It’s 2013, and much of the world still reels from the global economic collapse. Yet in the auction rooms of London, artworks are selling for record-breaking prices. Seeking a place in this gilded world is Martin, a junior specialist at a prestigious auction house. Martin spends his days catering to the whims of obscenely wealthy clients and his nights drinking in grubby pubs with his demoralized roommate. However, a chance meeting with Marina, an old university friend, presents Martin with a chance to change everything.
Pursuing distraction from her failing marriage and from a career she doesn’t quite believe in, Marina draws Martin into her circle and that of her husband, Oleg, an art-collecting oligarch. Shaken by the death of his mother and chafing against his diminishing influence in his homeland, Oleg appears primed to change his own life—and perhaps to relinquish his priceless art collection long coveted by London’s auction houses. Martin is determined to secure the sale and transform his career. But his ambitions are threatened by factors he hasn’t reckoned with: a dangerous attraction between himself and Marina, and half-baked political plans through which Oleg aims to redeem himself and Russia but which instead imperil the safety of the oligarch and all those around him.
Hammer is a riveting, ambitious novel—at once a sharp art world exposé, a tense geopolitical thriller, and a brooding romance—that incisively explores the intersection of wealth, power, and desire.
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Chapter 1 OCTOBER LIGHT. Afternoon light. He strides back to work along Mayfair streets with his sandwich in its little triangular piece of packaging.
Summer, when it came, came late, but now the good weather is hanging on into these shortened autumnal days. He walks through Berkeley Square, across the small park in the middle of it. The plane trees rustle with a breeze unfelt at street level, shedding substantial leaves, which descend slowly enough to surprise the eye, as though through liquid. Businessmen out, eating lunches, their ties removed, collars loosened. A woman with her back against the trunk of a tree in her skirt suit, her shoes off, her feet placed together on the dry dirt beneath the spreading roots. A couple cross-legged on the grass, each on a plastic bag rent open to its maximum extent.
It is a wishful performance, Martin thinks, as if Londoners hope that the embrace of these fine days can somehow prolong them, as if the inhabitants of the city think that they can dream it southward.
At the exit of the square, a bustle of pigeons peck at crumbs beneath a bench, brazen, flapping off only as he is almost upon them, and then taking back the space with their Mick Jagger struts as soon as he has passed. He pauses at the road as a taxi accelerates to beat the lights. He crosses, heads for the auction house.
The afternoon trade is picking up in the boutiques and the art shops. He sees the assistants at work. Greeting, straining to not strain. Working to facilitate, to go unnoticed until needed. See-through men and women like him. Chameleons or shades. Some classical category of the damned or forgotten.
ONE CAN feel the imminence of the contemporary sale as soon as one is through the doors. Thronging of people taking their last looks at the lots—a few prospective buyers, and then the enthusiasts, the art students, the odd tourist wandered in. The clatter of the end of lunch service in the restaurant. The clip at which the other staff go about their tasks. The phones ringing. The clanking of the freight elevator, audible from the reception area, as tables, chairs, and pieces of camera equipment are moved for tonight’s event.
Martin climbs the crème-carpeted stairs toward the upper galleries. The first time he came to the auction house he was surprised by the homeliness of the décor—not the sterile white finish of the contemporary gallery, but something closer to a decent regional hotel. Part of the house’s ethos is expressed in this choice, Martin supposes: the assertion of its existence before the modern gallery, prior to the reverential emptiness of the contemporary space.
He passes through another door toward the offices, climbs a set of steep stairs. An anxiety has been rising through him all week, as is normal when sales approach. He sits at his desk and eats his sandwich—a damp prawn mayonnaise that clags around his gums. It is the last he will eat until after the auction is done.
He will be bidding on behalf of one of the house’s clients, and he broods on this as the afternoon stretches on. One must simply raise one’s paddle and speak clearly, and yet in such simplicity lie old anxieties: the voiceless cries of bad dreams, the wince of answering a roll call at a new school.
AT FIVE, a text from James, his housemate and childhood friend. Have you done your team yet? Martin has forgotten about fantasy football, about the midweek round of Premier League fixtures. Despite all the bustle around him, he logs onto the website for a moment, makes a couple of substitutions. James will have spent hours this morning poring over his selections, and Martin feels he must make some effort of his own.
