>Reflecting on the Lehman Brothers Art Auction

>Chances are, unless you work somewhere particularly grand, that most of the art hanging in the hallways of your office is rather uninteresting, at best. There are probably a few blobby things with enigmatic titles like “Object #45 with Suite of Magpies” by an artist you have never heard of, if you work in a firm which sees itself as forward-looking. If your business likes to project a more traditional, solid image, the walls may display things like photo lithograph reproductions of 19th century prints of the city in which your business happens to be located, where the framing is worth far more than the print.

This weekend Sotheby’s New York presented the first installment of the sale of the now-defunct Lehman Brothers’ art collection; subsequent sales will be held at Christie’s in London and Freeman’s in Philadelphia. The big headline coming out of this first auction was that there was not a single bid for a piece by British artist Damien Hirst, a collection of objects which had been expected to be one of the stars of the sale. Reporters seem to be questioning whether this is an indication that Hirst, perhaps the most infamous of the British art world’s enfant terribles in the 1990’s, has had his day. I think it more probable that no one at the sale realized the piece was art, rather than a display of odds and ends from the break room.

This aside, it is worth taking a look at some of the pieces which workers at Lehman Brothers had to endure every day as they made their way through the offices, corridors, and lobbies of the workplace. Here is the Damien Hirst piece, “We’ve Got Style (The Vessel Collection — Blue/Green)”, which failed to sell:

Here we see the (rather predictable) canvas “Untitled #1”, by Ethiopian artist Julie Mehretu, which went for $1 million:

The painting “Shakespearean Actress” by John Currin went for about half of its estimated sales price:

And this is “The Long Way Home” by Chinese artist Yiu Le, which went for nearly $1 million, well above its expected price:

While it is difficult to try to come up with what one might consider an armchair psychological profile of a business in looking at just a handful of pieces from its walls, one thing which struck me was how this selection of pieces is rather muted, and lacking in self-confidence. These works could just as easily hang in a nursing home as anywhere else, where their Kaopectate tones would be very much at home – and which makes them rather odd choices for what was once one of the world’s most powerful investment banks. They seem to me, frankly, to be depressing rather than inspirational.

The environment in which one works, or lives, can have a significant impact on one’s psyche. In my office, as those who know me might expect, I display many of the mid-20th century Spanish landscape artists whose work I collect. Some are black-and-white gouache, some are small oils and watercolors, and some are signed lithographs. Truthfully, having a look round as I type this, my space looks something more like the office of an art dealer than an attorney.

Surrounding myself with these images has two important effects. They give me inspiration when I may find myself listless and lagging around 3:45 pm on a Wednesday, and at the same time they seem to put my clients at ease because they are attractive and interesting. I am particularly drawn to images which are realistic but somewhat leaning toward graphic design – Don Draper would probably find my selections something he could appreciate – rather than attempting to achieve either an impressionistic effect or photo-realism. On many occasions I have come into my office and found attorneys from other firms standing about admiring the pieces on the walls.

The first rule of collecting, of course, is that you should collect what you love, but firms such as Lehman’s usually purchase art for one of two reasons. Either the spouse or sibling of one of the partners is an interior designer, or the pieces were looked on as a commodity and believed to be capable of increasing in value over time based on the advice of professional art consultants. The final value of this portion of the sale of Lehman’s collection went just over the high end of the estimates, which perhaps shows that Lehman was a bit better at understanding the art market than the housing market.

However, I suspect that the catalog of this collection will prove interesting to later generations of social scientists, who will try to glean what they can from interpreting the art holdings of Lehman Brothers at the time of the firm’s collapse.

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