How much money are people ready to spend on a painting, a pearl pendant, a stainless steel rabbit or a worn football jersey?
Well, it obviously makes a difference if we're talking about Leonardo da Vinci's "Salvator Mundi," Marie Antoinette's pendant, artist Jeff Koons' "Rabbit" or Argentine football legend Diego Maradona's jersey.
If records of ancient Greek scribes are to be believed, auctions took place as far back as 500 BC. Back then, the "lots" were women who were auctioned off as wives: the more beautiful, the higher the bids. Owners of less attractive women reportedly threw in dowries or other carrots to sweeten the deal.
Today — with the definition of "chattel" dramatically changed — auctions remain commonplace, with fine art or the belongings of renowned personalities fetching eye-watering sums.
A night at the auction
Maradona's jersey — that he wore when he scored his infamous "Hand of God" goal against England at the 1986 World Cup football match — just sold for a record price of €8.4 million ($9.28 million) at an auction at Sotheby's in London on May 4.
That same evening, I went to the house's sixth and latest European location in the German city of Cologne, to witness my first auction.
It was the third and final series of live and online auctions of fashion icon Karl Lagerfeld's estate.
The previous 2021 Monaco and Paris KARL auctions had together earned a staggering €18.2 million ($19.4 million) — four times pre-auction estimates.
Items up for bid at the 2022 auction included 1920s-era advertisement posters, Lagerfeld's signature accessories like sunglasses, fingerless gloves, fans, fashion sketches, trays of iPods and kitty paraphernalia belonging to the late designer's beloved Birman cat, Choupette.
As I approached the entrance of the imposing Palais Oppenheim that overlooks the Rhine River, I saw a crowd already waiting to be admitted to the auction.
As evening auctions are often fancier affairs with the most prized items up for sale, I spotted boucle jackets, pearl necklaces with intertwining Cs and monochrome ensembles — an homage not just to Karl Lagerfeld's own sartorial sense, but also his decades-long association with the houses of Chanel, Fendi and his eponymous label.
The auction room itself, with its arched windows and ornate stucco ceilings, was smaller than I'd expected. Some of the posters up for bid hung on the walls. The auctioneer's podium stood front and center, with a little black side table on which sat a stuffed toy replica of Choupette.
The chair of Sotheby's Switzerland, Caroline Lang, who was the auctioneer for the evening, told me it was her "talisman."
"She's going to stay there and she's going to protect me and channel Karl," Lang said during a chat prior to the auction.
A screen in front displayed the lots and the bids as they came — with prices listed in all major global currencies. At the back of the room and within Lang's line of sight, another screen displayed the online bids. Whenever a bidding war broke out, our heads turned back and forth as if at a tennis match.
'Why stop when it's so much fun?'
The bidding itself began with little fanfare. After briefly explaining bidding regulations, auctioneer Caroline Lang got right into it, and the lots were quickly bought by either bidders in the room or via phone or online.
Having started as one of the few women in a field previously dominated by men, Lang told me how at her first auction in 1992, she lost two kilos from sheer nerves. "And instead of beating with my hammer on solid wood, I smashed my water glass. So, it was very dramatic … but you roll with it," she laughed.
With 30 years of auctioneering experience, the witty polyglot effortlessly conducted business in a combination of English, German and French.
She often peppered her chant — that special auctioneer style of speaking — with Lagerfeld quotes; she had everyone in stitches when she nudged one dithering bidder: "Don't look shocked, just bid!"
A desk or an ice cream: Follow your heart
While the sums bid jarred me — one of Lagerfeld's fashion sketches originally estimated at around €500-800 sold at €32,760 — I couldn't help getting caught up with some bidding wars that broke out over items like a pair of monogrammed velvet loafers.
One repeat online bidder even bore an intriguing number: 0007.
One nail-biting bidding war involved a gentleman seated immediately before me and an anonymous online bidder.
The item at stake was Lagerfeld's 20th-century aluminum, glass and Plexiglas work desk that came together with a stainless steel magazine rack and a metal and white leather chair. When the gentleman finally won, everyone broke out in applause. Flutes of champagne were handed to him and his companions, prompting Lang to quip, "You can have the whole bottle if you want!"
I later bumped into him as he waited for his Uber. Wanting only to be known as "Christian from Hamburg," the affable businessman who "likes Karl Lagerfeld because of his character" told me that it was "a matter of the heart."
"I was going to stop at €5,000 and €10,000, but sometimes you have to ask your heart and let it speak. Although I'm actually a level-headed businessman, like the way Hamburgers are. But that's when I said no, this is a matter of the heart … and I don't regret it," he said of his new €35,280 desk that will replace his 40-year-old work desk that he'd used since his student days.
The evening auction on May 4 eventually exceeded estimates and fetched €631,764 ($664,376). The three-part auction ends on Friday evening.
Meanwhile, I headed for my neighborhood petrol kiosk to get myself an ice cream. All that adrenaline had me craving sugar. In light of the evening, I picked Magnum Double Gold Caramel Billionaire.
Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier