The decadent doth protest at the Donald Trump art auction
Nobody goes to an art auction to buy art. At the Street, Contemporary, and Celebrity Art Auction, held by Julien’s on Thursday night in a stuffed showroom in West Hollywood, Grammy-winning producers schmoozed with Tommy Hilfiger, men in designer denim rhapsodized to their dates about Banksy, and chic women snuck pictures of Kris Jenner. Four people brought dogs. Most of the bids were placed online.
Tim Luke, a short man dressed in a blazer, unbuttoned blue-collared shirt, and thick-rimmed black glasses, with a host’s smile so persistent it might as well be painted, came to sell. Both curator and auctioneer, Luke was responsible for many trendy pieces, including a Jean-Michel Basquiat portrait, Andy Warhol’s Michael Jackson screenprint, and Timothy White’s photograph of Elizabeth Taylor flipping double birds. He was also tasked with selling this drawing of the Empire State Building by Donald Trump.
Trump drew it for a charity auction at the opening of Mar-a-Lago in 1995, one year after he helped broker the skyscraper’s sale to a Japanese investment group. (Trump invested none of his own money, but told reporters he was a 50 percent partner.) Winston Churchill’s million-dollar impressionistic oil paintings, the sketch is not. It barely even touches George W. Bush’s amateur renderings of world leaders and injured soldiers. Trump used a black marker, flat perspective, and surely, no more than five minutes of his time.
Julien’s is no stranger to celebrity trifles. The auction house made its name off them. It has sold Truman Capote’s ashes ($45,000), Marilyn Monroe’s hair ($37,000), and William Shatner’s kidney stone ($25,000). Luke told me he views Trump’s drawing as memorabilia, rather than art. “If you take a look at it, I’ll think you’ll understand why I say that,” he said.
This didn’t stop Luke from apologizing, multiple times, for including the piece in the show. The drawing hung in the back-right corner by the open bar, flanked on the left by one of Shepard Fairey’s “Obama: Change” lithographs, on the right by Al-Baseer Holly’s tongue-in-cheek “God Bless a Miracle,” a graffitied American flag featuring Mike Barker characters, painted on a wood fence — the full spectrum of liberalism. “Yes, it’s real,” Luke explained to a man, 30 minutes before the auction started. “The only way I could stomach putting it in the auction is we’re donating the proceeds to NPR.”
Once all the red-carpet guests had arrived (Paris Hilton was expected but never showed up), Luke started the auction with six painted Gibson guitars played by various rock musicians (proceeds went to VH1’s Save the Music Foundation), followed by Saber’s “Flag 2010 (Black/White),” and Holly’s “God Bless a Miracle.” Then, Trump’s drawing. The room snapped to attention and started to boo.
“Hold on, hold on,” Luke said, grinning. “All the proceeds will go to NPR’s smallest station, WHDD.” People cheered. The drawing opened at $8,000. Employees working phones and laptops logged a half-dozen bids, and Luke slammed his hammer to close the deal at $12,500. Including the buyer’s premium, Trump’s piece sold for $16,000. Minutes later, I noticed a $1 bill on the ground.
After the show, I asked Luke whether the reaction to Trump’s drawing surprised him. “Oh no, I was prepared. We’re in California, baby,” he said, sipping a paper cup full of red wine while the room cleared out. “That’s why I did that one first, so we could get that out of the way, and then did Hillary and then President Obama.” (Joseph Nicolosi’s “Hillary Clinton” giclee, signed in silver marker by Clinton herself, sold for $576; Fairey’s poster for $12,800.)
The buyer, announced days later, turned out to be New York real estate developer Elie Hirschfeld, with whom Trump partnered on the Riverside South development project on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Hirschfeld also owns Warhol’s graphite drawing, “Trump Tower,” commissioned by Trump in 1981. (Trump ended up not buying the piece because he was upset it wasn’t “color-coordinated”; Warhol called him “cheap.”)
“The Warhol and Trump pieces are unique and iconic depictions of New York City that will make perfect additions to the Hirschfeld Art collection,” Hirschfeld said in a statement.
In November, Julien’s plans to auction off Donald and Melania’s wedding cake, in a show that also includes President Kennedy’s rocking chair. Luke is excited. “We’ve had things go really crazy with cake,” he said. “You know, let them eat cake. It’s gonna be interesting to see what happens.”
[photos: Tosten Burks, Julien’s Auctions]