On the Market

Sotheby’s. New York. 2009–present.

I spent the summer after graduation reading novels in McCarren Park. I had been warned that nobody was hiring and was secretly relieved because this meant it wasn’t entirely on me to have a legitimate job. I could copy-edit and babysit and transfer money from my savings account to my checking account in prudent but relentless $50 installments. It was fun so long as it was warm out, but by late September it was too chilly to read outside, and I was running out of money.

A classmate from college set me up at Sotheby’s, a company I knew little about. In my interview, I told my future boss that I had never been able to imagine an idea that could be best expressed by painting it. “But,” I added, making exaggerated eye contact, “appreciating art doesn’t mean you can send effective emails. I can write. I can make your job easier for you.” This is the best thing to say in an interview if you are young and unqualified to do anything other than maintain a personal blog. I started three weeks later.

This was October 2009, one year after “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” the most garish triumph by an auction house ever. For that sale, Damien Hirst consigned 223 new pieces to Sotheby’s in London, cutting out his dealers Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian. “I was indoctrinated by the gallery system—that you don’t do auctions,” Hirst told the Sunday Times. “If you don’t like the rules, change the rules.” The presale estimate was $122–176 million; the sale would bring in an outrageous $201 million, upwards of six times the previous record for a Sotheby’s single-artist sale (set in 1993 by the Estate of Pablo Picasso). But even more outrageous, in retrospect, was the date: September 15, 2008, the very day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

What followed was a down year for the art world. In 2009, worldwide auction revenues were barely half what they had been in 2007. Ad pages in the September 2009 Artforum, the one with the depressing gray Sherrie Levine cover (the one still lying around the office when I started) were down more than 40 percent. But my October arrival coincided with a new and cautious optimism. Everything was taken as a talisman. High estimates intimated a return to glory, and retracted items signaled despair.

Glory won out, decisively: in 2010, sales increased by 60 percent to $774 million. William F. Ruprecht, Sotheby’s CEO, earned $5.97 million, up from $2.4 million in 2009. The average pay increase during this time for top executives at major US companies was 12 percent; at Sotheby’s, it was over 90 percent. This past August, as the double-dip recession strode firmly into view, Sotheby’s proudly reported the most profitable quarter in its 267-year history.

It was obvious from my very first day that Sotheby’s would be exactly as I had come to imagine it. As the elevator reached each floor, archetypes spilled forth. Tweedy men got off at Rare Books, preppies at Impressionism, former sorority pledges at HR. The cool girls got off at Contemporary. In their jewel-tone flats and blended eye makeup, they were the ones who most resembled works of art.

These girls seemed immune to New York’s damning seasons, which always threaten to expose one’s tax bracket, especially if it is low. The summer sun didn’t melt their makeup, and the winter wind didn’t mar their manes. They were driven in cars and cabs that were kept at a constant 68 degrees. At night and on weekends, they attended galas, museum openings, and brunches in East Hampton. But during business hours, they went on client visits, consulted on prices, and tirelessly secured property. They were friendly on the phone, enthusiastic about the art, and harder working than people who look and talk like that usually need to be.

Hired as a researcher, I was assigned the task of going through the catalogues raisonnés of the Contemporary Art department’s top-grossing artists—Warhol, Koons, Prince, Richter, Rothko—and determining the whereabouts of every piece that had ever come onto the global market. The Excel spreadsheets I worked on each day (column 1: image, column 2: title, column 3: year, column 4: cataloguing, column 5: present owner) would serve to expedite the future searches of collectors, who might want, say, a big, mostly purple Richter from the mid-’80s. Sometimes a painting was in a museum (the auction houses hate this because it makes the work more or less permanently priceless). Other times, a prominent collector was listed as the work’s owner. Usually, though, I was trying to track down pieces in anonymous private collections. Sometimes a city or country was provided, unhelpfully. Private Collection, France. Or more often than not: Private Collection, Liechtenstein.

There were many ways to gather this information: hand-annotated auction catalogues, holograph index cards, old issues of the New York Times, cunning questions asked in the right way to foundation archivists in good moods. The method was cobbled together, and success depended on both a high tolerance for monotony and a willingness to flirt. I laughed sparkling laughs and framed my inquiries as either massive or negligible impositions. Sometimes I apologized: “I’m sorry, but I have a huge favor to ask, do you know where . . .” Other times I used a postscript: “Oh, and just one tiny, last thing: I’ve been told that . . .”

