The Auctioneer

My wife showed me the back of a circular, junk mail. There was an ad for an auction the next day. A police auction, items confiscated from felons. Jewelry, artwork, gold coins and such. It was at the community center, right next door to the gym we went to on Saturday mornings, so we decided we’d check it out, just for fun, after our workout.

I ended up not making it to the gym. I didn’t feel like getting up. I wanted to laze around and eat a big breakfast. My wife went without me; she never misses it. Besides, I remembered that I had an appointment. Somebody had responded to my Craigslist ad for my old inkjet printer. I hated that damn thing, it was so fussy, and ink went through it like shit through a goose. Printer ink, by the way, is apparently the most expensive substance known to mankind. Those cartridges they sell for $20 or $40 apiece or whatever? They’ve got the tinniest dollop of ink inside. The shit goes for $10,000 a gallon, retail, or what it would cost to buy enough ink jet cartridges to squeeze out a gallon.

The lady from Craigslist rang my doorbell and I peeked at her through the peephole. She seemed ok. She didn’t look like she would murder me over a $45 ink jet printer—although you never know, appearances can be deceiving. I let her in.

The inkjet printer was set up on the dining room table, hooked up to my laptop via the magic of WiFi. I printed out a picture of my daughters. It didn’t look right. “It looks like it went through one a them things they got on cameras,” she said. It was all fucked up, purple where it should have been black, no red or yellow. I’d just replaced the cyan cartridge, and had been fiddling with the setup, so I didn’t know what was going on. It had worked last time I’d used it, some months ago. I tried a few things for a few more minutes and finally I said, “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble getting this to work, so I’m going to make you a deal. I’m sorry I wasted your time, why don’t you just take it for free and see if you can get it working.”

“Really? Oh thanks! Today’s my kid’s birthday, I wanted to take a bunch of pictures and print them out.”

“Happy birthday! Good luck with it!”

“Thanks, I appreciate it. Birthdays are so expensive!”

“Don’t I know it? Take care.”

Mt Tamalpais Mill Valley

Now it was time to meet my wife at the auction. The parking lot at the community center was jammed—looked like today was a soccer day. I made a u-turn and parked in the back lot of the middle school next door. There were always spots there. Maybe because you weren’t supposed to park there, but nobody hassled you on the weekend. My wife’s car was there, one of the few in the lot, so I pulled up next to it. I got out and walked down a path over the creek and through the tennis courts towards the community center. Mount Tam loomed over the town, glistening in the sunshine. Everything was still wet from the much-needed rain we’d had overnight. It was gorgeous.

I entered the community center auditorium, a big rectangular hall. There was art propped up on easels all along the walls, with pricier-looking stuff up front—prints by Miro, Hirst, Chagall, that sort of thing. I spotted my wife.

“I filled out a bidding card already,” she said, handing me a sheet of round orange stickers. “If you see something you like, put a sticker on it, and they’ll bring it up for auction.”

I wandered around. Most of the art was the sort of stuff you see in tourist-trap galleries at Fisherman’s Wharf, South Street Seaport or Newport, RI, any of those maritime simulacrums. Speaking of which, have you ever been on a cruise ship? It was the kind of art they sell on cruise ships.

I saw a Keith Haring lithograph, black and white. On the back was penciled in “ed, 300,” and a “certificate of authenticity,” stating it was created as part of an Italian exhibition in the 1990s. What the hell did that even mean? Who printed up these Certificates of Authenticity? Was this a 300-print edition, or were they made by a graffiti artist named Ed 300? I suppose Certificates of Authenticity were impressive at one time, but now any idiot with an inkjet printer—an idiot with a properly working inkjet printer, that is—could make one. Or a thousand. And make it say something dramatic, like it was created for a show in Italy. But it was unsigned—not even “signed in the plate”— so it’s essentially a high-quality poster, framed nicely. My eldest daughter, 17, mentioned the other day that she loved Keith Haring. So I figured I’d pay $100, maybe even $200, for this nice-looking print, if nobody outbid me. It would make a good Christmas present.

The auction got underway and we took our seats. There were 100 or so people there, mostly middle-aged or older. Some were attired like they were on their way to the Captain’s table. Others were younger, wearing jeans and sweats; some had long hair. Actually, some of the older people had long hair too. All white. The auctioneer looked about 40, whip thin, wearing a flash dark suit, no tie. He began his spiel.

