Anything for the Client The two greatest auction houses in the world vied to auction off $20 million worth of art in 2004. Little did they know, they would be forced to engage in an ancient form of ritualized combat.
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Anything for the Client

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Anything for the Client

Anything for the Client

Anything for the Client

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The two greatest auction houses in the world vied to auction off $20 million worth of art in 2004. Little did they know, they would be forced to engage in an ancient form of ritualized combat.

JOE ROSENBERG, BYLINE: So our story is going to start with this guy.

JONATHAN RENDELL: Good Lord, I'm practically making love to this microphone now.

ROSENBERG: His name is Jonathan Rendell.

RENDELL: I'm a deputy chairman of Christie's in America, who spent a lot of his time in the late '80s, early '90s selling material to Japan.

ROSENBERG: Material meaning art.

RENDELL: And in the mid-90s to the mid-2000s, going back to Japan to get everything back that I'd sold to them 10 years before. The extraordinary thing was you'd go to a trunk room...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

RENDELL: ...Which looks like that last scene in the "Raiders Of The Lost Ark," you know, those things in boxes going on forever. And open a box, and in the box would be a work of art or several works of art, and you would pick the object up, and you'd look on the back of it and you would find your handwriting from 10 years ago.

ROSENBERG: That's so surreal. It really is like kind of this weird ebb and flow of prestige between people, and so long as you're the middleman, you know, you'll be all right in the end.

RENDELL: Yeah, absolutely. The beauty of the bubble market.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSENBERG: But of course Christie's did not have this wonderful pie all to itself.

RENDELL: It's a market that is really a duopoly between two auction house giants. There's Christie's and then there's the other place.

ROSENBERG: You mean Sotheby's?

RENDELL: Yeah.

ROSENBERG: It's like saying my opponent instead of - yeah.

RENDELL: No, that's actually how one normally refers to it - the other place. So it's sort of a friendly-ish rivalry. I wouldn't say it was entirely friendly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSENBERG: In Sotheby's and Christie's, you see, there was one collection they both had their eyes on.

RENDELL: The Maspro Denkoh Corporate Collection was a jewel in the crown. It had everything that one wanted to sell at that precise moment. You know, the Cezanne, the Picasso, the van Gogh - they're trophy names.

ROSENBERG: And, most importantly...

RENDELL: It was $20 million worth of business.

ROSENBERG: There was just one problem. Mr. Hashiyama, the CEO who had founded the collection, he was really chummy with Sotheby's. They'd known him for years. If Christie's wanted that $20 million worth of business, they were going to have to win him over.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KANAE ISHIBASHI: It was very, very hard job for me - Mr. Hashiyama.

ROSENBERG: This is Kanae Ishibashi. She worked at Christie's Tokyo office alongside Jonathan. Just think of her as the client whisperer. She'd been paying visits to Mr. Hashiyama since almost her first day on the job, but he'd been proving tricky.

ISHIBASHI: He really doesn't sort of talk about business. We talked about art and music and, you know, his great passion for dinosaurs. You know, we could spend hours laughing. So he told me that when his company was listed in a stock market, which was a very, very important incident, he chose the insurance company by throwing dice.

(SOUNDBITE OF THROWING DICE)

ISHIBASHI: Yes, so when I heard that story, I was - I found it really funny. And, you know, he's bit sort of eccentric and all that, but we couldn't really read where his mind was.

ROSENBERG: First of all, how many - over how many years were you doing this?

ISHIBASHI: I think we'd spent six years.

ROSENBERG: Six years?

ISHIBASHI: Yeah, meeting with Mr. Hashiyama before the auction.

ROSENBERG: That's incredible. And meanwhile though, you're not the only person meeting with him, I would take it?

ISHIBASHI: No, no, no, no. Sotheby's, they were there all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSENBERG: And after both houses had finally given their big presentations on why Mr. Hashiyama should choose them and not, you know, the other place...

RENDELL: He came back with this extraordinary request.

ISHIBASHI: I received a call from Mr. Hashiyama in the office, and he said in order to determine which auction house to handle collection, I would like both of you - Christie's and Sotheby's - to play the game rock, paper, scissors.

ROSENBERG: Yes, you heard her right.

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: Rock, paper, scissors, shoot.

ROSENBERG: Mr. Hashiyama wanted the two biggest auction houses in the world to play a $20 million game of Rochambeau.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENDELL: I think there was a moment of silence and surprise, and then - what?

ISHIBASHI: That's it. I didn't really reply back to him. I couldn't really answer him, like, why are you doing this? And, you know, we can't really do that. I couldn't believe it.