At six, he changes in the men’s toilets with a couple of other junior specialists. The smell of hair gel and cologne. The plumbing whispering and choking. A collective giddiness as the sale approaches. He puts on a fresh shirt. He likes to dress well, a charge given to this pleasure, he feels, by the way that in the household he grew up in such care over one’s appearance was considered unnecessary, vaguely suspicious.
Martin’s parents are hippies. The home in which he was raised, in which his parents still live, is part of a Jacobean manor divided up in the seventies. Semicommunal living, they call it. “We still have normal day jobs,” Martin’s mother would say to parents of Martin’s friends, as if such a thing should even need underlining. “We still have our own units.” It’s a slightly bashful utopianism: communal garden work, meals together at the weekends, still the smell of lentils about the place, the odd beard or pair of clogs, children running free through the hall and outbuildings, half-clothed on summer days. Residents tend to leave when their kids grow up, but Martin’s mother and father have stayed, the longest-serving tenants, sources of lore, guardians of tradition.
It was a good childhood. Only occasionally embarrassing. They were ahead of the world in their environmentalism (far enough, Martin sometimes thinks, for him to have seen the ineffectiveness of it all). To not reuse a plastic bag was a cardinal sin in his childhood home. After Martin’s dad broke his wrist falling from the roof of a toolshed, Martin took his sandwiches out of his rucksack at school one day and found them wrapped in a polythene bag that read PATIENT’S BELONGINGS.
Perhaps it is reaction against this background that inclined Martin toward the auction house, with its ostentatious neatness, with the daily need to talk calmly of millions of pounds as a butcher talks of kilos of mince.
He takes some time at the mirror applying wax to his hair. Henry, another junior specialist, hums a phrase from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from one of the toilet stalls.
WHEN THE public start to arrive, Martin is up in the offices: fielding calls from clients, fetching documents on behalf of his boss, Julian, who will be conducting the sale tonight.
When he descends toward the reception area, it’s busy. Chatter rises up the stairwell, surging and then ebbing as voices compete to be heard. He pauses on the stairs and watches the crowd in the entranceway: clusters of people, growing and collapsing according to the competing gravities of the powerful and renowned. Client relations staff move between the punters, handing out bidding paddles and catalogues, greeting potential buyers, making their practiced small talk. He is not unable to see the scene as his mother might, to be nauseated by the sheer good taste of the attire, the frivolous timbre of the chatter, the whiteness of the teeth of a man who throws back his head and laughs.
Still, it’s too easy to condemn the art market with reference to its worst participants. There is the work, and then there are the people with the money necessary to buy that work, and the house has no choice in the latter. That is the realm of politics and business and financial markets. Martin is able to induce a sense of vertigo in himself by considering the manner in which money finds its way into the room. Determined by what? By stocks or oil or decisions of the Chinese treasury?
He goes down into the hubbub smiling benignly. Henry, at the foot of the stairs, speaks with a collector, snaking his arm through the air, probably talking about some powder encountered in Courchevel last winter.
Martin moves into the crowd. The smell of dry-cleaned clothes. A woman ahead steps back from a splash of wine, spilled from the glass of the person addressing her. “She sold the beach house,” a man says, “and the cash is going into the collection.”
“Sashimi,” says a woman in another group. “Sashimi is a different matter.”
JULIAN IS in conversation with a dealer friend of his, Peter Beaufort. If Julian is in any way nervous about handling the sale, it doesn’t show in his body language. He has a thumb hooked in his waistcoat pocket. He inclines his head to listen to Beaufort, the smaller man, speak. As Martin approaches, Julian laughs at something the dealer has said, ruffles his hand through his own disordered white hair.
Martin hands his boss a couple of pages. The smell of Beaufort’s aftershave is thickly floral, fecund. The dealer looks at Martin without seeming to see him. Julian nods, winks, turns his attention seamlessly back to Beaufort. In seeing this gesture, a familiar wish returns to Martin: that he could carry himself as easily in this world as his colleagues do. And yet, he should be mindful that the appearance of ease does not preclude effort—a thought that should be native to a specialist in contemporary art.
Martin is liked well enough in this world, but this is a liking he has no control over. His raw earnestness earns him some credit, yet he is not nimble in his flattery. He leaves too much of himself exposed.