“Welcome everybody, we’ll get underway in just a few minutes, but first a few ground rules. Has anybody ever been to an auction before?” Most raised their hands. The auctioneer explained how to bid, using our bidding cards, or eye contact and a nod if we were feeling more sophisticated. “Has anybody ever been on a cruise ship auction?” A few hands went up. “Well then you were at a Park West auction. Me, I was the first—that’s right, the very first—auctioneer for Park West. But I got married and the whole ‘what happens on cruise ships stays on cruise ships’ lifestyle no longer worked, so I settled down with my family in North Carolina, and now I take this show on the road for a few weeks out of the year. Much better suited for a family man. Now, you’re going to see some great deals here today, and I’ve got some amazing artwork for you. Some of these pieces that might go for say, $35,000—and yes, we’ll see buys for that much today—may be worth millions in just a few years. You could invest your money in the stock market when it’s at all-time highs like now, or you can invest in art, which is a much better deal. But remember one thing—it’s easier to buy art than it is to sell it. So don’t buy something here today just to flip it, ‘cause that’s not easy. Don’t buy anything unless you love it. All right, let’s get underway.”

Two men in matching black t-shirts with the word “staff” in large, white block letters on the front, brought out a giant painting and placed it on a big easel at the front of the room. Brightly colored, it looked like a big cartoon, with some sort of folded paper pasted on it, or cut out of it, giving it a 3D effect. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Tarkay. Tarkay is one of the most collected artists on the planet right now. I’m lucky enough so that I started buying Tarkays 10 years ago. I bought eight of them for $50,000. Now? They’re worth over half a million. And guess what? I’m never, ever going to sell them, because they’re only going to be worth more over time. I’m living the Tarkay dream. So, can I get a starting bid on this painting?”

“One thousand,” somebody said behind me. The auctioneer looked at him and smiled.

“Yeah, nice try, we’ve got a 17,000 reserve on this. So anybody? How about 15?” Crickets. My wife and I looked at each other and grimaced. Damn that was an ugly painting. My wife said “Can you imagine what X”—X was a painter friend of ours—“would say about this?” We giggled.

“OK, 14? 12? C’mon people, this is ridiculous, can I even hear 10, 10 for the deal of 2014!”

The fancy-looking lady next to us said, “I’ll give you eight for it.”

“Lady, I’ll buy it from you for eight!” the auctioneer said. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but he didn’t look happy. He motioned for the staff to take it away, unsold. They brought back a chocolate-brown statue of a bird. “OK, let’s try something a little easier. What we’ve got here is a sculpture”—he picked it up and examined its circular base—“it’s a signed piece, bronze, of a falcon, or a hawk, I’m not sure. But the price of bronze is skyrocketing! So let’s make it easy. Do I hear $50?” A card shot up. “50 50 50 I’ve got 50 over there can I get $100? $100 to my right? Yes, 150 150, you’re out at 100, yes I have $150, 200 200 200 right here, yes, you are out at 150, can I get $300, c’mon people the marble base alone is worth $300.” The well-appointed woman to our left held up her card. “I’ve got 300 300 300 can I get 350? 350? 350? Anybody? $300 going once, twice, sold!” The woman smiled knowingly. It looked like a piece of junk I wouldn’t pay five bucks for at a yard sale, but what do I know? Maybe it was the Maltese falcon and she got a good deal.

Next, jewelry. The auctioneer held up a ring. It was a shiny blue ring. It was shiny and sparkly and pretty I suppose if you like that sort of thing. What can I tell you? I don’t know much about jewelry. I think I know less about jewelry than I do about bronze bird statues. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very special piece. It’s a cold-cut sapphire.” I believe that’s what he said, cold-cut, though I’m not sure. Now that I think about it, that seems like something you’d make a sandwich with. Maybe he said it was cold pressed? No, that’s olive oil. Anyway, there was something special about it, or so he said. “This is a 5-caret sapphire, retail price: $27,000. I’m going to get the bidding going here, who’ll give me $2000? Right there, $2500?” He ended up selling it for four grand, and didn’t seem pleased. “Great. Great. You got the deal of 2014. Bring that back to me next year and I’ll buy it from you for $5000.” I noticed streaks of sweat running down his cheeks.

