, 2004, when I was studying law in Cambridge, England.

The wind and rain are howling, but that did not deter my classmates and my Art Law professor from donning our finest outfits and heading off to London to attend the Sotheby's Old Master's Auction. We take the train from Cambridge to London's King's Cross Station and then the Tube to Oxford Circus. Then we walk several blocks in Mayfair, a fashionable part of London, in the rain, past windows full of fine dress and expensive shoes (the Summer sales are on and all the signs in the store windows say 50% off, which is sheer torture, since the shops are all closed by this time of day). We arrive at Sotheby's about an hour and a half early. To avoid the inclement weather, we duck into a restaurant called Browns. Browns in Mayfair turns out to be a quite famous pub and restaurant, with dark carved wood interior and a glass solarium, but what we are most excited about, was that it was dry and warm.  So we order a round of drinks and some appetizers. Well, 1-1/2 hours later, we all brave the inclement weather again to attend the big event.

Sotheby's Old Masters' Auction happens only once a year in London. Tonight's event is special, because they are auctioning off a recently discovered painting by the Dutch master Johannes Vermeer called "Young Woman Seated at the Virginals." None of Vermeer's work have been up for public auction for 81 years and this is speculated to be the last time a Vermeer will ever be up for auction, since all the other known Vermeer's are in museum collections. The list price is set at £3 million (that is about a little under $6 million USD); however, everyone expects the price to go higher. We walk into the lobby and the room is filled with the art world's finest. Men with beautiful Italian custom made suits and women draped in jewels and pearls. One old grand dame, sitting on a bench, inspects my dress as I walk by. My dress is long, almost to the floor, made of beige silk with a pink floral motif, off the shoulder, with a matching wrap. The grand dame nods at me, as if to say she approves of my attire with her gaze. I definitely look the part of a potential bidder even though my pocketbook is empty.

Up a flight of stairs to the auction room we go. The main room is crowded with people absolutely buzzing. Each chair is marked "reserved" apparently for only those who are seriously bidders. I and my professor push our way into the room, the rest of my classmates go to an ante room to watch the auction on closed circuit video. At the front of the room is a podium and an easel, where each piece will be displayed as it comes up for bid. The surrounding walls have huge paintings that will apparently be auctioned off at some point in the evening. Underneath these paintings is a row of phones, on which anonymous bidders will call in at the crucial moment. The possibility of me findng an open seat is slim. I spy an unoccupied phone bank on the opposite side of the room on a raised platform, where I could possibly snag a place on the edge of the platform to prop myself up without blocking anyone's view. I deftly move in front of the podium and make my way over to the far side of the room. Sure enough, I find a spot at the bottom of the phone bank platform to wedge my backside against and end up sitting next to some French gentlemen, who like everyone else, are immaculately dressed. I ask if they mind if I sit there and they said it would be their pleasure.

A distinguished man mounts the podium and the auction begins. To the left of the podium is a screen, which flashes a computer image of the artwork for auction and to the right of the auctioneer is the easel, where the real work is presented by white gloved assistants. The first few items are sold in the £100,000 - £300,000 price range. The Frenchman next to me allows me to follow along in the auction catalogue and points out the estimate prices along the way, commenting under his breath as the gavel falls, as to whether each particular painting went for a good price or not. This is his way of educating me, the young novice in the silk dress propped up next to him.  Lot 8 is the Vermeer. I look up at the computer image close-up of the painting that shows young girl sitting at what looks like a miniature keyboard instrument called the virginals, which is similar to a harpsichord. The painting's young subject's hair is in curls and her dress and shawl have a yellowy-gold hue. My eyes then move to the easel to look at the actual painting, expecting a massive painting in an ornate gold frame, but instead a white gloved man holds the painting up unassisted. The painting is tiny, only about 10x8 in. This is totally unexpected. I thought that a painting worth £3 million would be a bit larger. But no, it is the quality and rarity which makes it special. The bidding starts and quickly rises above the £3 million estimate. The auctioneer cries out "£9, £10, £12, £13," the bids were going up by millions of pounds without a moments hesitation. Two anonymous bidders at the phone banks are vying for the prize. The crowd murmurs as the price continues to rise. The gavel finally falls at £16.2 million ($32 million USD). The crowd bursts into spontaneous applause. The auction comes to a halt as people jump out of their chairs and begin to discuss what they have just witnessed. The Frenchmen excuse themselves and leave the room, the main show is now over. They bequeath me their seats. The auction resumes after several minutes. It is all very exhilarating, being in that room, feeling the excitement of this sky high auction. I will never forget it. The next day, one of the London tabloids has a two page article in which a noted London art critic opines that the Vermeer was a fake and the anonymous bidder got ripped off. Sounds like a potential libel suit to me. The doubt surrounding the origins of this painting still do not tarnish the thrilling effect of the evening.

Update 2010

If you are wondering who bought the painting, it was Vegas hotelier Steve Wynn. The painting in now held in private collection and was displayed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2004 and last year at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City. It seems that art experts have come to a consensus that the painting was indeed created over 250 years ago and at least partially painted by Vermeer's hand. The gold shawl may have been overpainted by another artist at a later date.

Copyright Romy Schneider 2010. All rights reserved.

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