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Amazon gets the art world wrong again

9 February 2024

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, nearly every streaming company that you can imagine is busy releasing romcoms. Rakewell was pleased to hear that the latest offering from Amazon, Upgraded, is set in the art world. Little pleases Rakewell more than authenticity, but a bitingly satirical look at the world of private clients and art auctions could just have the edge.

Alas, despite the best efforts of Marisa Tomei and Camila Mendes, neither quality was particularly in evidence in this celebration of capital-driven desire. Mendes plays an assistant at the fictional auction house Erwin’s, which strangely seems to have its New York headquarters in Chelsea rather than, say, the Upper East Side or midtown. The film starts on what a character calls ‘the ‘day they’re doing one of those big auctions’. Before this auction starts, the staff are lined up in front of the formidable Claire (played by Tomei) to make sure their appearance is satisfactory enough to admit them into the auction room. The last time Rakewell checked, auction houses tended to plan these things a little more efficiently than an hour before the auction started.

The auction, naturally, leads to a near-catastrophe. One of the works has been miscatalogued – a painting by Carmen Herrera is misidentified as oil on wood, rather than acrylic on wood. The entire auction house staff, all eight of them, are assembled to be shouted at: ‘There are no little typos; there are only huge fucking mistakes.’ Would that auction houses still printed catalogues for such mistakes to occur in.

An enormous collection sale is slated to take place in London. Cue glamorous flights and shots of the city (including one troubling moment outside the Bank of England where the camera seems to glide through a red traffic light – we don’t see the outcome). Reader, it seems unlikely that a leading auction house would handle a collection sale with a team in another country. It also seems unlikely that a senior specialist would spend quite so much time shopping for clothes, but who are we to quibble.

Perhaps the most preposterous aspect of the film is the absence of the lawyers. Rakewell is sure that auction houses would be thrilled if all deals could be arranged with a cosy phone call between friends rather than via the phalanx of advisers and laywers who normally people these deals. Luckily, the Hollywood version provides a much more romantic – and cost-effective – version of cutting a deal that dispenses with them altogether, and instead relies on what one character describes as bartering skills that would have been more at home at the Grand Bazaar in Marrakech.

Lurking in the details there are signs that the film-makers did have some good advice. Rakewell was particularly excited to see Hugh Edmeades and John Hays make their big-screen debuts. Both were auctioneers at Christie’s.

All of which raises a question. In 1999, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon would partner with Sotheby’s to start a bidding site for collectibles. The following year the CEO of Sotheby’s, Diana Brooks, pleaded guilty to price fixing. In 2013 Amazon launched a marketplace for works by artists ranging from Salvador Dalí to Claude Monet – but that was quietly, shall we say, evolved into something rather more like Etsy. Why is it that Amazon just can’t get the art world right?