HE MOVES again, past caterers, past a woman weighing a bidding paddle in her hand like a tennis racket. He seeks clients he knows, faces open to greeting, to blandishments and reassurance. People are pressed so close he can smell their dinners on their breath, make out the marks of combs across scalps, the layering of foundation on cheeks. Martin keeps a green Moleskine upstairs on his desk with details of those he has dealt with—their interests, their purchases, their jobs and children. This work is not unlike matchmaking, finding a piece for a client, a client for a piece. A caterer moves past carrying glasses above her head.
He stops to talk with Alex Philpot, an executive at a pharmaceutical company (which Martin’s mother once picketed). He is tall, blond. He looks German, even though he is not. Martin enjoys talking with Philpot, who is acute in what he likes, mannerly and considerate: no doubt once a boy considered a credit to his school and family. Tonight, Philpot wants to talk about the Ed Ruscha in the catalogue. “He’s mastered the vernacular of the commercial culture,” he says to Martin.
“He is playing with the question of whether we may be charmed by this vernacular. The issue is not is it compelling, but is it permissible. There is a meta question of judgment in the pieces that is open, I think. Which is actually, to my mind, generous.”
Behind Philpot’s shoulder Martin catches sight of a client, Mrs. Dempsey, making her slow way through the crowd. With reluctance, Martin excuses himself.
Mrs. Dempsey walks with a stick. She is wearing a neck brace and, under that, pearls. “How wonderful that you are here tonight,” says Martin.
She looks up sharply, studies him. He wonders whether there is a genuine recognition there. “You can’t just give up at my age,” she says. “You can’t just lie down and wait to die.”
“Yes.” He tries to think of something agreeable to say. Or not agreeable, exactly, because Mrs. Dempsey is not the kind of woman who tolerates agreeableness.
She grips her stick with knobbly hands. “Hot in here,” she says.
“It’s a busy night,” says Martin. “It’s all the body heat of this crowd.”
Mrs. Dempsey frowns. “I’d have thought you’d have accounted for that and not run the heaters earlier in the day.”
“Yes,” says Martin. “I suppose we should have.”
Martin wonders what else to say. He looks at the people around, sees a profile that he knows, waits for the resemblance to break, for a turn of mouth or eye to betray the fact that he is watching a stranger. Yet it is Marina, a friend from university, the ex-girlfriend of Martin’s housemate James. She’s married to a rich Russian, a collector, and Martin has expected her at auctions before, has seen this expectation disappointed enough that now her presence here is a surprise.
She sees him and grins. He feels a slight jolt at this confirmation. He smiles back, or he is smiling already (because a slightly idiotic beam is his default expression on nights like these), and then she is moving toward Martin, making space with an arm held out ahead of her.
He says, “So nice to see you,” to Mrs. Dempsey, in a way that he hopes conveys his need to move on.
“If you say so,” says Mrs. Dempsey.
He steps toward Marina’s approach, away from the old lady. Not the best practice, of course, to leave her so abruptly. Marina slips past a group of dealers. They haven’t had direct contact since university. Martin read about her marriage to Oleg Gorelov in the papers. The house invites the man to each auction they hold, but since Martin has been working here Gorelov has never come.
Martin is struck newly by Marina’s tallness. She has a long forehead, a slightly snub nose. Hers is an odd kind of prettiness, he has thought before, that seems on the edge of something else. She hasn’t changed, he thinks, and finds himself wondering with concern whether she will think the same of him. The last time he saw her he was still an immature student: a boy, really, with a helix ear piercing and a Penguin introduction to Nietzsche. There is an ironic sort of smile on her lips, but she was always like that. She was tolerant, he thinks, was more kind and patient than she ever needed to be. She embraces him when she arrives, says, “How long?”
They do the calculations together, settle on sometime in summer nine years before. She studies him, and he is glad to sense that she is noting differences from the boy she previously knew.
“Very smart,” she says. She nods up and down to indicate his attire.
“Yes,” he says “Thank you. You too.”
She ignores the compliment. He is too slow with her still. Flat-footed. “You work here?” she says.
“You’re going to ask about me?”
He smiles. “I know a bit about you.”
“Oh yes? My husband?”
“My bosses are interested in your husband.”
“Right,” she says. “I’m sure they are. And you too, I suppose?”
“You’re here with him?”
“He’s going to bid tonight?”