RENDELL: You know, we didn't know what to do. But it was very clear that it was a very serious request from the client. And so when a client asks you to do something, you just get on and do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

ROSENBERG: Here's how it would work. Each side - Christie's and Sotheby's - would have the weekend to come up with their choice of quote, unquote, "weapon." Then, on Monday morning, they would meet at the Maspro Denkoh offices in Tokyo, and there they would duel.

RENDELL: This was one game. And Kanae's job was to write down one word on a piece of paper, and that word had to be either rock, or paper, or scissors. So we started compulsively playing rock, paper, scissors, trying to work out how do we win this? Is there some secret to this? How bad are you going to feel? How idiotic are you going to look in front of your colleagues when you've lost a collection for a child's game?

ISHIBASHI: I don't really remember those three days. I mean, I was under enormous pressure to think what would be the best strategy. But my struggle was always that I knew that there is no strategy because it's just a pure chance. So constantly, whenever I had some moment on a train or walking in streets, I suddenly sort of thought about rock, paper, scissors. I had to contemplate between choices. I think it's paper. No, no, no, I think it's rock. Then I said, you know, no, no, no, no, I shouldn't do it because there is no answer. There is no answer. Let's stop. But then, even though I tried not to think about it, I couldn't really forget about rock, paper, scissors from my mind.

ROSENBERG: Do you think Mr. Hashiyama - do think he was, like, just, like, sitting back, rubbing his hands together, like, mischievously?

ISHIBASHI: I don't know. I don't know. I really don't know.

ROSENBERG: And meanwhile, of course, she was getting all kinds of advice.

RENDELL: Every time I walked past Kanae, I was constantly like, why don't we go with rock? You know, it's the strong thing.

ROSENBERG: And then there was this guy.

NICK MACLEAN: My name is Nick Maclean.

ROSENBERG: Her boss at the Christie's offices in New York.

N. MACLEAN: Where we ran the Impressionist and Modern Art department.

ROSENBERG: Did you have an opinion about which to choose?

N. MACLEAN: No, but obviously the first thing I did when I got home, I was telling my wife about this and my daughters.

FLORA MACLEAN: I'm Flora.

ALICE MACLEAN: I'm Alice.

ROSENBERG: They were 11 then. They're 20 now. And the fun fact about them is...

F. MACLEAN: We are twins.

ROSENBERG: Are you identical twins?

A. MACLEAN: Yeah.

F. MACLEAN: Very identical.

N. MACLEAN: One's left-handed, one's right-handed.

F. MACLEAN: Mirror twins.

A. MACLEAN: And we were in the kitchen of our home in New York, and he was saying of what a bit of an issue. Sotheby's is going to get this deal. We're like, oh, yeah, we hate Sotheby's.

N. MACLEAN: And they came back to me quite promptly and said, you know, Dad, everybody knows you start with scissors.

A. MACLEAN: Yeah, scissors is the pretty standard move.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

N. MACLEAN: So I said, well, how does that work? And they said, well, most people like the idea of going with rock.

A. MACLEAN: But because they were, like, super clever Sotheby's, we're like, oh, they're going to bluff.

ROSENBERG: So Sotheby's would choose paper?

N. MACLEAN: But you then double bluff by going scissors, and scissors cuts paper. And I said, all right, that sounds good. I said, what if they go scissors? They said, you go scissors again.

A. MACLEAN: Because that's what I'd do.

F. MACLEAN: Yeah. You just stick with scissors and see what happens.

ROSENBERG: At which point Nick called up Kanae.

ISHIBASHI: And he said, Kanae, scissors. I think scissors is a thing.

N. MACLEAN: And at that point we get into the Theater of the Absurd. You know, we're about to do this massive piece of business, and we're listening to the advice of 11-year-olds.

ROSENBERG: Would you have been willing to go with Alice and Flora's choice regardless of what it would've been? Would that have struck you as like a...

N. MACLEAN: At least I'd have had someone else to blame if it was wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISHIBASHI: But I wouldn't feel with my gut that, you know, scissors are the best choice. Or rather, I would say, I reached the point where the situation got beyond my capacity. I think I didn't quite sleep a few days, but on that Sunday evening, I slept for few hours. And then suddenly my husband came up in my dream. He said, Kanae, and he told me what choice I should come up with. Then I woke up, and I saw the window, and the sky was beginning to light up. I didn't look at the time, but I felt really sort of refreshed. Somehow my husband's voice really struck me, and I didn't even think about, you know, right or wrong. But I felt that it was a choice for me and I would go for it.

RENDELL: So Monday morning, the car comes to pick me up with her in it, and we start driving off towards the Maspro Denkoh office.

