On the evening of May 3, a rough-hewn man in a dark sport coat walked into the Sotheby’s auction room on York Avenue. He picked up a bidding paddle at the registration desk and was seated by the staff near the back of the room, in the faraway seats treated as Siberia in the art world’s hierarchy. In the gala atmosphere that now pervades the major evening auctions, the man seemed an odd figure. “He looked more like a KGB agent than a collector,” recalls art dealer Laszlo von Vertes, who sat directly behind him. “His nose looked broken, like a boxer’s. He had dyed hair and cheap shoes, like a bodyguard. If he walked into my gallery, I wouldn’t have sold him a painting.”
The crowd seemed buoyant that evening, reflecting the hot art market and the major paintings on offer. But things started slowly. Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer launched the sale with a Vuillard still life, which failed to break its low estimate. The next, a floral Monet, did better. Then the rough-hewn man started making vigorous use of his paddle. First he won a Monet landscape for $5 million, a cool $2 million above the high estimate. But that was merely prelude.
The star work that evening was Pablo Picasso’s 1941 Dora Maar au Chat, one of the largest portraits he painted of his Parisian lover, Dora Maar. Its high estimate stood at $50 million, but the bidding quickly soared to $60 million, then $65 million—and the man at the back of the room was coming on strong. Typically, bidders are subtle with their signals to the auctioneer: an eyebrow twitch, a nod, a removal of the glasses. But for the Dora Maar, says Von Vertes, the unknown man was “waving his paddle so hard he was fanning my face.” Such intimidation tactics are not unheard of, but deploying them at these prices was extraordinary. “Usually, whenever the bidding goes above $5 million, it becomes more temperate in its rhythm,” says Meyer. “But he always came right back with the next bid.”
With the price rising so fast, some potential buyers wavered. “I know someone who planned to go to $60 million, and he never even got his hand in the air,” says London dealer Rory Howard. Still, there were five bidders fighting for the Dora Maar at $65 million. Casino king Steve Wynn, Ohio retail tycoon Leslie Wexner, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen—all experienced collectors—are said to have been among them. But only the man in the dark coat was visible on the auction floor; the others were bidding by telephone via a Sotheby’s staffer, following the action from afar or ensconced in private loges up above. “You used to see people bidding in the sales room at those levels, but not anymore,” explains Geneva private dealer Marc Blondeau, formerly head of Sotheby’s Paris. “The buyer was obviously not familiar with how the market works.”
The man’s presence made for high drama. “It was like a Wimbledon final with two players sweating it out,” recalls Paris-based collector Staffan Ahrenberg. “People looked to the bank of phones for the next bid, then to the back of the room. Left, right, left, right—and each time it meant a million dollars more.” Art-world etiquette forbids standing up for a better view, so the A-listers at the front were stuck craning their necks for a look at the man seated in Siberia. “In my whole history of auctions,” says Daniella Luxembourg, a former Sotheby’s executive who now runs her own London dealership, “I can never recall anything like that.”
One last phone bidder—widely rumored to be Wexner—fought to the end, but ultimately he too conceded to the mystery man’s unrelenting pace. The Dora Maar went for $85 million (plus another $10 million in commission), making it the second-most expensive painting ever auctioned.
When the hammer finally came down, the crowd applauded and Meyer asked the bidder for his paddle number—another sure sign, say auction veterans, that the man was an unexpected player. Simultaneously, David Norman, director of the Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern department, which organized the sale, dispatched staffers to surround the bidder. Observers sniped that the auction house wanted to ensure that the winner did not flee without securing his purchases. After all, he had accounted for nearly half the evening’s receipts—the Dora Maar, plus the $5 million Monet and a $2.5 million Chagall. But Norman says that it was for the man’s own protection: “When someone bids at that level from the salesroom floor, I’ve watched certain private dealers start to slowly swarm around him, business card in hand, like sharks circling a swimmer.” The paddle his staff retrieved, number 1340, now hangs above Norman’s desk.