Rock, Paper, Payoff: Child's Play Wins Auction House an Art Sale
By CAROL VOGEL
Published: April 29, 2005
t may have been the most expensive game of rock, paper, scissors ever played.
Hashiyama, president of Maspro Denkoh Corporation, an electronics
company based outside of Nagoya, Japan, could not decide whether
Christie's or Sotheby's should sell the company's art collection, which
is worth more than $20 million, at next week's auctions in New York.
did not split the collection - which includes an important CÚzanne
landscape, an early Picasso street scene and a rare van Gogh view from
the artist's Paris apartment - between the two houses, as sometimes
happens. Nor did he decide to abandon the auction process and sell the
paintings through a private dealer.
Instead, he resorted to an
ancient method of decision-making that has been time-tested on
playgrounds around the world: rock breaks scissors, scissors cuts
paper, paper smothers rock.
In Japan, resorting to such games
of chance is not unusual. "I sometimes use such methods when I cannot
make a decision," Mr. Hashiyama said in a telephone interview. "As both
companies were equally good and I just could not choose one, I asked
them to please decide between themselves and suggested to use such
methods as rock, paper, scissors."
Officials from the Tokyo
offices of the two auction houses were informed of Mr. Hashiyama's
request on a Thursday afternoon in late January.
They were told
they had until a meeting on Monday to choose a weapon. The right choice
could mean several million dollars in profits from the fees the auction
house charges buyers (usually 20 percent for the first $200,000 of the
final price and 12 percent above that).
"The client was very
serious about this," said Jonathan Rendell, a deputy chairman of
Christie's in America who was involved with the transaction. "So we
were very serious about it, too."
Kanae Ishibashi, the president
of Christie's in Japan, declined to discuss her preparations for the
meeting. But her colleagues in New York said she spent the weekend
researching the psychology of the game online and talking to friends,
including Nicholas Maclean, the international director of Christie's
Impressionist and modern art department.
11-year-old twins, Flora and Alice, turned out to be the experts Ms.
Ishibashi was looking for. They play the game at school, Alice said,
"practically every day."
"Everybody knows you always start with
scissors," she added. "Rock is way too obvious, and scissors beats
paper." Flora piped in. "Since they were beginners, scissors was
definitely the safest," she said, adding that if the other side were
also to choose scissors and another round was required, the correct
play would be to stick to scissors - because, as Alice explained,
"Everybody expects you to choose rock."
Sotheby's took a
different tack. "There was some discussion," said Blake Koh, an expert
in Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's in Los Angeles who was
involved in the negotiations with Maspro. "But this is a game of
chance, so we didn't really give it that much thought. We had no
strategy in mind."
As Ms. Ishibashi wrote in an e-mail message
to a colleague in New York, to prepare herself for the meeting she
prayed, sprinkled salt - a traditional Japanese ritual for good luck -
and carried lucky charm beads.
Two experts from each of the
rival auction houses arrived at Maspro's Tokyo offices, where they were
shown to a conference room with a very long table and asked to sit
facing one another, Mr. Rendell said. Each side's experts had an
accountant from Maspro sitting with them.
Instead of the usual
method of playing the game with the hands, the teams were given a form
explaining the rules. They were then asked to write one word in
Japanese - rock, paper or scissors - on the paper.
house had entered its decision, a Maspro manager looked at the choices.
Christie's was the winner: scissors beat paper.
"We were told
immediately and then asked to go downstairs to another room and wait,
while the forms went off to headquarters to be approved," Mr. Rendell
said. He described the atmosphere in the room as "difficult," saying
both sides were forced to "make small talk."
sell most of the major paintings in its evening sale of Impressionist
and modern art on Wednesday. It hopes the star of the group, CÚzanne's
"Large Trees Under the Jas de Bouffan" (1885-1887), will sell for more
than $12 million.
Auction houses give each sale a code name to identify it. Christie's is sticking with "Scissors."
Makiko Inoue contributed reporting for this article from Tokyo.