"$450,000," called the auctioneer, pointing to a bidder in the crowd at Christie's.
He wheeled around to another: "$500!"
Then back to the first: "$550!"
"Do I hear six?" he asked solicitously. "Six hundred thousand?"
A man in the middle of the room, hair slicked back to reveal a deep tan, raised his paddle. "What is your bid, sir?" asked the auctioneer. The man took a long, unlit cigarillo out of his mouth, and paused. "One million dollars," he said.
The room shuddered with a collective gasp, and then erupted in applause, the way it might in an auction scene in a movie. "One million!" shouted the auctioneer in disbelief. "It's not over yet, ladies and gentleman. Do I hear one million one?" A phone bidder thought she had a counterbid—but no, the painting was his: the man with the slicked-back hair was the grinning victor. "SOLD," for $1 million. Applause erupted again in the crowd, and the buyer (now with his cigarillo back in his mouth) waved slowly and victoriously, like a Roman emperor greeting his people. "We'll have your triumphal chariot waiting outside to bring you back to your hotel tonight," the auctioneer joked.
The lot in question was a recent portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio by Elizabeth Peyton, and the price was the highest for any of her works sold at auction. But that's the kind of auction this was—an exciting, high-stakes game, filled with fast-paced bids from billionaires and art-world luminaries. Called the "11th Hour Auction," proceeds went to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which aims to protect the world's wildlife by focusing on habitat preservation. The foundation has worked to protect tigers from extinction in Nepal, rainforests in Sumatra, and endangered sharks.
DiCaprio presided over the Christie's sale the way his character, Jay Gatsby, presided over one of his lavish parties: silently approving of the spectacle. The actor solicited 33 pieces from artists for the auction himself—including ones by Ed Ruscha, Julian Schnabel, and Richard Prince—and many of the pieces were created especially for the sale.
And true to the foundation’s theme, much of the work in the sale depicted wildlife, including Banksy's Protect From All Elements, which showed an elephant with a missile on its back; Robert Longo's Leo, of a black-and-white tiger; and Walton Ford's Athroponosis, of a giant orangutan. (Before the auction began, DiCaprio announced that an anonymous benefactor would match winning bids of up to $5 million on the four objects that portrayed big cats.) "I'm asking each of you to step up to the plate and go big," DiCaprio told the crowd before the auction. "I urge all of you to bid as if the fate of the planet depends on us."
And go big they did: One of the most intense bidding wars of the night erupted over Mark Grotjahn's Untitled (Standard Lotus No. II, Bird of Paradise, Tiger Mouth Face), an abstract oil painting that was expected to fetch anywhere between $1,500,000 and $2,500,000. Frenzied bidders erupted in every corner when the lot was announced—many over the phone—but it wasn't until the $5 million mark that the art dealer Larry Gagosian threw his hat into the ring. He bid quickly and quietly against a second bidder until the lot reached $6.5 million. Finally, the underbidder relented, murmuring: "He won't break. (Gagosian, who represents Grotjahn, won the piece, conveniently driving the artist to a new auction record.)
DiCaprio sat in the front row for the duration of the auction, occasionally spinning around in his chair to identify bidders behind him. "You like that, Leo?" the auctioneer repeatedly asked when a lot exceeded its expected amount. And Leo would nod: yes, yes he did.
At the end of the auction, DiCaprio's costar in Gatsby, Tobey Maguire, picked up a Sergej Jensen piece for $250,000—and DiCaprio jumped up and clapped out of appreciation for his friend. DiCaprio himself traded in futures: he purchased a Takashi Murakami painting, Mononoke, for $700,000—that won't be ready until September.
The man with the cigarillo, who purchased the Peyton and the Robert Longo tiger for $1.5 million, was pharmaceutical billionaire Stewart Rahr, who, according to his Forbes.com profile, "refers to himself as 'Stewie Rah Rah, the No. 1 King of All Fun." Rahr left the auction early with an entourage and was surrounded by a scrum of reporters in the lobby. "I sold my company," he told the pack. "Look it up."
At the end of the night, sales reportedly totaled $38.8 million for the DiCaprio Foundation's conservation efforts.