One of the staff brought out a pair of really big paintings, or drawings, or prints or whatever, in swank gilded frames. The subject matter was vaguely religious—is that an outline of a bishop?—and it looked like there was some kind of reflective stuff or glitter along the possibly ecclesiastical outline. “Ladies and gentlemen, now we have two very special pieces, original Salvador Dalis, hand signed. Now, Dali was a strange character. Did you know he had a pet llama? Yes, it was called the Dali llama.” Nobody laughed. I wondered why he told such a lame joke when he could have regaled us with stories of Dali’s real pet, an ocelot named Babou. Dali brought Babou everywhere, on a diamond-encrusted leash. He’d take Babou to exclusive Manhattan restaurants, bars and nightspots and tether him to the table, bringing the ruckus.

Anyway, these particular Dalis were ugly, much worse than the one I had at home. Yes, I’ll admit it, I own a Dali print. My mom gave it to me a few years back. In the early ‘90s, when Dali was on his deathbed, a so-called friend gave my mom a tip: Her cousin was able to get Dali prints—hand-signed Dali prints—for as little as $2000. And you know what happens to an artist’s prices after he dies. So my mom bit. I’m not sure when she realized she’d been taken, but I think she hated looking at the thing—it’s butt ugly—so she asked me if I liked it and I said sure so she gave it to me. I’ve got it hanging on my office wall. My wife asks me periodically when we can get rid of it and I tell her after my mom dies. I doubt its value will skyrocket.

Turns out, Dali figured out an amazing scam back in the ‘60s—he could sell blank sheets of paper with his signature on them for $40 apiece. With the aid of an assistant, he could knock one out every two seconds, which works out to $72,000 an hour, more than he could make painting. Somebody would pull prints onto the paper at some later date. Some say he signed as many as 350,000 blanks. Dali claimed near the end of his life that he’d stopped doing it, and that he’d barely done it in the first place, and that many of the thousands of Dali prints floating around were fakes. So there were the real fakes and then there were the fake fakes. I’m not sure which kind I have, but they’re not worth that much—go do a search on Ebay if you won’t take my word for it.

The auctioneer piped up again. “So here we have a pair of Salvador Dali drawings, and these are hand-signed, my friends, by Dali himself. Can we start this off at $500? The frame is worth at least that much. If you don’t believe me, go down to the local frame shop and see what even the most basic frame costs, you’ll see. OK, 500, I have 500, 600, 700, can I get 800, I’ve got $900 over here”—he pointed into the audience—“you’re out at 800, yes we’ve got 1000, 1100, 1200, 1300, 1400, 1400, anybody for 1500? $1450 for an authentic hand-signed Dali, 1450? Wow, I can’t believe this, they won’t believe this back at the home office, 1400 going once, twice, sold for 1400.” Again to the well-appointed matron next to us, who was apparently either really dumb or really rich. Probably both. “You want the other one for 1400 too?” She smiled and nodded. “Sure, of course you do, an amazing deal made right here.”

By this time, slow on the uptake as I am, it finally dawned on me that this was not a police auction; still, I figured I’d wait a bit for that Haring poster for my daughter. “Next up, ladies and gents, something very special—an original oil painting. That’s right, not a print, an original, one-of-a-kind oil painting. This is what the 1% buys.” I examined the painting; it looked like a Kinkade. Remember him, Thomas Kinkade? The self-titled (and trademarked) ‘painter of light’? He was a bona fide genius. At the turn of the century, there were hundreds of Kinkade galleries in malls all across America. He knew what the average American wanted, so he’d paint landscapes, lighthouses, sunsets, little cabins in the woods, a puff of smoke coming out the chimney and you could just imagine a family of bears inside the cabin, sitting around the cozy fire drinking chamomile tea. Kinkade invented his own unique gimmick—his factory would churn out lithos of his paintings, and he’d sign them, and then he’d actually add a dash or a splash of white paint to accentuate some lighting. There’s some controversy over whether it was even he who added the highlights or one of his low-level factory apprentices. But the fact that the Painter of Light himself (supposedly) had laid hands on the work made it much, much more valuable than an ordinary signed lithograph. Those fuckers sold like hotcakes at the turn of the millennium, for thousands and thousands of dollars. See, I told you the guy was a genius. Kinkade never painted people—I don’t know, maybe he couldn’t draw hands—and his oeuvre frequently sports biblical allusions—a fish symbol here, a 3:16 there—the man knew his audience all right. Kinkade died young, 54, a few years ago, but according to the official website, an “atelier system,” made up of a “cadre of artists…carry on the Kinkadian tradition…a great attention to detail, a love of light and an overwhelming appreciation of the way a picture can tell a beautiful story.”