Founded in London in 1744, Sotheby’s is the world’s fourth-oldest continuously operating auction house. In 1955, a New York office opened, and in 1967, Sotheby’s acquired Parke-Bernet, then the largest auction house in the US. Once a Kodak warehouse, the present New York location—on 72nd and York, a block from the FDR—is a modern, 22,000-square-foot building. In an attempt to preserve some old-world charm, the Sotheby’s website adheres to a European floor-numbering scheme: The About Us page describes the New York headquarters as “a soaring nine-story glass atrium.” (By an American’s estimation, there are ten floors.) The bookstore in the lobby has been colonized by Assouline, the French publisher of luxury monographs (In the Spirit of Aspen, The Well-Lived Life, Veuve Clicquot Yellow). Upstairs are six floors of collecting departments and five salesrooms; the main auction room (on the seventh floor) can seat 1,200. The tenth floor has a museum-caliber exhibition space and a café—both surrounded by a wraparound terrace that yields panoramic views of Manhattan. The lower floors are marble, and the bathroom walls are striped buttery shades of yellow. You would never guess that the building has bowels at all, but it does: they are concrete and buzz with blue-suited art handlers who all wear name tags.

Specialists, versed in both art history and salesmanship, are the most knowledgeable and respected employees at Sotheby’s. Throughout the year, they arrange private sales between clients, but in the months leading up to the big biannual sales, it’s their main duty to secure pieces for auction. Property often comes to auction under conditions that the specialists list with alliterative delight: death, divorce, debt. But in the end, the process by which any work of art changes hands is singular—there are as many reasons for selling a piece as there are for buying one. Specialists treat each acquisition as a distinct undertaking, requiring specific art-historical knowledge and an awareness of the current market for a particular artist. When owners are reluctant to sell, specialists persuade them it’s wise to push the property at this particular time (an upcoming museum retrospective, a new Chinese market for a particular artist, an Arab eager to expand his collection). Collectors are people, with insecurities and egos of varying size. It’s the specialist’s job to psychologize his clients and devise ad hoc strategies that ultimately earn him a commission.

Once a client has decided to consign with Sotheby’s, the work is shipped to Sotheby’s at the client’s expense. Contracted conservators inspect the art under black light and prepare a report that details any damage or past restoration. Cataloguers perform “due diligence,” which entails securing the work’s certificate of authenticity (if the artist is alive, from his gallery; if dead, from his foundation), checking the Art Loss Register (an international database of missing art) to make sure the work hasn’t been flagged as stolen, and completing a High Value Lot review if the work is estimated at over $10 million. Once the full provenance is confirmed, the work is photographed, written about, and reproduced in the catalogue.

Meanwhile, the specialists have been looking for clients, listing potential bidders in an “interest list” prepared for each individual lot of the sale. A broad range of inquiries count as “interest”—it can mean cold calls about the condition of an upcoming work or a cocktail party conversation that reveals a collector to be pining after a specific piece or artist. Specialists also, of course, court interest—giving tips to collectors and dramatizing demand. The length and seriousness of the interest list is the private metric specialists use to guess how well a lot will perform, rather than the more empirically determined estimate.

On the evening of an auction, Town Cars begin to pull up to Sotheby’s a little before 6 PM. Diamonds twinkle amid ermine, and accents are unidentifiable. Registered bidders check in, receive their numbered paddles, and mill around the front of the room, where property from the sale is displayed. Then they take their seats, waving to one another across the center aisle. Slowly, the room behind the chairs fills too, with registered bidders not quick or important enough to obtain a seat, but also with young gallerists, curious dad-types in sensible shoes, reporters, and Sotheby’s employees. Actual artists are conspicuously absent.

The auctioneer introduces himself and the sale, and with surprisingly little ceremony the auction commences. The bidding begins below the reserve and jumps past it in predetermined increments, toward the low estimate and, with luck, beyond the high. There is a certain amount of artifice to the performance, since the auctioneer has a rough idea, based on presale requests for viewings and condition reports, of who will be bidding on what. Sotheby’s specialists, from New York but also from offices in Europe and Asia, sit on each side of the auctioneer in frantic rows. They take bids over the phone—often international and anonymous. In-house bidders do not wave their paper paddles; they raise a finger, so subtly it seems destined to go unseen by the auctioneer, who is in fact invisibly alert to the memorized faces of potential bidders. When a final bid is set and the gavel pounded, a digital screen is updated at the front of the room in six currencies. A display case worthy of Ian Fleming rotates; the first lot disappears behind the wood paneling and the next lot is revealed. During the competition for particularly anticipated works, the room takes on the tenor of a ninth inning. When it’s all over, everyone leaves more quickly than you would expect.

