AN INTERMITTENT "SCREAM"

~ Posted by Robert Butler, May 3rd 2012

They thought it might go for $80m. But last night in New York, Munch's "The Scream" went for $107m—the highest price paid for a work of art at an auction. If you couldn't get there, you could always watch it online. Sotheby’s said they were streaming the sale live from 7pm, or midnight BST. At 11.45 last night, the live stream was a shot of an empty podium and the tops of people's heads as they walked past, no ambient sound, and no sign when that might arrive. Twitter was doing a better job. Someone tweeted a picture of the queue. Someone tweeted the photo of their press pass. Someone tweeted the view from a hotel foyer: "The #Carlyle is swimming with art barons, vampires and 300 yr. old women."

At midnight a smooth-looking man in black tie stepped forward. The sound came on and went off again. Was that deliberate? Soon the twitter stream was announcing "#Sothebys live stream dead." The problem was too many people wanted to watch. My computer was getting snatches of audio and video, stuttering and jumping, but the numbers on the screen were out of synch with the audio.

When "The Scream" revolved into view at 12.45 BST, the auctioneer had a line you don't often hear. "I'll start the bidding at 40 million". However bad the feed was, he made the next 10 minutes look irresistible. There was the balletic way in which he flung an arm out in one direction, then swung back and flung it out in another. He might have been surfing. In the pauses, he twisted the gavel in his right hand, as if it was a string of rosary beads. After $90m, it became a stand-off between two telephone bidders represented in the room by his colleagues. ("Back with Charlie, still against you Stephan, let's try one more.") As it neared $100m, things slowed down and he was at his most inscrutable. "I have all the time in the world."

Those of us online could only guess at the drama. We knew we were missing out on some great TV. The first thing Sotheby's should do is invest in a back-up server, then get more than one camera, and then be a little more courteous to online viewers. They might even get an expert in to help us along. Who knows what business is out there. Someone tweeted at 1am: "Shame on @sothebys for messing up the live stream. I'd have gone to $108 if it had been up." 

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life