He recalls Marina in those university days in his and James’s old flat. Her sitting with her legs tucked under her in an old rattan chair they’d dragged off the street. Her levering open a window that had been painted shut by the landlord and hunching to blow cigarette smoke through the crack she had worked. She was studying music and literature. She explained poststructuralism to him, alternately exasperated with him and with the theorists she spoke of. She was always confident, embodied, vaguely regal in the certainty of her choices. He was a nervous boy, rushing about, trying to please. She was good at cutting through his chatter, his frantic affect. She’d already done a lot of the things other students were trying for the first time, and so she was interested in actually studying. She would listen to him talk and offer back a spare response that undid him. He read books like a teen, with a hunger for fine phrases and nubs of wisdom. She read properly, widely, and with care. He wants to crack the seal on these old memories, but this is not the place, he thinks. It was a long time ago. There is something in the way she is watching him that makes him think she is glad to see him, though it seems unlikely.
On the back of this pleasure, he feels a slight dread, however. James has never gotten over her, and as they talk Martin already feels the onus of having to relay what is said to James, to describe Marina, who looks so well, who puts out a hand and clasps Martin’s forearm to interrupt him and repeat a thought: “Nearly a decade,” she says. “Christ!”
He wants to concur with the appropriate enthusiasm, yet he doesn’t quite know what to say, can’t shake the thought of James. Involuntarily, he looks toward the doors of the sale room, and Marina sees this, says, “Of course you have work to do.”
He assents to this with the requisite amount of apology, a click back into the automatic manners of the night. She suggests they should meet sometime, and he agrees, though he knows the suggestion is made only to be polite. She turns in the direction by which she arrived, a professional care intruding on Martin’s awareness now: the desire to see the group she moves back to and to locate Gorelov. She presses back through the crowd, and Martin cranes his neck to see her approach a heavyset man with a sun-spotted head, who turns to take in her approach and turns back to Julian to whom he has been talking. Beaufort is there too. It is, of course, a major opportunity to have Gorelov here. He used to buy a lot from auction houses and private dealers, apparently, but hasn’t been active in the art market recently. Julian speaks, fluttering his hands, and the man listens, strikingly still and offering a curt nod only occasionally.
THE SALE room is bright—lit for cameras already—empty but for the staff setting up: specialists, client relations people, and the porters in their black aprons and white shirts. Pictures, lots in the sale, line the walls. Behind the podium at which the phone bidders will stand hangs a large Gerhard Richter abstract, all metal and air and hurry.
Martin takes a breath, enjoys the emptiness of the space, the readiness.
He goes over to claim a position at the phone bidding desk, unfolds the piece of paper on which is noted the phone number of the client he will be bidding for and the lots that the client would like to follow. The client is after two more minor works: a Cy Twombly sketch and an Anish Kapoor sculpture. That is why Martin and not a more senior member of staff or a private dealer has been assigned to offer on the pieces. Still, both will sell for many multiples of Martin’s annual salary. Earlier, Martin could have used the house database to link this customer number to an actual identity. He chose not to, however, sensing this would be a distraction, a source of unnecessary pressure. It is useful, anyway, not to prejudge a client’s resources, but to leave them to demonstrate their wealth in the only way that matters: by placing a successful bid.
THE DOORS of the auction room open to admit the punters, who come in carrying their conversations with them, taking time to seat themselves, an effort to observe the room concealed behind their casual talk. The specialists stand ready at their desks, the large white phones they will use to dial out to clients in front of them. The Internet people are tapping at laptops on a podium to the left of the block. Everyone is well-dressed. Among the younger staff there are hints of those already trying to distinguish themselves sartorially by leaning into the eccentricities of an expert: red socks, a colorful pocket square, a striking brooch. The porters stand with their hands clasped in front of them, blank passport-photo faces: the handsome children of good families with degrees from the best universities in the country waiting only to heft pictures. This is all a key part of the sale, of course: the superfluity, the sense projected in every possible respect of elegant casualness, of easy underuse.
Up above the hall, Martin knows, a handful of bidders are being shown into private booths, where they can watch the auction from behind smoked glass. The cameras in the corners of the sale room will transmit video of the proceedings to another smaller room in which those unable to fit into the main space will watch the auction play out on flat-screen TVs. The stream will be transmitted out over the Internet, available to anyone who wants to tune in to follow the pictures sold, to watch the prices ascending on the ticker behind Julian.
