I know, I know, it’s not QUITE autumn. But I found myself humming the song “Autumn in New York” last weekend—even singing it at one point, to the huge embarrassment of my young nephew Michael!—as my family and I spent a couple of whirlwind days in the Big Apple. The whirlwind applied to the emotions involved as well as the pace of the days.
The main purpose of our sojourn in the city was to attend an auction at Sotheby’s. In April my brother David contacted the auction house about selling several items from our parents’ collection of Indian art. We were/are in need of money, and we were also a bit nervous about having a lot of art in our homes without being able to afford to insure it adequately.
Since our initial contact, we have spent a lot of time talking on the phone with the wonderful staff at Sotheby’s, saying goodbye to paintings (I will particularly miss the toy that used to hang on my wall here in Massachusetts), and working on the catalogue essay about our parents.
I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to be at the auction, watching paintings I had lived with all my life go out into the wider world, but David and his wife Leigh convinced me that it would be an interesting experience. So on Saturday I boarded the Megabus in Hadley, Massachusetts, and sailed down the highway toward the metropolis.
The bus ride was delightful, particularly the spectacular drive down Fifth Avenue when we finally reached the city. From my perch in the front of the bus’s upper story I could see women promenading in colorful African-inspired costumes in Harlem, crowds clustered in front of the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums, the lush greenery of Central Park, and the lively windows of elegant department stores and boutiques.
We all stayed in a tiny suite in a hotel near Times Square; the windows seemed almost brighter at night than by day thanks to the area’s signature neon. I do love New York. It’s like a giant nightlight. On Saturday evening we ate fabulous Brazilian food.
Before dinner, however, we stopped in at the reception for Asia Week at Sotheby’s. There we saw our art in a new context. We also had the opportunity to look at exquisite Chinese scrolls, fans, and furniture that were to be offered at auction later in the week.
On Sunday morning we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We’re trying very hard to convince Michael that New York is a place to absorb culture, not just shop at Nintendo World and FAO Schwartz. Being a 12-year-old boy, he was particularly taken with the displays of weapons and armor, although we did manage to sneak in a little art along the way.
Sunday afternoon we saw the comedy Peter and the Starcatcher. I hadn’t seen a show in New York in years so I had convinced the family to book discount tickets in advance. When I discovered that David, Leigh, and Michael had dinner plans with friends for Sunday evening, I quickly ran to another theater and bought myself an orchestra seat (full price—ouch!) for the evening performance of An Enemy of the People. A girl can always use a little Ibsen in her life.
The auction itself, which took place on Monday afternoon, was fascinating. Most of the art was displayed via video, but a few key pieces (including a couple of ours) were brought to the auction room. Just before the auction a man in a cherry picker zoomed about the room to point spotlights at the works.
Bidders were “present” in three ways: in the room, on the other end of several phones monitored by Sotheby’s employees, and on the internet. The auctioneer, Henry, could see the web bids on a special screen in the back of the room; he was very suave and smart keeping all the different types of bids straight.
The screen at the front of the room showed a picture of the piece or pieces up for bid at the moment, along with the amount of the current bid in a variety of currencies. I was a little weepy as we said goodbye to the lovely lady pictured below, but watching the bidding distracted me from my tears.
Some of our pieces did very well, exceeding the amounts our team—Priyanka, Laurie, Jackie, and Henry—had predicted. Some attracted a little less attention (and money!) than they and we had hoped.
Apparently, the rupee isn’t doing well vis-à-vis the dollar at the moment. So Sotheby’s had trouble finding bidders for the centerpiece of the collection, a large canvas by the late M.F. Husain.
We talked to Priyanka about it just before the auction and decided that we didn’t want to lower its minimum price too much. We are fond of the painting, which my father acquired in the early 1970s because the artist wanted it to go to a good home and didn’t want to sell it to anyone else.
In the end it will come home to us, as will a couple of other pieces that didn’t meet their minimum bids. We’re actually thrilled about this. We could have used a little more money. Who couldn’t? I’m still trying to figure out how I’ll pay all my bills going forward. But we also love the art, both for itself and as a link to our late parents.
Happily, that link actually grew stronger through the process of consigning the rest of the art for sale. Leigh and David threw themselves into the task of doing research on the art and our parents’ reasons for collecting, and I wrote the essay about Jan and Abe that opens the catalogue. The photo below, which we found while going through boxes of old papers, illustrated the essay. We think it was taken around 1960.
Jackie, who did the rest of the writing for the catalogue, told us that she, Laurie, and Priyanka fell in love with the photo when I sent it in. (They all watch Mad Men and love the 1960s.) She ran into Priyanka’s office with the image and said, “Meet the Weisblats!”
As I wrote the essay and my siblings and I edited it together, we gleaned new information about our parents. I now actually know what my father did for a living … more or less. (When asked in my youth, I always responded that his profession consisted of talking on the telephone.)
We have a renewed appreciation for their energy, their openness to new experiences, and the ways in which they reached out to people all over the world.
And of course we appreciate their taste in amassing such a lovely collection of art … and in producing such a wonderful family. They were with us in spirit at Sotheby’s, and much of their art will continue to adorn our walls for years to come.