A red carpet unfurls along the broad sidewalk of Old Bond Street, leading gallantly to the golden gates of Sotheby's. Cameras flash incessantly as James Bond villains glide through the doors, accompanied by their retired Victoria's Secret models. Extravagant outfits litter the hallway and surveying eyes of staff members scrutinize your every step. It is a mausoleum to wealth and art, though I still cannot decipher which one takes precedence. Founded in 1774, and the oldest publicly traded business on the NYSE, Sotheby's has been a purveyor of fine art, and more, before the US even gained her independence, and I have come to realise that behind the white stone façade, red carpet and wealthy clients is an art exhibition that offers a simple, up-close, unpretentious display of art that immerses you in beauty far more than many museums. But God forbid you attend one of the auctions.
Sotheby's sometimes offers a Sunday brunch during which small plates of exquisite pastries, sandwiches and delicacies shoot around a maze of galleries that exhibit fine paintings, statues, manuscripts much more. It's all well munching yourself into a food coma but the exuberance of the day lies in the vast display of art. You can get so close to a painting that you can sniff the ancient ink - there is no 'red rope' nonsense. In fact, you're quite welcome to touch certain pieces. The style is so casual and so welcoming that I once sat on a chair I only later realised was part of the collection; it was four hundred years old and belonged to the court of Charles I of England, but no one seemed to notice or mind that I was resting my ass on a piece of history.
With the help of an inside man I stealthily weaved my way into an auction of impressionist art. Never before had I felt my stomach physically turn. The world of American Psycho suddenly became very tangible and I found myself in a crowd upon which the psychotic, money-loving, superficial character of Patrick Bateman was founded. "Is this really happening?" I asked myself. "Did someone actually just spend £19.7 million with a nod?" The first auction raised £107 million in the space of several hours. The cartoon-like audience of well-dressed elderly men and their bulimic wives reached deep into their pockets, but there was certainly no appreciation for the art in the room. The auction is when money dominates the foreground. Applause only rose for expensive pieces, people talked on their phones incessantly, hordes of blabbering socialites walked out whenever they pleased: it was sheer chaos and resembled more an absurd theater play than reality.
The event was certainly worth observing but it is not for the faint hearted. The auction is the other face of Sotheby's, unrecognisably grotesque. As soon as the art passes from exhibition to sale the audience changes, as does the dynamic in the room. It is an inevitable part of the art world and perhaps best to turn a blind eye to; but next time you find yourself in central London, pop into Sotheby's for a quick glance at some stunning masterpieces - and maybe grab a free croissant too.