A Woman Walks Into An Auction House
Wheeling and Dealing for The Mighty Thor
By Carole Nicksin
Reading time 22 Minutes
CAROLE NICKSIN goes undercover as an auction buyer in this hilarious expose of high art and unlimited ego!
The call came in on a Wednesday
The call came in on a Wednesday. I was sitting at my desk, sorting through photos of sofas at the small and failing decorating magazine where I worked as an editor.
It was Thor, calling from a hospital room in London where he’d been for over a month. He wasn’t interested in talking about his condition. When I inquired meekly what was ailing him, he shouted into the phone, “It’s NOTHING! It’s just dis FUCKING HEART SHIT!”, sounding as strong and healthy and intimidating as ever. I eventually stopped asking, not wanting to cause any further complications.
Thor was in his sixties, but to me, he was a Superman, as in above the mundane concerns of average humans. Six-foot-three, blond, athletic; part of the Thor legend was that he died once, saw the light at the end of the tunnel and the whole bit. Deciding that death was not for him, he forced himself back to life. Clearly, Thor could take care of himself.
“So I vas just vondering if you vould be so kind as to do me a little favor this veekend?” Although his knowledge of English vocabulary and grammar was extensive, Thor’s up and down Norwegian lilt made him hard to understand. I felt like my ears were squinting to make out what he was saying. Peter, my best friend who introduced me to Thor, said I was trying too hard, that instead of focusing on each and every sound, I should listen as if I were a little drunk. Instead of listening very, very closely, I should listen loosely. This actually worked, but it was hard sometimes to convince my mind to go that route. Listening hard seemed more effective, even if it wasn’t.
Understanding what Thor said was particularly important because our relationship, although friendly and cordial, was at its core a business arrangement. Thor was like Charlie, and I was an Angel. When his calls came in, I would drop what I was doing and set out to accomplish the assignment.
This arrangement had started about ten years prior. Peter, a Swede, often mentioned Norwegian Thor. He was sort of a mentor to Peter. Art was one of the many businesses Thor dabbled in, and Peter bought, sold and traded works with him. Peter respected Thor, and I respected Peter, so when Peter asked me if I’d be interested in doing some work for Thor, I was honored, thrilled, and more than a little nervous.
Thor needed someone to serve as director of an offshore race horse enterprise. There were no actual duties, aside from signing some papers, and the only criteria was that the person had to be trustworthy, because as director, he or she had the power to take control of the horses. Peter told Thor I was his gal.
For the next five years or so, I made an annual pilgrimage, leaving behind my East Village tenement in New York City for a few days on a mission to London. There, I’d traipse over to Thor’s lawyer’s posh offices, sign the papers, and pick up 40 one-hundred dollar bills in crisp U.S. currency. The whole transaction took about five minutes, but I spent at least a week preparing for it, shopping for just the right outfit to wear, searching for something that looked expensive and modern and designer-y, but at a bargain price that wouldn’t erode my net too much. The London trips were fun, added a shiny veneer to my relatively mundane life, and helped augment my measly editorial salary.
For the first few years, my exposure to Thor was limited to a dinner now and then, and I wasn’t really able to figure out exactly what Peter saw in him. Then, one night in Stockholm, I fully fell under Thor's spell. That day, I saw “my” horses race for the first time. We drank champagne and watched from a private club room. Afterward, a group of eight of us went to dinner at a restaurant that once upon a time would have been called the Jet Set. Thor sat next to me and whispered some ideas he had for the future, including buying a horse farm in the south of France, and then another in Kentucky.
“That sounds wonderful,” I gushed.
“Ya, it does,” said Thor, “but of course these are only dreams.”
Then, leaning in close to my ear, he added, “but I have a way of making my dreams come true.”
That was it. I didn’t want to be an artsy East Village girl anymore. I wanted bigger dreams, and most of all, I wanted the ability to make them come true. From that moment on, I severed all other ties and worshipped at the house of Thor.
Thor eventually got out of the horse business
Thor eventually got out of the horse business, but he always came up with new tasks for me to do. Once, he was visiting New York but got called back to London unexpectedly, so he asked me to deliver a jar of his urine to the Dr. Atkins clinic, a simple cab ride across town for which he paid me $300. Another time, he was having some tax problems, and needed to prove that he had lived in Manhattan for a few years in the 1980s. I spent a few hours doing some research. When he was next in New York, Thor, his mistress, and I met for dinner at Balthazar. After the entrée, I felt a tap on my knee. I reached under the table and Thor handed me an envelope. I didn’t look at the contents until I was in the cab. It was dark, so I used my fingers to count what I knew were $100s. Fifteen bills.
