On my morning crosstown walk from Grand Central Terminal to the Hearst Tower, I usually weave through Rockefeller Center, where I pass by the headquarters of Christie's. It owns half a city block of display windows, in which, as the department store of billionaires, it exhibits blown-up posters of the trophy art it has assembled for each auction scheduled on the calendar.
In anticipation of this month's postwar and contemporary sale, which concluded last night, an impressive selection of the latest consignments was recently unveiled. Yet, standing there on the leafy sidewalk -- in front of a nobly existential Giacometti, a fleshy Freud, a Picasso full of thrust and parry and other iconic works by the handful of artists guaranteed to knock down plutocratic prices -- I had the urge to leave instead of look. The Magritte in the seventh vitrine to my left served only to remind me how surreal the art world itself seems these days.
On past visits I had taken some pleasure in stealing glances at other people's private possessions while they were in ownership limbo, but what stirred in me now was something more autumnal. It couldn't be a coincidence that art and money, haute hoarding and bygone eras happened to be on my mind. Look what's in the new issue of T&C (which kicks off our celebration of T&C's 170th anniversary): features about a Russian billionaire who has amassed one of the most valuable painting collections in the world with a money man's paint-by-numbers sensibility; an heir to an auto fortune whose whimsical taste -- Barbie dolls, sneakers, hip bibelots -- is the subject of its own auction on Paddle8; and, in a nod to the season, the mysterious closing of F.A.O. Schwarz, the legendary New York toy store. These three stories describe the arc of a connoisseur's life, which can very well first lay its bite in childhood.
I myself was obsessed with the greatest local toy store in the town where I grew up. It was on the other side of the city, so I had to work my mother over for weeks to get her to take me there. The store did its part, too, by booking various stars for autograph sessions, including, one afternoon, William Shatner (above, right). I was very into Star Trek at that stage of my aesthetic development, and more into Kirk than Spock. All the kids who had come to see him that day were lined up on either side of a closed door, which, we were told, he would soon be stepping through. But he didn't, at least not for a while. Finally, when Shatner did appear, I don't think many of us recognized him. His hair, uncombed and grown out, was not up to starship Enterprise standards, and he was wearing a white T-shirt that had a fresh mustard stain on it. Where was the guy who went warp speed?
For years I simply wrote this off as a random moment of celebrity flakiness. But, as I recently learned from a quick visit to Wikipedia, it wasn't. Shatner, the site reports, has since referred to his life back then as "that period," adding that he took "any odd job, including small party appearances, to support his family." 6-year-old me didn't know it, but I had been watching reruns of a show that had ceased production in the previous decade.
My mother's eyes were full of pity -- for Shatner, yes, but mostly for me. I was actually fine, but I'd have been even finer if I could just have that electric football table over in aisle two. It was so cool! The picture on the box, of a miniaturized football field and the two teams on it, was a masterful exaggeration, guaranteeing that what was inside would never match the hype and would soon end up under my bed with that boomerang that never came back.
But why not be impulsive? It was a biggish acquisition -- not the go-kart I really wanted, but definitely something my friends would envy. I was in a spell, imagining how owner- ship would enhance my individuality, my very human worth. No one but me would have this electric football table. But that was because, as I found out, no one was as stupid, and behind the dust ruffle it soon went.
It's no wonder that adults often use the word toy to refer to things like helicopters, private planes, antique cars, big houses, racehorses and even professional sports teams. Why is that, exactly? It's supposed to sound ironic, of course, an admission of an earned but unnecessary self-indulgence. I have yet to hear someone use that word to refer to his new Modigliani, but the way those windows looked it seems only a matter of time.