Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Having a wonderful time, wish you were sol le witt

Here is an old but very interesting article about Secret 2003 originally published in the New York Times:

LONDON WHEN I became an art historian, my mother decided that my only hope for financial security was to stumble on a Rembrandt at a garage sale. Last weekend was my chance. The Royal College of Art was holding its 10th annual R.C.A. Secret, an exhibition and fund-raiser that has become the best-loved gamble in British collecting.

The show features more than 2,000 postcard-size works by unknowns and genuine stars, including Sol LeWitt, Christo, Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the designer Alexander McQueen. The catch: none of the works are labeled. They all cost $60; you buy what you like, or what you think you can identify, but you don't find out what you've got until it's yours -- it's signed on the back.

The event has become so popular with bargain-hunting art lovers that people start camping out days in advance; the doors open to a crowd of hundreds. Clearly, to find my modern masterpiece I would have to get a very early start. My friends may have 401(k)'s, but I had a borrowed tent and a stack of degrees that say I can spot a Sol LeWitt at 30 paces.

Tuesday's preview was discouraging -- I saw nothing I thought was a LeWitt, just a dozen sloppy student attempts at minimalism. The Tracey Emins were obvious and strangely beautiful -- raw drawings of naked women. Surely they would be gone in a jiffy. The Christos were the biggest disappointment -- souvenir postcards of his famous projects, some of which, returning buyers told me, were the same as last year.

On Wednesday, after a research trip to some galleries, I decided to focus on two "breaking" artists: Grayson Perry and Sophie von Hellerman. Mr. Perry, a finalist for this year's Turner Prize, makes large ceramic vessels covered with dark, witty, sexually provocative drawings. He also has a transvestite alter ego named Claire. I was pretty sure I had spotted his postcards: a village scene made up entirely of penises and a portrait of a girl with blonde pigtails -- and hairy arms.

Ms. von Hellerman, a recent graduate of the Royal College of Art, creates large, moody canvases, sketching a scene with a few bold lines and washes of color. A natural storyteller, she was given her first solo show in 2001 by Charles Saatchi. Three loose watercolors in shades of black, blue and rusty pink were perfect examples of her style.

On Wednesday night, I pitched camp, 12th in line, to await the Friday sale. I expected to find myself surrounded by 21-year-old art students in search of famous artists. In fact, most of the hard-core campers were closer to 50 than 20 and were looking not for today's megastars, but for more traditional British artists -- Mary Fedden, Eileen Cooper, Peter Blake.

Austin Clarke, 53, flew in from Northern Ireland and camped for five nights to be first in line. Last year he'd gone home with a Damien Hirst. "It's a buzz," he admitted. "Brings out the kid in you." And he admired his competition: "These guys are an education. They don't have the money to buy the big stuff, but they know their art."

The elder statesman of the group was Peter Sargent, 74, a London suburbanite with cropped white hair and dressed in purple Gore-Tex. He had been coming to the sale since 1997. Last year he camped out for eight nights to be first in line for a postcard by the Portuguese artist Paula Rego.

Benjamin, 20, an American student of political science who declined to give his last name, had wedged himself in at No. 4. "There's some Machiavellian stuff behind the scenes," he said, "but in the end, gentlemen's rules apply. It's very civilized." Indeed. Each participant can buy only five cards. It turned out that Nos. 1, 2 and 3 all wanted Sol LeWitts and Mary Feddens. Instead of No. 1 hogging the goods, they decided to take one each.

Around 11 p.m., I settled in to get some sleep. Mummified in six layers, I could see my breath.

Thursday morning, trouble arrived in the form of a handsome law student, No. 20, who was wild about Mr. Perry. He spent the morning telling everyone how he had to have one. I suggested that he might be better off keeping his enthusiasm to himself. He ignored me, and by the end of the day, I was pretty sure the Perrys had been publicized beyond my reach. Happily, no one mentioned Ms. von Hellerman.

Thursday night was Thanksgiving; my friend Courtney brought me a piece of pumpkin pie at midnight. By that time I had refined my list: praying for the Perrys, confident of the von Hellermans and, just in case, a consolation prize -- a beautifully painted card by an unknown artist.

On Friday morning we lined up in front of six computers and two flat screens displaying a rolling list of numbers, which turned red when the postcard in question had been sold. As I moved up the line, I saw the Emins go. Then the first Grayson Perry was gone. A pause. I was almost there when the second one flashed red on the screen; No. 11, who 24 hours ago showed no interest in the Turner Prize nominee, went home with my phallic village.

I walked away with the three von Hellermans, a Nick Park for my husband's Christmas present and a sketch by Stephen Jones, a British hat designer, for Courtney, my midnight pumpkin fairy.

When I packed up my tent at noon, two Sol LeWitts were still at large (the top three in line had missed them; so had I), and an unimpressive drawing in ballpoint pen had been identified as a Damien Hirst.

On my way home, I began to consider how to frame my new mini-collection. I wondered if my von Hellermans were a real prize or just hype. My thoughts turned to friend who had bought Warhol when Andy still had brown hair and Pop was still soda. Sophie, my money's on you.

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