Over the years, I had seen and heard Thor go from pleasant to monstrous in his art deals and other business activities, but he was always sweet to me. It was like having a lion for a friend. I never wanted to give him any cause to turn on me.
When Thor called me at work that Wednesday afternoon, it seemed too risky to follow Peter’s advice to listen loose. Instead, I listened very hard, and when I didn’t understand, I pretended that I did, offering vague responses. ‘Mmm’, ‘uh-huh’, ‘sure’, I’d say, trying to cover myself until I could go back and mentally review what he said phonetically, and try to piece it all together.
“There are a few Warhol pieces going up for auction this weekend, nothing big, more memorabilia than anything,” Thor said. “I was wondering if you would be so kind as to go and bid on them for me?”
Bidding was something new to me. If Thor could trust me to bid for him, it could mean a lot more assignments, and a lot more money. I pulled up the web site for the Phillips auction house. Thor read off the lot numbers and I looked them up.
The first was paper dress with a Campbell’s soup can print. The estimate was $3,300. Thor said we could go up to $6,500. Next was an autographed frontispiece from the book, “The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.” “It is very important, if you get the dress, you must get the frontispiece, too,” Thor said. “I want to frame them together and sell them that way.” The estimate: $1,500; our limit: $3,000, more or less.
“Of course,” I said, trying to sound confident.
Next was a print of one of the Most Wanted Men series. It was number 11, John Joseph H., Jr. “He is sexy, no? I always think that if nothing else there will be a lady who wants to buy him because the ladies always like the handsome bad men, right? Ha-ha-ha. Let’s go up to $6,000.”
Last was a series of postcards of the Rolling Stones, in a single, rectangular frame. $6,000 was our limit here, too.
“Okay, Carole, very good then, I talk to you on Saturday.” But there was one thing.
“How do I get you, or me, registered as a bidder?” I inquired.
“Oh, ya, of course. So sorry. Just call Phillips and tell them to check my credit with Christie’s and Sotheby’s.”
“Um, okay, sure,” I said, feeling one hundred percent positive this was never going to work. But there was nothing to do but go through the motions anyway. From what I knew of Thor, there was one certain way to piss him off: present him with a problem. His feeling was, I’m paying you generously, there shouldn’t be any problems. In a nutshell, to Thor, if there was a problem, the problem was probably me.
The woman in the credit department at Phillips was very polite – the women who work at auction houses always are. “I’m so sorry,” she said, “but it is not our policy to call other auction houses. Please ask your friend to fax us a registration form, along with a letter saying that you will be bidding on his behalf.”
I relayed this to Thor. “I can’t do that! I’m in a hospital!” A problem was bubbling up, and I needed to act fast to avert it. “No problem!” I said quickly. “I’ll fill it out!” I pulled up the form online and scanned it to see what info was required. “I think I have everything I need except your bank name and account number.”
“Sure, it’s Koots.”
“Koots! Just tell the girl at the auction house it’s one of the most prestigious banks in the world. Just tell her! She can call my personal banker, Amy Suckling.”
Suckling?That can’t be right.
“Here’s the bank’s number,” he said, reading off a London phone number. As I jotted it down, I felt a small throb sprouting behind my eyes that was destined to turn into a 72-hour headache. “Okay, Thor,” I said, trying to sound confident and cheerful. “Just one more thing: I need your account number.”
“My account number? I’m not giving that! That would be stupid!”
“But…” I started to try to explain why an auction house would want to have his bank account number before they let him bid on more than $20,000 worth of stuff, but I stopped myself. There was nothing to be gained by reasoning with Thor. “But of course! How stupid of me! Okay, I’ll let you know how this goes.”
“Very kind of you,” said Thor, calm again.
The first thing to do was to figure out the name of his bank. Koots. Kootz? Kutz? Through a series of Google searches, I miraculously found it: Coutts! Of course! How stupid of me! I called and asked for Miss Amy Suckling, intentionally slurring Suckling. “Sutcliffe?” asked the operator. “Of course!” I said. I hung up before she connected me. What was I going to say to her –‘you don’t know me, but could I please have my friend Thor’s account number?’ No, I was going to have to take a page from Thor’s own handbook, and go on the offensive with the auction house. Instead of feeling stupid myself, I would make them feel stupid. Or at least try.