Many of the punters are quieter now, whispering if they talk at all. There is an anxiety in the air that is not unwelcome. People do not come to this room solely to acquire artworks, but also for the chase, the outmaneuvering of others, the zero-sum game.
Julian enters the hall through a door behind the block, and the hum of the crowd falls away completely.
Martin spots Marina in the middle of the rows of chairs. She sits straight, Gorelov next to her. Gorelov lifts up and examines his paddle very carefully. There is a resoluteness about the man that is compelling. Marina seems to watch him from the corner of her eye.
JULIAN REACHES the block, takes out some notes from a leather satchel, places them down. He takes his time. He is careful, performing already. It is not easy for a salesman to bear himself completely without apology. Julian’s first remarks are firm, steady. Martin is a believer in atmosphere, in small actions that make or destroy a night, and he already feels that this night is going well. Julian indicates the first lot on the right wall of the auction room, which is a Christopher Wool work on paper: a smaller offering to draw the room in. The word spokesman is spelled out in stenciled letters, broken, running across three lines, chopped into arresting incoherence. Julian sets off the bidding at £300,000, raises the price in increments of £50,000. His gaze is steady and concentrated. The number appears on the projector screen to his right, beneath it other currencies—the dollar, the euro, the yen, the renminbi, and the ruble—churning along.
Every auctioneer is a self-caricature at the block, and in front of the room Julian is erudite, impatient, and slightly blunt. “Are you bidding, or are you not bidding?” he says to Henry, as Henry’s phone bidder seems to hesitate. He looks over his glasses at the room. He sends his arms out ahead of him to acknowledge bids from the floor, like a man swimming a slow front crawl. He takes the piece easily above its reserve.
The Wool sells to a phone bidder represented by Ella, the Chinese market specialist, who is working three phones from the middle of the desk.
A Hockney watercolor comes and goes, a small Warhol painting of a dollar sign, a Wade Guyton, a Jeff Wall photograph. Some punters hold catalogues on their knees, noting down the price of each lot as it sells. It’s good sport to predict the realized prices. Martin himself has played this game as an observer, enjoyed the brief sensation of omniscience born of seeing a piece go for what he’d guessed.
MARTIN CALLS his client before the Twombly sketch is on the block. The man who picks up the phone has an American accent. He is inside a vehicle. Martin hears shaking metal, the rumble of tires on a road.
Martin clarifies the sum the man is prepared to pay. He waits for the previous lot, the Ed Ruscha, to finish. Philpot has his arm up in the middle of the room, but the price churns up ceaselessly until the lot is fought only between Ella’s client and Beaufort. They swap the leading bid until, at £1.5 million, the dealer slumps back into his chair and the hammer comes down on Ella’s offer.
There is a murmur in the room. The auction is surpassing expectations, a sense rising in those present that this could be a significant night, the kind of sale noted in the popular press tomorrow.
When the Twombly starts, Martin can’t get in a single bid before it is beyond his client’s maximum. The action in the hall is so quick. He asks if the man wants to raise his offer, but the lot is rising further away from them as Martin is posing the question. He makes his apologies as the price passes half a million.
Ella takes the Twombly, and then three of the next five pieces. In intervals between the lots, punters on the floor lean together, speculating as to the identity of the client she is working for, trying to find a line of taste in the pieces bought. They are blue-chip works, hard to gauge a particular sensibility from. Perhaps it is just an art investment fund, the acquisitions made upon the advice of a few experts, money buying money. Even in this, though, there is some conflicted excitement on the part of the art community, as in a village at which mining prospectors have arrived, confirming suspicions the locals have long held about the unique value of their land.
THE ELEVENTH lot—a small, uncharacteristic Anselm Kiefer—doesn’t sell. Julian doesn’t push it, however, but lets it go, placing the hammer down quietly on its side. The room gains more energy from this, if anything. The next lot goes for more than its high estimate.
Martin calls the client again. Something goes wrong in the middle of the process. “The number you have dialed has not been recognized,” says the message. In the desire to not have the man waiting on the line, Martin has left the call later than he should have. On the second attempt, the phone rings eight times before the client answers. Martin, flustered, explains that lot fifteen is about to begin.
“Yes, yes,” says the man.
Julian is drawing clients through the bidding on item fourteen, and already the pace of that sale has tailed off.
