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Our columnist attends a Sotheby’s auction to watch an ugly piece of art go up for bids  

    Nov. 19 —  I don’t know much about art, but I know a fraud when I see one. It was staring me right in the face, in a full-page ad in the New York Times that promoted last week’s auction of contemporary art at Sotheby’s.  

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  THE AD FEATURED what appeared to be an out-of-focus, black-and-white photo of a nerdy guy with no lips and a screwed-up collar. The estimated sale price of this apparent photographic reject was $3-4 million.
        Disregarding the journalistic integrity that is my trademark, I just assumed that a huge practical joke was being perpetrated. Either that or Sotheby’s must be satirizing the very idea that someone would willingly pay $4 million for an out-of-focus picture in the middle of a recession.
        Turns out, I gave the auction house too much credit. The $3- to 4-million price tag was legit.
        I had to find out more about this $4-million monstrosity, so, risking a sarin gas attack, I jumped on the subway and headed immediately to the Sotheby’s Manhattan headquarters to look for myself.
        Up close, I could immediately see that the blurry portrait is not a photograph, but a normal, oil-on-canvas painting of a guy named Volker Bradke, an assistant to the artist, Gerhard Richter.
        Whatever. So it’s a painting. That doesn’t mean it’s not appalling in its ugliness. But don’t take my word for it. Check it out for yourself at http://search.sothebys.com/jsps/live/lot/LotDetail.jsp?sale_number=N07727&live_lot_id=42. Don’t adjust your monitors. It’s supposed to be blurry. If I wanted a painting like this in my home, I’d buy a print from Sears and walk around the apartment with my glasses off.
       Sure, from 50 feet away (who has a living room this big?), it’s possible to appreciate some of the painting’s details: Bradke is meant to resemble a hip techno-rocker (although why is one of the collars of his shirt caught under the lapel of his sport jacket? My wife would kill me if I left the house that way). Over Bradke’s right shoulder is a smiling fat guy who resembles Walter Cronkite. Over his left shoulder is a snarling fat kid wearing a shirt that appears to have been smeared with carbon paper.
        If it’s a statement on western nutrition, I’m all for it. But Herr Chubby’s smile mocked me. It is, in short, hideous.
        I thought, perhaps, I wasn’t being fair to the artist, so I did a little research on Richter and first discovered that he’s not, in fact, the goalie for the New York Rangers. Next, I discovered that Richter’s “Volker Bradke” is quite an esteemed piece of art. In fact, it was part of a multi-phased project to turn the nerdy looking Volker Bradke into a German cult figure in 1966.
        Richter photographed Bradke (blurry, of course), made a fuzzy home movie of him, imprinted his name on stationery and hung banners bearing his foggy likeness all over the place. According to Sotheby’s, this makes “Volker Bradke”—the painting—a “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which, roughly translated, means “Man, was this guy obsessed with his assistant or what?”
        Full disclosure? I’m not a total moron. I realize that the blurring was intentional, an effort by Richter to intensify the moment by making the viewer think it was captured by chance. I realize that the blurring forces the viewer to think about the bigger issues of “conception” and “perception” rather than merely staring at a snapshot of Bradke, the uber-everyman.
        But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
        In the Sotheby’s gallery, the monumental catastrophe that is “Volker Bradke” was made even clearer by its proximity to some positively triumphant works of art, including Warhol’s “Colored Liz” (which you know is a great work of art because you can call the artist by one name even though he has two).
        Then again, on another wall near “Volker Bradke” was Mark Rothko’s “Untitled.” Of course, it’s untitled. What would you call a large red rectangle over a slightly smaller brown rectangle? (The name “S—t on a Shingle” comes to mind.) I’m not usually one of those cultural boors who deride art by saying, “My kid could do that!” But, in this case, my kid did just do that and now I have to go clean it up.
        As I was taking in Rothko’s work, I overheard three Sotheby’s workers debating the company’s recent expenditure of $12,000 to construct barriers to prevent people from getting too close to these priceless “works” of “art.”
        “Give me $5,000 and a baseball bat,” said one of the guards, “and I’ll keep people away from the paintings.”
I don’t know much about art, but I know a fraud when I see one.

       I considered that to be the most trenchant commentary on modern art since Rene Magritte wrote “This is not a pipe” on a painting of a pipe.
        The auction was the next night, so, again risking death in the subway, I headed to the East Side to meet the man or woman who would have the audacity to plunk down millions to take home “Volker Bradke.”
        The Sotheby’s sale was the last in a week’s worth of contemporary art sales by auction houses all over the city. I had been heartened to read that sale prices were way down. Monday’s auction at Phillips’s netted “only” $8.3 million—far short of the $10.5- to $15-million estimate. The next day’s auction at Christie’s rang up sales of only $25.1 million, again well below its estimate of $31.6-44.2 million.
        If, as I hypothesized, a fraud was being perpetrated, at least some people were hip to it.
        But the Sotheby’s sale proceeded at a blistering pace. The first item for sale—a three-painting work by my nemesis Richter—set the tone for the evening by selling for $3.1 million, three times more than the estimate (and, by the way, “estimate” is fancy auction-house term that, roughly translated, means “a number that is artificially inflated in order to foment the idea that an otherwise lousy painting is, in fact, a great painting—but not so great that the owner is unwilling to part with for a price that vaguely approximates that artificially inflated estimate”).
       Next came a hideous painting by Sigmar Polke that seemed to depict a female roller skater encountering a fissure in the space-time continuum. When she emerges on the other side, she slips, apparently, a banana peel. It is repulsive, yet it went for $120,000.
        My faith in humanity—or at least the rich, art-buying portion of humanity—was restored when A.R. Penck’s painting, “Standart,” which depicts a stick figure with a small penis, sold for far lower than the $100,000 estimate (apparently, size does matter).
        That faith was again shaken when Sotheby’s offered Maurizio Cattelan’s sculpture depicting a bird atop a cat atop a dog atop a braying donkey. The title—”The First, They Said, Should be Sweet Like Love; The Second Bitter, Like Life; And the Third Soft, Like Death”—really doesn’t do justice to taxidermy of this magnitude. It went for $550,000.
        By the time Roy Lichtenstein’s “Ball of Twine” came up for sale, I really could not shake the impression that a very large practical joke was being perpetrated. I actually like the work of Lichtenstein—Gunther Lichtenstein, that is, who owns a deli near my apartment—but this painting depicts, quite literally, a ball of twine (and not even a good-looking ball of twine). It sold for $3.7 million, nearly twice the estimate.
        Finally, the long-awaited Richter was up for sale. I must admit, I was a little nervous as I waited to see whether my fellow Americans would resist this obvious affront to human decency.
        The bidding opened at $2 million. The silence was amazing. It took all of 10 seconds before the auctioneer realized that he didn’t have a bid! No one wanted the Richter! Not only was I vindicated, but so were millions of Americans who take blurry vacation snapshots every day and throw them into the garbage rather than subject them on their friends!
        Afterwards, I tried to contact the owner of “Volker Bradke,” identified only as a “private European collector,” but Sotheby’s wouldn’t pass along my message (possibly because my “message” was, “Ha, ha! That’ll teach you to foist your hazy trash on these shores!”) and my subsequent calls to Sotheby’s press office were not returned.
        I guess they didn’t want to hear me say, “I told you so!”

Gersh Kuntzman is also a columnist for The New York Post. His website is at http://www.gersh.tv
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc.
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