World’s first gourmet food auction: Prized collections, with a limited shelf life

Today’s viewers have become accustomed to looking at food in the same way they look at art thanks to 20th-century artists – Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans and Damien Hirst’s preserved ferocious animals are two examples among many.

By Or Ezrati

Paris – The concept of a collection, be it a collection of paintings or of Hanukkah menorahs, is to preserve the spirit of an age. One can collect the golden foil paper in which chocolate bars are wrapped and give this collection to grandchildren, although it would be hard to find a grandchild who would be thrilled to receive a such a collection from his grandfather. Nonetheless, on a wintry night in late December, the world’s first public auction of gourmet food was held at the majestic Hotel Marcel Dassault on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

Scheduled between auctions of modern art and antiquities from the Near East, the Artcurial auction house, located in the former hotel, hosted this unusual gastronomic event, the fine food auction.

Wine collections are familiar in the world of food. Unlike with other food and drink, the principle of aging and preservation serves as the basis for wine collection. In contrast, a collector of food delicacies must become reconciled to the fact that his collection will retain no more than memories of a taste and time. No doubt, the purchaser of item number 510 at this auction, “a box of 25 oysters from the Cadoret Tower,” knew in advance that he would have in his possession a collection with a limited shelf life.

A detailed catalog was published ahead of the auction, and items for sale were displayed for three days prior to the event. In a hall devoted to gastronomic delights, visitors observed a refrigerator packed with meat, the box of oysters and various chocolate assortments. Auction patrons perused cans of sardines in butter, which were stored in presentation boxes usually reserved for expensive jewelry.

Today’s viewers have become accustomed to looking at food in the same way they look at art thanks to 20th-century artists – Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans and Damien Hirst’s preserved ferocious animals are two examples among many. Similarly, in Artcurial’s mesmerizing exhibit, red, white and blue cans of sardines preserved in chili butter attained a pop-art feel. Intrigued visitors peered at cuts of entrecote as though they were challenging works of art. They rocked back and forward to get a better view of the chunks of meat and intently read captions. Roy Lichtenstein’s colored prints, which remained on walls from an earlier auction, contributed to the fine food auction’s beguiling atmosphere.

“Gastronomy is no less important to French culture than the plastic arts,” declared one auction flyer. Proposed auction prices for the various items were printed on the flyer’s flip side, and a slide illustration of the auction’s first sale item, the crown of a chicken, projected out into the room. Under the slide sat Bruno Verjus, a gastronomical consultant and the auction’s curator. A large-framed man with a passionate face and a big smile, Verjus is a businessman who made his fortune in China, and he has devoted himself in recent years to the promotion of food culture in his Food Intelligence blog, in magazines and in radio broadcasts. During the auction, Verjus delivered an elaborate explanation of the chicken’s journey.

Eggs in a wooden basket were displayed by a model wearing a Paco Rabanne-designed evening dress. Then the model returned with a long white tube of mushrooms, as though it were an advertisement for some sort of antifungal cream, and later she brought a long, rolled sausage in a large wooden box. She seemed to hold the sausage a bit nervously.

Three small bottles of balsamic vinegar were brought to the auction and an expert detailed seven types of wood used in containers (from, among other things, whiskey barrels ) to age the vinegar. This is 25-year-old vinegar, explained an expert, “of the sort that can’t be bought today – either it is received as a present, or it is stolen.” The vinegar was sold for 1000 euros.

‘Heavenly ambrosia’

Of course, among collectors, the rareness of an item is a key factor in its value, and the rarity motif was the selling point for many items in the auction. Armand Petrossian, owner of the Petrossian caviar concern, spoke about the high-quality caviar sold at the event and said it was of the finest variety, which he reserves for himself and his friends.

When it comes to coffee, the issue of rareness becomes more acute. “This is a type of coffee bean that growers keep for themselves. Only 1,500 kilograms are cultivated each year,” explained one importer, adding that only Jako parrots know how to identify the coffee’s “heavenly ambrosia” in Brazil. Verjus emphasized that this “is such high quality coffee that even I haven’t had an opportunity to taste it.”

During the auction, one heavyset man sitting in the second row bid feverishly for steak items, but the first two cuts escaped his grasp and were purchased by a telephone bidder. The crowd was amused by his obsession. He panted heavily and beads of sweat dripped down his neck. Despite the refined, exquisite aesthetics of the auction house, suddenly raw hunger gripped the room. As a reflex, I sympathized with his hunger and let out a long sigh with him when he finally managed to buy some gourmet meat. After this purchase, he left the room drenched in perspiration.

After starting with a swirl of enthusiasm, the auction seemed stalled when the time came for a tea break. A tea merchant told an entrancing tale about heavy rain in Nepal and how he found sanctuary from the weather in a dilapidated monastery. Fortuitously, he stumbled across a rare type of tea that the monks kept for their own uses – but, despite such exotic hawking, it wasn’t sold at the auction. As at an overlong dinner party, it seemed the audience had lost much of its patience. Television crews started to fold up their equipment and the woman sitting beside me exchanged text messages with her husband, asking, “Duck or chicken for dinner?”

As interest waned among visitors, sellers began to bid for one another’s wares. A butcher made the highest offer for a cut of meat sold by a fellow tradesman. Perched on his chair on the dais, Verjus purchased a kilogram of the tubed mushrooms. A lack of glitter demonstrated that the audience was not really comprised of wearers of fur coats and jewelry. Mostly, attendees were workers, agriculturalists and restaurant owners. The corpulent man who craved steak turned out to be Pierre Herme, the most famous pastry chef in Paris. The item that netted the highest bid (3,200 euros ) was unrefined salt from Mali – the only item that was purely decorative.

Despite everything, however, it seems collectors prefer to invest their money in fine art and not fine cuisine.

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