In addition to the Contemporary department’s major evening sales in November and May, there are also two-day sales, which include many more lots of lesser value ($3 million estimates instead of $30 million estimates). These sales are edited for maximum theater: lots with the most presale interest are staggered to anchor the others. Lesser-known young artists are included side by side with 20th-century masters, and a young artist’s work can appreciate exponentially after a single bidder overshoots the high estimate.

By the time a work made by a living artist arrives at auction, its creator has already been vetted by some combination of loyal dealers at reputable galleries, kind critics at influential news outlets, esteemed curators at venerable museums, and sought-after art advisers with wealthy clients. Once a living artist is included in a sale at Sotheby’s (or rival Christie’s), he has already been on the block at a respected smaller house, such as Phillips de Pury.

Such was the case with Jacob Kassay, a 27-year-old artist best known for his silver canvases, which look like planes cut from a cube of mercury. In November 2010, one of Kassay’s untitled paintings hammered down at Phillips for $86,500—more than ten times the low estimate and eight times the market price being asked at Eleven Rivington, his gallery on the Lower East Side. The price was high enough to shock observers, even though Kassay’s career was already swiftly on the rise. He had sold out his first solo show before it even opened, an especially impressive feat considering the state of the economy. In the months that followed, his work appeared in benefit auctions; the NADA Art Fair in Miami; and group shows at the Nicole Klagsbrun Gallery in New York, the Gagosian Gallery in Los Angeles, and Art: Concept in Paris. There were rumors that the Pace Gallery—one of the most important in New York—wanted to poach him.

It isn’t hard to see why Kassay’s work is so popular. His standard medium—a combination of acrylic paint and pure silver deposit—creates surfaces that appear pristine and mirrorlike from a distance but upon closer inspection reveal textural irregularities and areas of oxidation. His minimalist influences are apparent (Jacob Kassay : silver :: Yves Klein : blue) and critics compare his practice to that of the color field painters of the 1940s and 1950s. The paintings are beautiful, modern, and accessible: anodyne enough for a decorator, but obviously enough aware of art history to appeal to those for whom the adjective “tasteful” is anathema. By May 2009, the waiting list at Eleven Rivington for one of Kassay’s smart and shimmering paintings was almost 100 names long.

Kassay did not directly benefit from his Phillips triumph, of course—only the seller and the auction house did. But Eleven Rivington responded by raising his prices, and those prices remain high. When things go as well as they have for Kassay, everyone winds up happy. But in other cases, the relationship between auction house and gallerist is more fraught. As the big houses more often flip works by early-career artists, gallerists bristle at this encroachment on their retail market. Gallerists are in it for the long haul, which makes them caretakers of artists’ careers: their job is to develop those careers, and to establish relationships with buyers whose past purchasing habits show discernment and who, ideally, promise to donate their collections to museums. Gallerists will do almost anything to keep their artists’ work off the auction block, where it is not only susceptible to buyers they deem unworthy but also to the possibility of not selling at all.

The great fear of any good gallerist is a mass dumping of one of her artists on the secondary market, because—and this is always true—when collectors sell at auction it means that cash is more valuable to them than the art itself. If the prices get too high too fast, there is nowhere to go but down, and a poor auction performance, even after many good seasons, can spell trouble for a young artist’s career.

Once, long ago, a boyfriend taught me how to spot a cheap dress shirt. “They’re kind of, I don’t know, shiny?” he posited with disdain. Now I cannot look at a broadcloth without squinting for sheen—a wrinkle-resistant treatment, a trace percentage of Lycra. And it wasn’t long into my tenure at Sotheby’s before “good paintings,” like “bad shirts,” began to announce themselves to my eyes.

Art pricing is not absolute magic; there are certain rules, which to an outsider can sound parodic. Paintings with red in them usually sell for more than paintings without red in them. Warhol’s women are worth more, on average, than Warhol’s men. The reason for this is a rhetorical question, asked in a smooth continental accent: “Who would want the face of some man on their wall?”