In the end, I didn’t have to. I filled out the form, and where it asked for the bank account number, I put in the name of this most prestigious bank in the world, along with Miss Amy Sutcliffe’s phone number. Then I wrote a letter, ostensibly from Thor, saying that Miss Carole Nicksin would be bidding on his behalf. I signed it Thor’s name and faxed both items off to the auction house. When I called the next morning to see if they received it, the polite woman said I was all set.
“Okay Thor, we’re all set,” I reported proudly.
“You’re very kind, Carole. Call me on Saturday, about five minutes before our lots go up. Oh, and Carole, don't worry if you go over. Don't worry."
But I was worried
But I was worried. I was worried all through work the next day. I was worried when I went to bed on Friday night, and worried during yoga Saturday morning. I was worried as I ate lunch, and I was worried when I bought a pair of white slingbacks for $150 that I certainly didn’t need, and didn’t even like all that much. I was so worried that I decided there was nothing else to do but go to the auction house and wait, even though it was about two hours until my lots were due to go off. I signed in and got my paddle, expecting the whole thing to fall apart right there.
"Here you are, Miss Nicksin," said the unflappable woman behind the desk. "Good luck."
"No problem!" I replied, apropos of nothing. Feeling mortified by my non sequitur, I quickly grabbed my paddle and wandered off into the gallery. No problem, I hummed to myself, like a mantra. Noproblemwhatsoever.
The gallery was filled with prints, sculptures, photos and ephemera, mostly items produced in a limited series. The artists ran the gamut, living and dead: Man Ray. Jeff Koons. Salvador Dali. Peter Doig. Gripping the handle of my paddle, I found my way to the lots I’d be bidding on. Everything looked fine, no visible damage – no problems!
The lunch break between the morning and afternoon sessions was nearing an end, and people were starting to come in. They were mostly in their thirties, many were in couples, a few had strollers. They had thought-out haircuts, and outfits that had been carefully considered, in that APC-Prada-Hogan kind of way.
I had considered my outfit, too. I was wearing cigarette jeans (H&M), a black turtleneck (Gap), a black leather jacket (Club Monaco, and black boots (Bloomingdale's). I blended in well enough, but on closer examination anyone would have detected that I was a little bit older and a lot poorer than the mean.
I milled about as long as I could. When I realized that I was walking fast laps around the galleries, not looking at anything anymore, I knew it was time to sit down. The bidding room was long and narrow, with one long wall of windows facing the Hudson River. I considered my options, then chose a seat in the last row near the windows. Better phone reception, I reasoned.
I called Thor just to tell him I was there and to let him know I’d be calling him back in about 45 minutes, and to reassure myself that there would be no problem making the international call. The trial run went fine. "I'm right here, Carole. Talk to you soon!" said Thor, television going in the background.
Half a dozen young men and women from the auction house filed in and sat at a long desk at the side of the room, preparing to take phone bids from clients. My mouth was dry. In fact, all my mucous membranes were drying up and I was starting to itch.
Why, I wondered, had Thor chosen me for this task?
Because he recognized my intelligence and cleverness, and wanted to cultivate it? Was this going to be my moment? Or, was Thor simply bored in his hospital room, in need of some diversion, and these items were neither important nor expensive, or at least not to him.
Whatever Thor's reasons were, it was still a big deal to me. I loved the clean, uncluttered way this world smelled, and I wanted to figure out a way to be a part of it. Seeing all these people who had a few thousand dollars lying around to spend on a Saturday afternoon made it seem as if having a few thousand dollars lying around to spend wasn't such a rare or difficult thing. In fact, it made it seem as if all that was required was a subtle shift in perspective, and a little help from Thor.
"Hmmm…this is where I usually sit." I looked up to see a dark haired man in a tailored suit with heavy framed Oliver Peoples glasses, a knit scarf with stripes tied around his neck, adding just the right pinch of irony. He was speaking to a little boy and a little girl; his children, I presumed. I gave him my best 'not my problem' look, and he reluctantly continued down the aisle, selecting seats toward the center of the room.
The auctioneer took the podium and bidding commenced. It was moving quickly, with only a few bids on each item and most items going for close to their estimate. In this room, at least, it seemed as though there was more money available than there were places to spend it. Not in my bank account, for sure, but here and in the parts of the world that Thor and others like him inhabited.
I waited through 35 lots. When we reached lot 210, I started dialing Thor. When he answered, I whispered, "We're at 210, so we have eight lots until the dress." Thor grunted casually, still watching TV.