All that aside, I was, once again, mistaken—it was not a Kinkade. “This is an original Paul Pissaro. You’ve all heard of his grandfather, Camille Pissaro, one of the greatest of all French impressionist painters. His works sell in the many million of dollars. This is your chance to pick up an original Pissaro oil painting by his grandson Paul.” I’m actually not sure if it was ‘Paul’—it might have been Steve or Joe or Bob Pissaro, I don’t remember. It reminded me of that old joke: “Yes, I’m producing a play, and we got Fosse to do the choreography.”

“Really? Bob Fosse?”

“No, actually it’s Ralph Fosse, Bob’s cousin, but he’s very good. For the original score, we got Hamlisch.”

“Marvin Hamlisch?”

“No, Jack Hamlisch, his brother-in-law, but he’s tops. And for the lead in the play, we got Goulet!”

“Robert Goulet?”

“Yes!”

Anyway, the auctioneer was starting to look tired, he was pale and sweaty, but he gamely continued. “Now this Pissaro would sell in a Christy’s or Sotheby’s auction for well over $90,000. You could buy a new Porsche for that much, but what will a 911 be worth in 10 years? Now ask yourself, how much might this painting be worth in 10 years? You tell me which is the smarter investment. OK, let’s start the bidding off at the incredibly low price of $35,000. $35,000 do I have the bargain basement price of $35,000 for an original Pissaro?” He paused and looked at the painting, admiring it. Not a peep. “$30,000? $25,000?” He turned to one of his assistants and said, sotto voce, but his mike was still on so we all heard it loud and clear, “I’ll have to call the home office and see if they’d let me give it away for that little.” He turned back to the audience. “Seriously people? Nobody will even bid at $25,000?” Somebody in the second row got his attention. “$17,000? I doubt they’ll take it but I thank you for bidding sir, that is real money.”

He put a hand to his forehead. He was clearly frustrated. “I think we have to take a break and rethink this. I’m really disappointed in you people. I don’t even think I’m going to show you our best stuff, it’s a waste of my time, I’ll save the top shelf material for next week when we’re in Beverly Hills. Those people know good value when they see it. Let’s take a 10-minute break. There are refreshments in the back. If there are any pieces you want to bid on, let the staff know and we’ll bring them up here.”

I thought that’s what we’d done in the first place, but whatever. I told my wife I was going to walk around and got up and strolled to the back of the room to check out the refreshments. There was a palette of cheap bottled water, Crystal Arrow or something like that, private label stuff that’s probably tap water. Next to it, a heap of single-serving packs of junk food—potato chips, pretzels and the like. I picked up a bag of Ranch Style Doritos. I’d recently eaten a bag of Ranch Style Doritos that supposedly had been blessed by the Dali Lama. I shit you not. They were delicious. I ripped open the Doritos and popped one in my pie hole. It was like there was a party in my mouth. I doubted these had been blessed by the Dali Lama, or even Salvador Dali, but they were still delicious.

The Keith Haring print I’d seen earlier was still on display, with my circular orange sticker still on it. I picked it up and carried it to the front of the room and handed it to a staff member. I asked the auctioneer, “Are you going to be putting up the Harings soon?”

He turned to me, knitted his brow and said, “Harings? I think we sold all of those.”

“I just brought one up here.”

“OK great, we’ll get to it shortly.” He looked me right in the eye. It was like gazing into the eye of a rooster, or a fish, or a doll. All pupil. Black bottomless holes. His cheeks were decorated with parallel rivulets of sweat. I mentally shivered, quickly turned away and sat down next to my wife.