Here are some more qualities that make a work of art valuable: it is “representative” (it looks like—and was executed in the same era as—other valuable works by the same artist); it has “a good provenance” (important people have owned it before); it is “included in the literature” (critics or historians have written about it in a museum catalogue or book published by a university press). Adolph Gottlieb paintings should have sun-discs in them. Cy Twomblys are best with squiggles. When it comes to Ellsworth Kelly, the more “totemic” the better.

The art collector both appraises and is appraised by the same two facts: his taste and how much of it he can afford to indulge. Appreciation of genius becomes good taste, which all too quickly circles back around and masquerades as genius once again. Art collecting, like high school popularity, does not encourage much risk-taking. Be certain that what you’re purchasing is familiar and well liked. But as in high school, danger and depravity go a long way. Maurizio Cattelan sculpts effigies of popes only to macerate them later with meteors. The breasts that John Currin paints are nothing if not pneumatic. Blasphemy, pornography, hubris—these themes are par for the course in contemporary art. But while tastes might run more toward vice than virtue, economically the secondary market is still a parochial place. “Contemporary art has become a kind of alternative religion for atheists,” writes Sarah Thornton in Seven Days in the Art World. There certainly is a lot of zealotry. And a lot of blind faith, too. Despite art’s reputation for distinctiveness and originality, its value is established not by the narcissism of small differences but by the megalomania of sameness.

After a few months on the job, I was assigned a new duty—writing the essays that are printed beneath and between the reproduced images in the sale catalogue. Auction catalogues are printed on glossy, high-caliper paper. Like the September issue of a fashion magazine, the weight of an individual catalogue is a measure of success and a matter of boasting rights for its department—in this case, though, weight corresponds not to ad revenue, but to the number of lots for sale. The catalogue is devoted to color reproductions of these lots, with accompanying text and smaller images known as “comparables.” Comparables can depict other works by the same artist, archival photographs of the artist himself, or images that bear some admitted or presumed aesthetic resemblance to the lot (a Cézanne for a Joan Mitchell, a Dubuffet for a Basquiat). In the back, after all the color plates and the index, are pages explaining bidding terms and tax laws, which are only ever flipped through by merely curious parties who would never bid at auction. People who bid already know the rules.

The essay copy is mostly a formality, but it plays a role in the auction house’s overall marketing strategy. The more text given to an individual piece, the more the house seems to value it. I sprinkled about twenty adjectives (“fey,” “gestural,” “restrained”) amid a small repertory of active verbs (“explore,” “trace,” “question” ). I inserted the phrases “negative space,” “balanced composition,” and “challenges the viewer” every so often. X’s lyrical abstraction and visual vocabulary—which is marked by dogged muscularity and a singular preoccupation with the formal qualities of light—ushered in some of the most important art to hit the postwar market in decades. I described impasto—paint thickly applied to a canvas, often with a palette knife—almost pornographically and joked with friends on Gchat that I was being paid to write pulp. Pulp was exactly what I was writing. It was embarrassingly easy, and might have been the only truly dishonest part of the Sotheby’s enterprise. In most ways, the auction house is unshackled from intellectual pretense by its pure attention to the marketplace. Through its catalogue copy (and for a time, through me), it makes one small concession to the art world’s native tongue.

With the exception of the catalogue essays I wrote, Sotheby’s felt detached from the posturing that happens in Chelsea galleries and the gnomic garbage that counts for art-world conversation. Auction house employees don’t invoke half-remembered poststructuralism or make inapt analogies. They don’t have to. The prices speak for themselves. Sotheby’s is a world unto itself, with a well-known cast of characters and a set of recurring props. Valentino, a longtime client, is just as burnished and brown in real life as in Vogue photographs. Works once bought by the downtown art dealer turned museum director Jeffrey Deitch were of course not actually owned by Jeffrey Deitch, but instead by collectors who hired him as their tastemaker. Out-of-towners affiliated with Sotheby’s stay at the Carlyle Hotel, which is equidistant from the Whitney Museum; the Gagosian Gallery; and Sant Ambroeus, the café on Madison Avenue where auctioneers and art consultants eat their glistening frisée, topped with all things “tri-colored” and “slightly sliced.” Ursus, the purveyor of fine art books, is conveniently located right above the hotel’s lobby. I can now identify a Loro Piana cashmere shawl from across a crowded room (a disproportionate percentage of men worth over a billion dollars wear purple ones). I learned which vague-sounding conglomerates were in fact very specific magnates and which consignors were rumored to be divorcing, or worse, broke.

