On September 20, 2011 I went to my first LIVE AUCTION. Doyle New York was auctioning the estate of Elaine Kaufman, the late owner of famed Upper East Side restaurant Elaine’s, who died last December. From the moment I learned of the auction I knew I wanted a piece of the history for my “collection.” Browsing through the online catalog before the exhibition I got set on a basket of hand towels embroidered with the Elaine’s Restaurant logo. I don’t remember ever seeing cloth hand towels in the bathroom there but with such a large lot of towels (I couldn’t tell how many) I thought I could give some as gifts and sell a few on eBay to make up the cost (estimated between $100 and $200.)
At the exhibition a few days before the auction I saw a curious lot: a collage of two photos of Elaine Kaufman with former presidential candidate John McCain. One of the photos was a very awkward freeze frame of John McCain in the midst of giving Elaine a hug. Below the collage was a scribbled, affectionate note to Elaine signed by McCain. They didn’t seem a likely pair with most of Elaine’s famous patrons hailing from the literary world and Hollywood (i.e. Gay Talese and Woody Allen.)
Day of the Auction:
I went early to Doyle to register for a paddle. The woman behind the desk was very friendly about answering questions from a first time bidder. I learned you don’t have to yell out the amount you’re bidding, you can just raise your paddle or simply nod to the auctioneer as long as you are sure he/she makes eye contact with you. Even though the auction did not start until 2pm, an hour and a half away, I was given my paddle to hold.
I got back at 1:30pm. The seats were mostly empty so I grabbed one in the second row. Eventually the place was so full that people were crowded slightly out the door. Many guests said hello to each other, apparently regulars and friends of Elaine. I recognized three Elaine’s patrons from my times there.
The next three and a half hours flew by. The most memorable moment came during the auction of the McCain/Elaine photo lot. The bids began to climb to the $400 range when a woman in the row behind me brandishing a professional looking camera and whom I had gathered was named Jessica and had been a close friend of Elaine stood up and yelled out for the auctioneer to wait. There was a confused murmur and once the auctioneer’s incessant numbers and banter had stopped she explained, “I know this is very unusual but I think you should know, that is not a real McCain signature. (Gasp from the crowd) That is my work. I made that collage with Elaine as a joke.”
Everyone laughed. The bidding resumed and ended somewhere in the $500 – $700 range. Later, whoever had won decided they no longer wanted the lot and because of the new information from Jessica the bidding started again. I found the lot more desirable knowing the inscription was an inside joke. I liked the sense of humor it revealed about Elaine and her friend. One bidder, a guy who seemed part of the group of friends, felt the same. With less interest due to the lack of a presidential-candidate signature he was able to take the Elaine/McCain collage home for around $450, if I remember correctly.
The first time I raised my paddle was for a photograph from the Civil War. It went out of my range but once I had broken the bidding seal it was much easier to jump in for other lots.
There was a long stretch of low-estimate lots of costume beaded necklaces. I figured I should bid on one of these lest the towels went too high and I was left with nothing. Also, the towels were one of the last few lots. After losing many jewelry lots to bidders willing to go above $100 I finally won a group of clear beaded necklaces for $40. The auctioneer and bidders in the front looked at me sympathetically, glad I finally won something. There was a communal vibe with everyone generally happy for the winner of whichever lot.
Happy for everyone except for one bidder, paddle #350. This rich jerk who knows where was phoning in his/her bids and seemed willing to outdo anyone for anything. Many lots went to this mysterious #350 and there was much grumbling about this entity. However, after the auction was over someone asked a Doyle employee about #350 and the employee explained to a group of us remaining in the hall that #350 was the number assigned that day to represent any internet bidder, so this reclusive, loaded collector I had imagined living in Texas for some reason, did not exist.
Anyway, I won the basket of towels for a bit more than I wanted to spend but I went home happy and buzzing. The experience was exhilarating and I would like to someday participate in many more live auctions.