We’ve all heard about fortunes being won and lost on the roll of a dice – but art collections on the outcome of a game of Rock Paper Scissors? I’ve been in the art business a long time, and have heard many strange tales, but this one definitely ranks right up there with the best of them.
Let me set the stage. A major collection of Impressionist paintings including pieces by Cezanne, Picasso and Van Gogh belonging to Maspro Denkoh Corps., a Japanese electronics company, was offered to both Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Nothing unusual about this. Most major collections look to both salerooms to see who can offer the best deal. Generally, however, one of the two rooms impresses the owner enough – or sharpens the pencil the finest! – and is selected over the other. In this particular instance no amount of pencil sharpening, it seems, could separate the two rooms.
The Japanese company was in a quandary because it couldn’t decide which saleroom should have the collection. So, the company decided the matter should be settled with a game of chance. But not cards, roulette or the toss of a dice, or even a dual with pistols or epees at dawn, but that age-old pastime of Rock Paper Scissors, a game just about everyone on the planet must have played at some time or other.
High stakes indeed for such a youthful game. Needless to say both companies were upset with the suggestion but recognizing that the winner would stand to earn millions of dollars in commissions, agreed to the bizarre proposal.
According to an article in the New York Times, Kanae Ishibashi, the president of Christie’s in Japan, spent a whole weekend researching the psychology of the game. His research included speaking with Flora and Alice Maclean, the two 11-year-old daughters of Nicholas Maclean, head of modern art at Christie’s London office. The two children, it turns out, were experts in the game and advised Christie’s to choose scissors. “Everybody knows you start with scissors,” Alice told the New York Times. Flora noted that rock was way too obvious, and scissors beats paper.
Sotheby’s, apparently, didn’t do any research, feeling that it was simply a game of chance that could not be controlled.
The scene was set. Two experts from each auction house sat at a long conference table at the Maspro offices, with two of the firm’s accountants in attendance. But, rather than play the game with hands, the auction houses were asked to write a single character in Japanese.
Christie’s, heeding to the advice of Alice and Flora Maclean, went with scissors. Sotheby’s chose paper. The paintings went on the block at Christie’s on May 4!
If Sotheby’s had done a little homework they might have discovered that there is actually a World Rock Paper Scissors Society, and, even more important, a book entitled The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide. That information alone would have tipped them off to the fact that this game is, perhaps, not such a matter of chance after all. Costly oversight indeed!