I have just received a call from our man at Christie’s auction house who informed me that a Rembrandt held in the private collection of the Johnson & Johnson family for the last ten years has gone under the hammer for a record £20.2 million. This was a timely piece of news as I was in the midst of editing this rather lengthy article that you are now reading about another art auction that Lawrence and I attended last week; a somewhat more affordable one, but with names that hold equal sway to a Rembrandt in the eyes of the modern art world. So my apologies to readers, this article is now 120 words longer than it should be.
It was a bracing winter’s night and we had arrived unfashionably early. The venue: the Louise Blouin Foundation, nestled in that no-man’s land between Notting Hill and White City, which an optimistic estate agent might describe as ‘residential Holland Park’. To kill time before proceedings, Larry and I took a stroll to find a public house in which to sip on a warming cognac. It was the sort of bad decision that characters in horror films make before being set upon by ghastly creatures of the night.
The wind howled through the desolate urban moorlands, tumbleweeds rolled, bats fluttered overhead. We hugged ourselves against the cutting breeze and made progress towards a gloomy light in the yonder, shrouded in the silhouette of a drinking hole. The building had no windows other than the glass on the doors, frosted with gothic patterns reminiscent of coffin decoration. We could make out some shadowy figures inside, cloaked in heavy black rags and sipping unlabelled moonshine from pewter tankards. Sinister grins, sharp yellowed teeth and hooks, spikes and claws in place of hands.
We decided to give it a miss.
Back in the safety of the Louise Blouin Foundation and now unfashionably late, we sipped on a glass of red wine and nibbled on the excellent assortment of canapés, perusing the selection of art up for grabs. The auction had been organised by the architectural charity, Article 25, who build sustainable housing in developing countries and disaster-stricken areas. They had some impressive donations from big named artists on offer, including Tracy Emin, Antony Gormley, Anthony Caro and even an etching by the Chapman Brothers, which looked something like the pub we had just fled from. Quirkier pieces included some architectural sketches and prints by the likes of Lord (Norman) Foster – one of Article 25’s trustees – Lord (Richard) Rogers and even (Sir) Terence Conran.
At that point Larry owned up to having become something of an art collector of late, after spending “a not inconsiderable sum” on a piece by an upcoming Australian artist. As we wandered around the exhibits, his eyes began to burn and the possibility of owning a sketch by Norman Foster became a temptation too alluring to resist; he announced that he would be bidding. And what of his forthcoming property investment and the savings fund for the deposit? Apparently that could wait, but I wasn’t to share that with Mrs Larry.
The auction kicked off to a tempered start. Already on his third glass of wine, Larry was itching to bid on the very first lot, a sketch by the architect David Chipperfield. I suggested that he might wait for something more noteworthy. The Chipperfield sold for £250; it had a retail value of £1,000. Larry looked distraught. I cursed myself for not having put in a bid of my own. A few lots later, the Anthony Caro sold for a mere £2,600 with a suggested retail price of £4,000. There were some very happy buyers in that room.
During the break, the silent auction was in its final stages. Larry decided to make a bid, putting down a value of £300 for a signed etching by architect Alan Stanton, known for his luminous works. Neither of us had ever heard of Alan Stanton before, but it was a nice piece and Larry reasoned that art purchases should be based on what the buyer likes and not just for investment. The deadline passed and Larry appeared to have been the last to bid on the etching, so at least he wouldn’t go home empty handed. Plus it was small enough to hide from Mrs Larry until a suitable moment arose to share the news of his new acquisition.
The main auction resumed and now on his fourth glass of Italian wine and charged with Mediterranean passion, Larry decided to raise his maximum bid to a level that would “probably, hopefully” not warrant Mrs Larry kicking him out the house, although he did risk banishment to the lonely dominion of the sofa that night should he come home with anything bigger or more costly than his Stanton etching.
The special commission by Antony Gormley went for £3,000, and to Larry’s horror, the Norman Foster sketch of the Blade of Light which he’d been eagerly awaiting – envisioning it framed on his living room wall – sold for £2,250 to someone else, a little over Larry’s tender. He cursed the more affluent art buyers in the room, some of them in a cruel twist of fate turned out to be readers of The Arbuturian. He muttered something about keeping these events to ourselves in the future.
Predictably, the Chapman Brothers etching also sold above Larry’s bid price, but was snapped up at a bargain £5,500 for what was a £10,000 lot. With the bidding over, there came the announcements of the silent auction winners. We prepared to cheer as they called out Larry’s name, but unbeknownst to us someone had snatched the Stanton piece away from him in a final act of sniping slaughter.
Now swaying in Oliver Reed fashion after glugging down his fifth glass of red wine, Larry staggered over to Stephanie Johnston from Article 25 to query why he was not announced as the proud owner of a Stanton etching. He’d been outbid throughout the course of the evening, losing out on that elusive Foster sketch and now his beloved Stanton – who’d gone from being an unknown architect to one of Larry’s most respected idols in the space of an hour – had also slipped from his rapacious wine-stained clutches.
Ever the diplomat, Stephanie placated him with calming words as one does to a drunkard or a spoilt child, while I devised a story to pretend that Larry was nothing to do with The Arbuturian, for fear of him tarnishing our reputation. It was time for us to leave. Larry took solace in the fact that at least he’d be sleeping in his own bed that night, as opposed to on the couch with only the Chapman Brothers’ nightmarish visions to keep him company.
On our way home through the very Chapmanesque badlands of ‘residential Holland Park’, we remarked on the fact that some real bargains were purchased that night. It’s not often that you find high-end art of that nature going for such affordable prices. And as much as we’d like to keep this sort of event to ourselves, we are duty-bound to report these things to our readers who would never forgive us if they were to miss out on such an occasion. We made a pact that night, written in blood (well okay, red Biro, I’m squeamish), to never withhold such information from our readers, even if they do outbid us at charity auctions.
Finally, we must doff our hats to the wonderful folk at Article 25. It was a splendid evening not only filled with some fantastic art and architecture, but one that will result in somebody’s life being made that much better. And I’m not referring to the art buyers, though I’m sure they’re appreciative too.
Article 25 is an architectural charity devoted to the building of sustainable housing in developing countries and disaster-stricken areas.