Suddenly, we were up. Phone in the left hand, paddle in the right, I was ready. Bidding started at $3,000, with a bid from the auctioneer. Who was he bidding for? Why didn't I know that the auctioneer sometimes bids?? No time to ponder that. I had the bid at $3,400. The auctioneer’s bidder came back with $3,800. "Keep going," Thor intoned calmly. We knocked the auctioneer's bidder out at $4,500, but now there were bids on the floor, and from the phone bank. I persevered, and at $6,500, there was a lull. "Going once…" It looked like I had it. Out of nowhere, in the front, a paddle goes up. "Keep going," said Thor, a bit more intense. I silenced my opponents at $9,000. “Going once…” I stayed perfectly still, as if any movement might cost us another thousand.
“Going…$10,000, we have $10,000 to the gentleman in the center.” It was the urbane Daddy in the Oliver Peoples!
“Go! Go!” Thor urged. I lifted my arm proudly and left it there. The auctioneer was moving ahead in $1,000 increments, and the entire volley was between me and Mr. Oliver Peoples. Back and forth it went. From the back row, I could see everything, while Peoples craned his neck to try to see “the lady” the auctioneer kept referring to. No wonder he had wanted my seat.
“The lady has it at $11,000.
“The lady has it at $13,000.
“The lady has it at $15,000.”
In my ear, Thor was riding me like a jockey. “Keep going,” he said, calm and intense. “Ya, ya, ya. Keep going.” He couldn’t see Mr. Peoples, but he could feel him, and he wanted to humiliate him. Humiliate him with the power of his wallet.
Then, it was over. “Going once, going twice, sold! To the lady in the rear.” The crowd applauded. I had seen this happen when a significant work of art fetches a particularly high price, but in this situation, it wasn't clear what the applause was for. After all, it was just a paper dress, not a work of art. It seemed to me that they were clapping because a whole lot of money had been spent. They were applauding capitalism.
People turned around to see the lady in the rear who had just shot her wad. I tried to ignore them. We had one lot to go until our next bid, one lot for me to regain my composure.
“What did we pay?” Thor asked. “$17,000?”
I had no clue. I thought it was $17,000, but it just as easily could have been $19,000. It didn’t matter. We were up again. Winning the frontispiece was a piece of cake. There were a few half-hearted bidders, but we got it for $5,000. Mr. Peoples got back in the game for the handsome bad man, but he was unenthusiastic and we prevailed at $6,000. Then came the Warhol postcards.
Mr. Peoples really wanted this item. Other bidders fell out quickly, as Peoples and I both kept our paddles in the air defiantly. “Is it the same guy bidding?”
“Yes, it’s the same one.”
“Okay, go.” said Thor determinedly. $6,000. $8,000. $10,000.
“Thor? Are you sure?”
“Ya ya ya. Go!”
“Stop?” I asked.
I pulled my arm down, and Peoples got it at $17,000. “Going once, going twice, sold, to the gentleman in the glasses.”
“Is that okay, Thor?”
“Oh, ya, sure,” he said. “I just wanted to make him pay for driving up the price of the dress.”
“Oh,” I said. “I get it.”
“Okay, Carole. Very good. You’re very kind.” Thor sounded spent.
“That was fun,” I said.
“Ya, let’s do it again soon,” said Thor. We had shared a very intense, intimate and mutually satisfying experience, and now Thor needed a nap.
I hung up the phone. Slightly dazed, I gathered my things and wandered out into the gallery, calculating what my fee would be – somewhere around $3000, I presumed, maybe more if Thor was feeling generous.
Standing at the desk, waiting for my invoice, I felt wired, almost unpleasantly excited. I was supposed to hang out with my friend Suzanne later on, but I didn’t really want to do that. The idea of hanging out with any of my friends, doing any of the things I typically did, going home to my walk-up – I didn’t want to do any of that.
A few people from the auction room milled about the gallery. Some of them stared at me.
“Who is that woman,” I imagined them thinking. “Who is that woman who has 20 thousand dollars to spend on a Saturday afternoon?”
Carole Nicksin is editor of Milwaukee Magazine. She has written for numerous magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, and is co-author of Party Fabulous: 12 Parties to Change the World, one of the most esoteric books on entertaining ever published. Her personal essays cover a wide range of topics, including touring the country as a Care Bear and stalking Andy Warhol. She previously wrote about collecting Barbie dolls in Volume 1 of byNWR.