The item Martin is to bid on is an Anish Kapoor sculpture: a giant metal disc, like a satellite dish, that is to be hung on the wall. It is buffed to a mirrored finish, the surface divided into inch-wide octagons, which break any reflection that falls upon it to incoherence, like a pixelated image. It is a fantastic piece, Martin thinks: double in the way of great works. The object and the image that object creates. The play of them both. A thing that cannot be examined without meeting one’s own reflection.
The previous lot is finished. A pause as the room absorbs this, a rising giddiness out there. “How much would you like to bid?” says Martin.
“This thing will appreciate, right?” says the man.
Martin hedges: “I wouldn’t like to speculate. But this is a blue-chip work, from a blue-chip artist. He is represented in major museums, famous collections—”
“He did the twisty sculpture for the London Olympics?”
A picture of the Kapoor looms upon the screen, like a cold planet.
“What is that called, that Olympics sculpture?”
“The ArcelorMittal Orbit, I believe.”
“I will start the bidding at five hundred thousand pounds,” says Julian.
“Go to two and a half,” says the man.
Julian begins. He moves in increments of £50,000.
Beaufort is bidding. Martin looks to his left to see Ella talking earnestly into her phone, her right hand twitching at her side. Bids come through from the Internet. Martin gets his hand up at £1.1 million, holds it for a moment.
The leading bid is taken back by a man in the middle of the room. Martin has never bid more than a million on anyone’s behalf. He talks rapidly into the receiver, describing the progress of the sale.
At £1.8 million, Julian takes another of Martin’s bids.
It is important for experts to know their place, to facilitate, to advise humbly. There are paintings that come through the storerooms again and again, stamped with the house’s brand from previous sales, and it is tempting to feel that some acquisitions are wasted on their buyers, valued more by those who sell them, those who’ve known them over decades. Though covetousness in an expert is never befitting. This is a point held to with pride by Martin’s superiors. Yet putting his hand up at £2.2 million, Martin senses that whatever their denials, his bosses must sometimes feel, as he does now, an illicit thrill to take part in an acquisition, to join in the lavish, potlatch spectacle.
He holds the top bid for a time. Julian looks around. “Do I have two-point-three?”
A paddle goes up, eventually, in the middle of the room. Then another, behind that. It’s Gorelov. He raises his paddle in the air patiently. Marina tracks her husband’s movement with a very slight turn of her head: a complicated spousal glance, Martin thinks. He loses himself for a moment, is brought back by Julian saying, “Two-point-five? Two million, five hundred thousand?”
Martin puts up his hand, says, “Yes.”
Julian turns. “Martin. I have two-point-five from Martin.”
“We have it at two-point-five,” says Martin to the man on the phone.
Meanwhile, Julian waits on £2.6 million, gets it from Gorelov.
“Do you want to raise your maximum?” Martin says.
Julian is looking at Martin.
Martin gestures to show that he is awaiting an answer. Julian takes the hint, makes some remarks about the Kapoor to the crowd.
“Two-point-seven,” says the client on the phone.
“Yes,” says Martin. He raises a hand.
The woman in the front row takes two-point-eight.
“Do you want to bid two-point-nine?” says Martin into the receiver.
“I need to check something,” says the client. There is a buzz, the rustle of movement. Don’t cut out, Martin thinks. He feels the eyes of the room on him. He realizes that he is no longer nervous.
“This is a wonderful piece in the artist’s catalogue,” says Julian to the room, stalling.
Another rustling on the end of the line. “Okay,” says the man.
“Two-point-nine,” says Martin firmly. Julian smiles.
“Three million?” says Julian. The woman shakes her head. Julian looks around the room.
Gorelov has not bid again, and for a moment, ascertaining this, Martin’s eye catches the gaze of Marina, who along with much of the room has been watching him. The telephone receiver is damp with the sweat of Martin’s hand. Julian points at him, strikes the gavel off the block. The picture of the item disappears from the screen.
Just like that—£2.9 million. Martin imagines it all physicalized, the sheer ridiculous extent: the oily tang of notes, the grub of so much currency. He feels he can taste it in his mouth.
“You won,” Martin says to the client. “Congratulations.” His voice is not quite his own.
“It is a fantastic sculpture,” says Martin.
“Yes,” the client says. “Yes. Yes.”
“It’s a great work,” says Martin again.
