One day in 2000, Philippe Ségalot, at the time head of contemporary art at Christie’s, was crowing about an ostrich.
The ostrich, he informed then-director of auction operations Barbara Strongin, was stuffed by none other than Italian conceptual artist
. And it was among the lots that would be offered at the next Christie’s contemporary evening sale in New York.
But before Cattelan’s Untitled (1997) hit the auction block, it would need to go on display at Christie’s in-house gallery. For that to happen, Ségalot told Strongin, they needed to drill a hole for the ostrich’s head to dip beneath the floor.
“How deep?” Strongin asked.
“Two feet,” Ségalot responded.
“Philippe,” Strongin shot back wryly, “we have two inches of wood, five inches of concrete—and then we hit Simon & Schuster in the basement.”
It’s a scene that is undeniably theatrical—and, fittingly, it features prominently in the play “Beneath the Gavel,” which had its New York City debut at 59E59 Theaters last week. Strongin served as a consultant for the show, mining her 36 years of art auction experience (including 26 at Christie’s) to fine-tune its portrayal of the art market.