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They came, they saw, they were outbid
CHRISTOPHER Gohr had never attended an auction before - just "eBay and stuff like that" - and the one he walked into at Christie's was a dizzying place to start.
The collection of David and Peggy Rockefeller, a vast trove of paintings, furniture, porcelain and other treasures, was on the block over three days, with Wednesday offering some of the relative bargains.
Mr Gohr, a line cook by trade, was hoping to take home to his East Village apartment a George III tea caddy, a wooden box from the late 18th century in which the Rockefellers may or may not have stored their tea. It had been estimated to go for up to US$500.
"Five-6-7-800 dollars already!" the auctioneer announced, as bids came in at a frenetic pace.
A split second later, US$1,000. At US$1,200 Mr Gohr finally raised his paddle. Someone in the room bid US$1,300. US$1,500 came from an online buyer in Hong Kong. Mr Gohr's arm went up at US$2,000, his self-imposed cap.
No matter: A telephone bidder pushed the price to US$2,400. The bid won the tea caddy, and with the buyer's commission tacking on another US$600, it came in at six times the estimate.
"I definitely went a little more than I thought I was going to," Mr Gohr, 48, said afterwards, still processing what had happened. "Once I hit my cap, it was like, 'okay, what the heck?'"
The sale of more than 1,500 Rockefeller belongings is attracting some of the biggest collectors of the art and antiques worlds, and could bring in more than US$1 billion, all for charity, by the sale's end.
On Tuesday night alone, more than US$600 million was raised, thanks to the sale of 44 first-rate artworks the couple gathered. Peggy Rockefeller died in 1996, and her husband, the last surviving grandson of oil magnate John D Rockefeller, died last year at 101.
The pieces on sale on Wednesday were more accessibly priced at three and four figures. Bidders without multiple estates could sit in the same room where, just the night before, a Picasso sold for US$115 million, a Monet for US$85 million (an auction high for the artist) and a Matisse for US$81 million (also an auction high for the artist).
But those like Mr Gohr who filed into Christie's Rockefeller Center headquarters discovered that they were not the only ones drawn by the Rockefeller mystique.
A George III-era wooden side table garnered US$25,000, more than four times its estimate. A silver ice pail engraved with Rockefeller's name went for US$50,000, more than 40 times its estimated price of US$1,200. The piece with the lowest estimate, a circa-1780 mahogany armchair pegged at US$200 to US$300, went for US$8,750.
One of the most expensive of the 250-plus lots, a porcelain dessert service that once belonged to Napoleon, was anticipated to sell for US$250,000. The final price brought applause from around the room: Including fees, the set sold for US$1.8 million.
Among those who came up short was Diane Wolf, who travelled to Christie's from York, Pennsylvania. She and her husband own a company that makes corrugated boxes and live in a restored farmhouse that she thought would be a great home for some Rockefeller antiques. She bid US$4,000 on a John Berridge painting from around the late 1700s.
The final hammer price was US$4,200. "I probably should've gone one more time," Ms Wolf, 60, said.
Demand was so high because few other sales have matched this scale and level of anticipation. Among aficionados, it is in the league of the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis estate auction at Sotheby's in 1996; the Elizabeth Taylor jewellery sale at Christie's in 2011; and the Yves Saint Laurent sale at Christie's in Paris in 2009.
"It's one of those magical sales that happens maybe once a decade where everyone is so exuberant, particularly for the decorative arts," said Barbara Deisroth, a veteran decorative arts adviser.
"The auctioneers put the estimate out on what they are worth today," Ms Deisroth said. "And they're unable to factor in what the upside will be with the celebrity part of it. Is it going to be 10 per cent? Is it going to be 50 per cent? Or is it going to be 500 per cent?"
About 50 people showed up to bid in person, while 30 or so Christie's staff members operated phone banks for those calling in. A screen at the back of the room indicated if an online bid was coming in along with the geographical origin of the bid. Most of the winning bids came from outside the room.
Sitting near the front, Allan Polunsky, a San Antonio-based lawyer, raised his paddle for a pair of candlesticks believed to be from the 17th century. He had flown to New York City on a whim, buying tickets on Sunday so he could attend the public viewing of the items the next day.
"You don't pass up opportunities like this," he said.
The candlesticks were estimated to go for US$1,500 to US$2,500. He bid US$4,000. The final price was US$6,875.
Mr Polunsky, 69, did find success later in the day. He bought a George II-era solid mahogany armchair for US$30,000, three times the high estimate. "I think it'll look very nice in my office," he said, but added: "I probably will have to reupholster it."
Mr Gohr, the line cook, left without any Rockefeller pieces, or regrets. "It's more or less a bucket list thing, to come to somebody's famous auction and just to be in the room and actually have a chance to bid on something." He even dressed in a suit and tie. "Ordinarily, it's just jeans and a T-shirt."
The total for Wednesday's decorative arts sale was US$12.36 million, against an estimate of US$2.5 million to US$3.8 million.
For those not able or inspired to participate in one of the live auctions, there was also the Christie's website, where hundreds of the Rockefeller lots were being auctioned throughout the week. One of the hottest items online, a 14-karat-gold money clip depicting Rockefeller Center, was estimated to go for around US$1,200.
The final price would probably not fit into that clip: US$75,000. NYTIMES