The men at Sotheby’s greased back their longish hair with some sort of unidentifiable shellac. In their well-tailored suits and leather-soled shoes, they looked like patrician vampires. A striking number of my fellow female employees were engaged—not married, but engaged. Something was always being celebrated—a birthday, a baby—and the break rooms were sometimes spread with red velvet cupcakes several times in one week. The cupcakes disappeared in fractions, the cream cheese frosting slowly hardening as, over the course of the day, one girl after another slinked by and, with a quick glance around, cut herself a slice.

It was soon enough apparent that “Sotheby’s girls”—like rally girls or Suicide Girls —are screened for a certain set of qualities, and though these are not explicitly erotic criteria, they are, of course, many clients’ sexual preference. In Steve Martin’s latest novel, An Object of Beauty, his protagonist, Lacey Yaeger, is an up-and-coming gallerist. She graduates from college and joins “the spice rack of girls at Sotheby’s,” an apt phrase for the sort of self-assured, voluntary objectification we all acquiesced to there. The entire atmosphere is flirtatious. The very cadence of a good auctioneer is teasing: coy with one bidder, forward with the other, pitting the two against each other in a charged battle of tiny tics (paddle up, paddle down). He’ll dangle an index finger at a phone bidder on one side of the room, while leaning his bespoke-suited body toward an in-house bidder on the other side. He pauses theatrically, repeating a price again and again until someone tops it.

Likewise, almost all interactions between employees and clients were inflected with an “Oh, you stop it now!” sort of kittenishness or a steely tough love. Telephone conversations with cold callers included some of the most retrograde propositions I’ve heard outside of Mad Men. That it was possible to be asked on dates by men we had never met, solely on the basis of our summaries of sale results, confirmed for me that there existed, in certain circles, an assumption that asking a faceless Sotheby’s girl out over the phone was a safe bet. Thirteen-thirty-four York Avenue, as it turns out, is an unimpeachable provenance to have.

The Sotheby’s girls, and the specialists, and the auctioneers, are nonunion. But the forty-three art handlers, who are responsible for the safe transportation of art to and from Sotheby’s, as well as its in-house conveyance, are part of Teamsters Local 814. On July 29 of this year, when the art handlers clocked out for the day, with their contract about to expire that month, they received letters telling them not to come to work on Monday. Despite booming business, Sotheby’s refused to negotiate. Instead, the company hired Jackson Lewis LLP, a labor and employment law firm known for their hard-line anti-union representation. Presumably following the firm’s proposed strategy, Sotheby’s offered a series of unappealing demands: shortened work weeks, cut pensions, the right to terminate 401(k)s, new overtime policies, and the formation of a group of eighteen nonunionized handlers that the unionized workers would be responsible for training. Sotheby’s issued insipid statements to the press, referring to the company’s “long history of a constructive and cooperative relationship with the unions” and citing the “fair and equitable contracts” reached in the past. By Monday, the forty-three art handlers were officially locked out.

A month later, the art handlers gained the support of Occupy Wall Street, who came to see the situation at Sotheby’s as symbolic of corporate greed. Throughout the fall, protesters picketed the Sotheby’s entrance, interrupted auctions, and displayed inflatable rats and “fat cats” in front of the building’s main entrance. When Susan Sarandon joined the protesters—clad in red sunglasses and a nylon Teamsters jacket—pictures appeared in the Post. On two consecutive evenings in mid-October, dissenters with air horns swarmed Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern—both owned by Danny Meyer, a Sotheby’s board member. The same week, art handlers flew to London for the Contemporary sales, where they greeted collectors with high-pitched whistles and provocative signs, emblazoned with images of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.”

By November, in anticipation of more protests at the Contemporary sales in New York, Sotheby’s implemented security measures that limited access to the tenth-floor viewing galleries. Normally, these galleries are open to the public, and the presale exhibitions are considered by insiders to be some of the best opportunities for viewing contemporary art. This year, admittance required a press pass or a Sotheby’s account—or, barring either, a $5,000 line of credit.

