"Nice (drop cap) little chaise," says Mark Weitz. "Lot 1195. A nice little chaise, beautiful piece, raised on cabriole legs. Beautiful. Very nice. Beautiful piece. Little chaise, little chaise. Very nice. Little chaise."
Weitz is standing on a dais in a function room at downtown's Westin Hotel, behind a table cluttered with laptop computers and soda bottles. A crowd sits before him expectantly, holding auction catalogs listing items from the Maisonette, Cincinnati's one-time five-star dining establishment which closed abruptly in July after more than 57 years. At this precise moment, a slightly flushed Weitz is talking several hundred words a minute, and taking bids on a nice little chaise.
"Two hundred bid for this beautiful chaise," says Weitz, the president of asset management firm Great American Group. "Two twenty-five! Go two-fifty ... two-fifty ... two-fifty ... two-fifty. Go two-fifty. Two and a quarter bid ... go two-fifty ... two-fifty ... two-fifty. Go two-fifty. Two-fifty! Go two-seventy-five ... seventy-five ... seventy-five ... seventy-five. Who'll give me two seventy-five? Two-fifty bid ... go two-seventy-five ... seventy-five ... seventy-five."
Weitz looks at the screen of his laptop computer -- the auction is being webcast simultaneously -- he scans the crowd, glances back to the laptop, and then surveys the crowd again. He looks over at Great American Group Vice President Marc Swirsky, who stands below him in the aisle, leaning forward, almost all of his weight balanced on one leg, coaxing potential bidders to bid. Swirsky has one arm raised high in the air, three fingers pointed to the ceiling, and his other arm held out in front of him, like an out-of-shape ballet dancer.
In the background, Weitz continues, " ... seventy-five ... seventy-five ... seventy-five ... seventy-five."
Swirsky in the aisle, frozen, one arm aloft.
Weitz on the dais: "Seventy-five ... seventy-five."
Swirsky, watching the crowd.
"All through," says Weitz finally, his voice rising on the first word and falling abruptly on the second, as if imitating a doorbell.
It's an exhausting spectacle. But almost before it's over, Weitz is introducing the next lot: "Lot 1196 is a beautiful antique clock," he says.
"French marble clock. Beautiful clock. Very nice. French marble. Antique clock. Very nice."
· · ·
It is the night before the auction and the Maisonette's longtime patrons have gathered at the restaurant's Sixth Street location for an invitation-only preview and reception. In the kitchen, sets of cutlery are laid out on stainless steel counters, like infantry battalions. Several 4-foot-long mixers that more closely resemble Weed Whackers are lined up in a row next to battered ovens; next to sets of copper-plated frying pans; next to deep fryers, meat slicers, plate warmers, blenders, processors, juicers and toasters.
In the dining room, people in expensive clothes mill around, squinting at their catalogs and pointing at the listed paintings on the walls. Wooden serving carts are parked against gaudy wallpaper. Brass light fixtures gleam, each wearing a sticker with its lot number printed in it: Lot #1152: BRASS BULL HORN WALL SCONCES W/PAPER SHADES.
Menus are stacked up and ready for auction, each one also wearing its own sticker. Tables, chairs, chandeliers and drapes all will be sold off. Even the familiar black awning over the entrance will go to the highest bidder, as will the row of squat plant pots that sat beneath it. Suddenly, everything has become a commodity: Lot #626: ASST'D BROKEN CHAIRS.
Weitz stands stiffly in the dining room with his hands clasped in front of him. Next to him stands Swirsky, wearing an over-sized pair of black-framed glasses and an over-sized suit jacket. Both Weitz and Swirsky give off the faintest whiff of tautly and carefully controlled menace. They have flown in from Los Angeles to conduct the auction, which takes place over the next two days. Surrounded now by eager Maisonette patrons and taciturnly fielding their questions, Weitz and Swirsky seem to be wondering for perhaps the hundredth time this evening exactly why they are in Podunk, Ohio, on an unseasonably cold Thursday night in mid-October.
In the press of people, I am tempted to take a couple of the 102 dainty oyster forks that make up Lot #319, put them up my sleeve and make my way through the tightly-packed throngs of Cincinnati's dinnerati to the exit. I pick one up, hold it for a moment and then replace it. The next day, someone will likely pay more than I'll earn in the next few months for this fork and its 101 siblings.
At events such as these, people are not their real selves. They tend to talk a little too loudly about things they think will impress the other attendees, most of whom are walking around trying to talk as loudly -- or louder. The result is an ever-escalating din about almost nothing. A man near me turns to his companion and asks, "What gun are you shooting?"
It is all artifice. And it creates the sensation of being the only person in the room who is not part of a community theater group, the members of which are currently struggling with some poorly written dialogue. It's like dinner theater. Specifically, it's like bad dinner theater. As waiters circulate, holding aloft trays stacked with shrimp toast, I expect someone to keel over expertly and land on the carpeted floor with a well-practiced thump! so that the rest of us can spend the next few hours solving his murder.
(My guess: The fella who looks a bit like Colonel Mustard, in the kitchen, with an oyster fork from Lot #319. My companion's guess: The elderly woman with the hair that resembles a controlled explosion, by the restrooms, with one of the mixers that looks like a Weed Whacker).
· · ·
It's around one o'clock on Saturday afternoon, and Weitz and his team are slowly chipping away at the 2,305 lots up for auction. The room tightens for a moment when Weitz announces the imminent sale of the Maisonette's name and logo.
"Any questions?" he asks, after carefully explaining the terms of the sale.
"Jeez," says Weitz. "It got quiet."
And the bidding begins: First $5,000 ... and then $10,000 ... $20,000 ... $30,000 ... and finally $35,000, the largest amount paid for any single lot.
The auction continues. People drift in and out of the ballroom, fatigued. Someone returns a lost auction paddle to Weitz. "Maybe I'll make a few bids with this," he jokes from behind the table. It is, we learn, ex-Maisonette chef Jean-Robert de Cavel's paddle, worth its $500 deposit, and left unattended by a bank of pay phones. An endless procession of mirrors, wine racks and champagne buckets are sold. Two o'clock becomes three o'clock; three becomes four. It starts to get dark outside.
And still the auction continues. A 1924 vintage bottle of Chateau Petrus from the Maisonette's wine cellar sells for $3,250, followed by a couple of magnums of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild Pauillac 1986, for $700 apiece, followed by Cabernets, Pinots, Merlots, Sauvignons, Gewurtz-traminers and Rieslings. Bottle after bottle, from the Maisonette's well- stocked cellar.
It's time to go. Weitz, voice slightly hoarse and perhaps a beat or two slower than it was this morning, introduces Lot #2021, four bottles of Chateau Trotanoy 1996, as I get up to leave.
"All right," he is saying, "What are they worth and what's your pleasure? Let's start at twenty-five a bottle. Twenty-five! Go fifty. Go fifty ... go fifty ... go fifty ... fifty ... fifty ... fifty"