ROSENBERG: And did she tell you what she decided?

RENDELL: No.

ROSENBERG: She didn't?

RENDELL: No, she was keeping her cards very close to her chest.

ROSENBERG: Did you prod her, like, oh, come on, Kanae, just tell me?

RENDELL: Yeah, of course. But, you know, you try and get a secret out of her. She won't tell you.

ROSENBERG: At that point would you have...

RENDELL: Happily got out of the car and walked away? Yes.

ROSENBERG: Why would you want to walk away though? I feel like the tension might be unbearable, but how could you possibly not want to be there in that room?

RENDELL: Yeah, but it might be like watching a kitten being steamrollered as well, because if the pressure was big on me, it was absolutely massive on her. So she had prepared herself and was sort of entering a semi-Zen state.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DRIVING)

RENDELL: So we arrive. We're shown to a waiting room, then the two people from Sotheby's arrive.

ROSENBERG: Do you recognize the two people from Sotheby's?

RENDELL: Yeah, you know, I knew who they were. But it's hardly the moment for, you know, hi, how are you? More sort of a grunt. So we sit one side of the table. They sit the other side of the table, and there are two accountants and a fax machine.

ROSENBERG: And somewhere on the other side of the fax machine - Mr. Hashiyama himself, waiting for the results.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RENDELL: And we're told to write down the word.

ISHIBASHI: And Jonathan actually looked at me, and beneath the table, he showed me rock and - with his hand, and his eyes were very sharp, and he nodded to me once. I think he nodded to make sure that it was a good decision.

ROSENBERG: And she's just saying nothing? So...

RENDELL: Nothing, nothing. And she goes ahead and writes down a word.

ROSENBERG: Can you see what word she wrote?

RENDELL: It's in Kanji. I don't read Japanese. But looking at the face of the accountant holding the piece of paper, you could tell nothing. He was totally inscrutable. He looks at it for what was probably 30 seconds, and your heart's in your mouth.

ISHIBASHI: And then Maspro - a person opened the envelope, and he said Sotheby's - paper, Christie's - scissors.

RENDELL: And then they look at Kanae and say, you won, and it was like a huge weight had gone off her shoulders.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISHIBASHI: But after we went outside of the building, we screamed.

RENDELL: Saved by Kanae, completely saved by Kanae.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSENBERG: Would you be deputy chairman of Christie's if you had gone for rock?

RENDELL: No, I suspect I might still be there, but I probably wouldn't be quite where I am now.

ROSENBERG: Really? It really would've had that kind of effect?

RENDELL: It would have been - it's a huge career block. You just lost a great, big deal.

F. MACLEAN: Obviously he should've come to us first.

A. MACLEAN: You never go paper.

F. MACLEAN: Paper just sounds that it's not going to win.

A. MACLEAN: It's a weak move.

ROSENBERG: Wait, why not paper? Because the other person's going to stick with scissors?

F. MACLEAN: It's just a weak move.

ROSENBERG: Whether Mr. Hashiyama himself would agree with that, we don't know. But Kanae would meet him again at the art auction in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ISHIBASHI: And normally, you know, clients, they demand the very best restaurants in New York. But he said, well, I would have a steak. So we went to the real sort of New York steak steakhouse, having clam chowder and steak together. And it was a very simple dinner, but it was very nice.

ROSENBERG: Did he ever talk about rock, paper, scissors again? Or did you ever bring it up?

ISHIBASHI: No, he never brought it up and I didn't talk about it. But two years later, Mr. Hashiyama passed away, and that was the last time I saw him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROSENBERG: Today, Kanae Ishibashi has quit the auction business entirely. She now runs a music school with her husband in Tokyo. And as for Nick's twin daughters, Alice and Flora, shortly after the art auction, Time Magazine ran a section called Quotes of the Week.

N. MACLEAN: The Pope was there, Arnold Schwarzenegger, I think the president and Alice Maclean.

F. MACLEAN: She has it framed.

A. MACLEAN: Yeah, it's framed (laughter) in the house.

ROSENBERG: (Laughter) What was her quote?

N. MACLEAN: Everybody knows you go scissors.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLYNN WASHINGTON, HOST:

A special shout-out to Carol Vogel over at The New York Times who first reported on this story back in 2004. For a link to her original article and more, check out our website, snapjudgment.org. That piece was produced by Joe Rosenberg with sound design by Leon Morimoto.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WASHINGTON: Now, when SNAP JUDGMENT returns, a woman wonders if the only way to feel human is not to feel human. Discover the amazing answer when SNAP JUDGMENT, the Simpatico episode, continues. Stay tuned.

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