On the night of the sale, November 9, more than 100 protesters “occupied” the 6 train (perhaps pointlessly—not many art collectors use public transit) and flocked to the block-long stretch in front of Sotheby’s. They blew whistles and yelled mantras ranging from the accusatory to the epigrammatic. (“Shame on you!” “You don’t deserve it!” “Art for the masses, not the upper classes!”) Protesters who managed to get into the building took their seats on the marble floor of the lobby. Sotheby’s security guards quickly stood in front of them to block the view. From the auction room six floors up, the din was inaudible. Though the stock market plunged another 400 points that afternoon, the Contemporary sale wound up bringing in $315.8 million, close to $50 million above the estimate. The total is the highest for a Contemporary auction at Sotheby’s since 2008, and the company’s third-highest ever.

There’s been little negotiation since July, and according to Local 814 president Jason Ide, no movement on the Sotheby’s side, despite many counterproposals. This seems confusing; it’s unclear why Sotheby’s would have taken, and would keep on taking, such a hard line. The costs of compromise with a few dozen employees, especially at a moment of record profits, seem rather low when compared with the potential hazards of bad PR, and of relying on inexperienced personnel to safeguard multimillion-dollar artworks. Indeed, the only party who seems plainly to be profiting from the ongoing lockout is Jackson Lewis LLP.

One afternoon in spring 2010, while copying endless images into a spreadsheet, I heard someone calling my name. I pulled one headphone pad away from my ear, allowing some sound to bleed out into the room. “Yeah?” I said, peeping over the drone of a half-listened-to podcast. My undecorated corner cubicle was fortified by out-of-order auction catalogues on one wall and large, hardcover books on the other; piles of Parkett functioned as a sort of silencer. Sometimes the lowliest employees have the best real estate. A girl from marketing craned her neck around my partition. “Are you Alice?” I stood up and introduced myself. “Cute skirt!” she said with a smile. “Come with me.”

The girl from marketing told me that they’d been trying to track me down for the past hour. A consigned piece was being photographed for the New York Times, and they needed someone—a girl—to stand beside it, looking up in a way that dwarfed her and made the painting look even bigger by comparison. They wanted someone “smallish”—which most of us admittedly were—but also “in black,” which I specifically was rumored to be that day.

The piece in question turned out to be one of Andy Warhol’s 108-by-108-inch “Fright Wig” self-portraits, which the fashion designer Tom Ford, who is also a Sotheby’s board member, had acquired from the estate of the artist. Like Warhol’s other portraits, the acrylic silkscreens are based on an enlarged black-and-white photograph whose contrast has been amplified into a sort of visual paradox: a topographical map without dimension. There are either five or ten Fright Wigs (Sotheby’s said five), depending on how you count them. The famed dealer Anthony d’Offay commissioned the first five-piece series from Warhol, but he found them so alarming he insisted Warhol try again with another photograph. Warhol completed the second series in 1986, just months before his death.

When it came out that Sotheby’s had in some sense misrepresented the number of Fright Wigs (Ford’s is from the first series), financial journalist Felix Salmon asserted in response that “the entire business of the art world is built on opacity and information asymmetry.” Salmon continued, “One of the weird things about conspicuous consumption in the art world is that for all that it’s conspicuous it isn’t public—outside the big public museums everybody tends to be very secretive indeed about what they own and what they don’t.”

I entered the gallery, and saw Warhol’s vacant eyes staring out into the empty room. As the title suggests, it really is quite frightening, and it was easy to imagine it egging on an untimely demise or functioning as a preemptive memento mori. “I never think that people die,” Warhol once wrote. “They just go to department stores.” And here was his face—huge, purple, worth millions—being sold at what is indeed more or less a department store for art, with perfumed shop girls gathered around, gaping.

“Oh, good. She’s blonde,” said the photographer. I made a face at him. “For the contrast.” He sighed. “You’ll stand out against the purple.” I followed his instructions and approached the painting, gazing up at it from a few feet away at a quarter-angle to the camera. I shifted my weight subtly from one hip to the other and pretended to see things on the canvas that I hadn’t before. Standing next to the painting, I was a live specimen of powerlessness: in service of sums of money too great and too senseless for me to comprehend. “Back up a little,” the photographer instructed. “No, that’s too much. Yeah, stay right there. I need you to look diminutive.”

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