We got underway again shortly, and the auctioneer tried to foist more Tarkays, Dalis and Pissaros on us. Nobody was biting, not even the nice rich lady to our left. Then he brought up a Haring—not the one I’d picked out, a different one. I could see even from my 6th row seat that it was signed, signed big, with a garish red marker. “OK, what we have here, is a Keith Haring, one of the most collected artists on the planet. He died at the tender age of 32 and his works have soared in value ever since. This hand-signed piece has a reserve of $17,000. Anybody? He glanced over at me. I sat there stone faced. He frowned. “OK, forget it, let’s move on.”

I turned to my wife and said, “OK, let’s get outta here, this is a waste of time.”

She squeezed my hand and said, “I’m sorry I brought you here.”

“Nah, it was sorta fun in an awful kind of way. But let’s go.”

“I’m going to stay, I want to see what he asks for the gold coins. What do you think I should bid?”

The price of gold at the time was around $1200 an ounce, and going down. There was an 1886 $20 Morgan coming up, MS60. “Not more than $800,” I said, hoping that might stop her from bidding over $1000.

“OK, I’ll see you at home.”

I walked out of the community center and took the grassy path past the tennis courts, up over past the swamp to the middle school parking lot. I have a low emotional IQ. A lot of times I feel my feelings long after the fact, like it takes me a while to process them, figure out what they are. Now, I was seething. Police auction? Police auction my ass! Fucking rube art! Who did this guy think we were? Fucking asshole, adding insult to injury the way he was talking to us. Then I started getting mad at my wife, imagining her paying $1500 or even $1800 for the gold coin. I know she wanted that coin but c’mon! What the hell was the matter with her? I can’t believe she paid $1800 for that! I imagined myself reprimanding her in some future that would never happen.

I stopped and took a deep breath and looked at the mountain on the horizon. It was beautiful, still glistening from last night’s dampening. God, what was wrong with me? Why am I so angry? Why do I get angry so easily? I felt abused and disrespected. I hated the auctioneer, not just for what he’d done, but for making me feel this way. Then I remembered that nobody could make me feel one way or the other, I was the only one who could make myself feel this way or that way. Other people would do something, they would do what they do, but how I felt about their actions was up to me. I started feeling sorry for the auctioneer. The poor sap—he was clearly a seriously sick and suffering motherfucker. Those black, vacuous eyes, the sweat, the fast talking—the guy was coked out of his fucking mind. He was probably in trouble. Maybe he was late on his credit card, a car payment or even his mortgage. Or worse, maybe he owed a bundle to his bookie, or drug dealer. His wife probably hated him. I felt sorry for him. I’d been in similar situations myself and it was no picnic. Poor bastard.

I wasn’t angry anymore, not at the auctioneer for wasting my time, or at my wife for no reason, or even at myself for being angry.

I got into my car and turned the key. The car made clicking noises. The engine wouldn’t turn over. I tried again. More clicking. The battery was dead. I figured I’d better call Geico and get a jump. I doubt they’d be happy to hear from me. In just the past week, my daughter had had a fender bender and my wife got a flat tire on the highway and got towed. But I needed a jump.

I started to dig up their number from the insurance papers stuffed in the glove box when I saw my wife coming up the path. “What’s up?” she said.

“Dead battery.”

“Aw man! I think I have jumper cables.”

That’s right, she did! I hadn’t thought about them in years, since I’d put them in the little compartment in the trunk of her car, which is the way I suppose it should be with jumper cables.

I hadn’t done a jump in a while. I read the instructions in the user manual of my car. I knew if you didn’t do a jump right, you could short out your car’s electrical system, and if you really fucked up you could electrocute yourself. I followed the instructions and it was pretty easy. I started up my car, took off the cables, gave my wife a kiss and drove home to enjoy the rest of my Saturday. It was only 1:30pm.

–Bernard Meisler


Stories

2 thoughts on “The Auctioneer

  1. You took me back to my childhood stomping grounds, with the weird rich coke addicts and Porsche driving hippies under the guarding silhouette of the the sleeping lady! love it!

  2. Hi Bernard:

    Enjoyed reading your short story. I look forward to your novel one day. Hope the fires stay away from you and the family. Love to all.

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