Martin cannot take the client with him in his enthusiasm. Don’t force it, he thinks. He consults his notes. Reads through the formalities to be worked out when the auction has concluded. He puts down the phone. He is giddy. He feels the energy of the room to have been raised further. The punters look alert, even this far into the sale. They watch Julian like children at a puppet show.
THE HEADLINE lot of the night is a Basquiat, titled Hannibal. The canvas is painted orange, drawn across a spiky homemade stretcher, motifs and words scratched over it, overlapping. In the bottom right corner, a skull-like head stands out, highlighted in blue. In the top left is Basquiat’s signature crown.
There is all sorts of high-flown analysis in the catalogue, as Martin knows, having assisted Julian in his drafting of the text. You could look at it and talk of Picasso, and African art, and the early graffiti scene of New York City. Yet that would miss the main fact, which is that it is, as Julian said, examining the picture for the first time in the storeroom, “a fucking great painting.” It is luminous and raw, a picture that creates its own terms of success, that invents itself before you.
Martin knows, as the porters carry the painting up to the block, gripping it with their white gloves, that it is going to sell well.
And it does. It starts at £3 million, and breaks the high estimate of £4.5 million easily. Julian raises the bids in increments with which one could buy a house. Martin looks at the painting, and back to his boss, who is tracking the movement of the crowd before him, reaching out a hand to acknowledge a bid, closing his fingers and drawing back.
The picture makes five and then six, and still the bids show no sign of slowing. Gorelov and another man are going for it in the middle of the hall, and a third person bids through Ella’s phone line.
That this should be a thing of such value is thrilling to Martin: this artifact of a lost New York, this piece of wounded weirdness. Martin’s mother would call the success of this picture tokenistic. She’d say that the work represents nothing more to these people than any other luxury good. And yet, Martin has met clients such as these, knows them at least to be skeptical when it comes to claims of value. And this homemade bundle of sticks and canvas, acrylic paint and scraps of paper has what value? What value beyond what the conjunction of these items presumes to do? Which is—excuse Martin for being too sincere—to tell a tale about what it is like to be a human being.
The price passes £7 million.
Ella is calling out more loudly, speaking sharply into the phone, snapping a finger to indicate a bid. There is a sense out on the floor that the auction is justifying itself, Martin thinks, that there is nowhere in the city that it would be better to be tonight.
The fact is that Martin never stopped believing any of the truths of his parents, but just wearied. Wearied of recycling, and boycotting Nestlé, and hoping that one day the British public would turn against a cynical tabloid culture. He got tired of losing, of the sense that integrity inhered in standing outside an important building with a placard and a flask of tea.
And yet there are places in the culture where humanity is celebrated. Where the complexity and strangeness of life is acknowledged. These works challenge. These works may be understood only in snatches. They solve nothing, maybe. But they exist. They speak of other worlds, of life on other terms. Ella snaps her fingers again, and in the middle of the room Gorelov slowly raises his hand. Martin imagines his mother’s response to all this. “It’s a feeding frenzy,” he can almost hear her saying. Within himself, he tells her that this is the market trying to understand its limits. “This hysteria?” he imagines his mother asking, exasperated. Yes, he thinks. This is money confronted by something beyond itself. Would she prefer the market to never be confounded?
Julian acknowledges Gorelov’s bid, grasping the air, drawing his closed fist back toward him. Ella snaps her fingers. The man raises his heavy arm again.
The picture goes past £8.5 million. The bids, slowing now, push it toward nine. Julian is delivering his patter with a wryness. He doesn’t disguise his surprise, his sense that such resolve on the part of the bidders is a little ridiculous. Nor does he disguise his pleasure in it, though. You’ll regret this tomorrow, his smile seems to say, and that is, of course, perfect, because what surer sign is there that you are having a good time? He draws his hand down from the air, points it to a dealer in the fourth row from the front. He draws the other hand up, the finger already pointed. He is looking out for the next bid, holding an upraised finger in the air in front of him, ready to bring it down above Gorelov, as if he knows the oligarch’s thoughts before Gorelov himself does. It comes refreshed to Martin as he watches: this is what he wants to do. He wants to stand up there and do that.
Marina looks at her husband. He sits there solidly.
Julian waits, his finger still raised, smiling. Something about that smile makes the crowd laugh, giddied and euphoric.
The man’s hand comes up.