Essay: "Glut and Loathing In Las Vegas" by Mathias B. Freese

Freese is the author of The i Tetralogy and Down to a Sunless Sea.  Visit his site.


© 2010 Mathias B. Freese


Usually one blog a week is enough for me as I need to refresh the aquifer; however, today's adventure has proven otherwise. I took Jane to an auction, which is relatively new to her. It was advertised as an auction brought about by the divorce of a "prominent" Vegas attorney. In past years the auctions I went to usually sold job lots: a box of worn and weary tools in which one might come upon one good one; dishes; ceramics; odds and ends, an occasional print and so forth.  We would spend an unbearably hot Nevada Sunday indoors.


We went there for the experience and not so much to spend -- but we did. This auction turned out to be a high-end venture -- Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Asian carpets of large and small dimensions. Some made with the fleece from newly slain baby sheep, bleated the auctioneer, he with the refurbished pate of new hair "plugs" and off-putting way of dealing with his "help." He had the businessman's capitalistic petulance with his employees.


About the large room, which was in a golf course clubhouse, were originals by Renoir, Picasso, Erte, Klimt, Max, Pisarro and Chagall.  Additionally, off to one side, were tables with cases showing off the many rings, diamonds, unset stones and jewelry of the attorney's wife. Clearly they were collectors or just filthy rich - or acquisitive – and in some cases, I surmised, bought art for investment. (Jane made the telling observation that most of their art work was "safe," in that it was a traditional investment with nothing artistically daring.) Up front there were security guards and clerks registering people who attended. Essentially, we discovered, the strength of the auction was in jewelry and rugs, although one Picasso went for $21,000.


As the auction progressed I could see the auctioneer's annoyance at the small turnout.  He had his costs: advertising, security, assistants and the "help" to pay.  Unbearably hot outside as it was, I had considered that factor as an opportunity to get a better buy, for the heat might keep buyers away. But it was not to play out that way. As bidders were exceedingly frugal with their offers, he was vexed because he was "giving" away items that clearly were worth so very, very more. This was true. Carpets that easily were in the $20,000 to $30,000 range went for ridiculously low numbers.  One carpet went for $3100 and clearly was worth five times as much. The attorney was not doing that well - nor his wife, and neither was the auctioneer. Jane and I easily snatched up a $2500 rug for $350 (plus tax and 15% auction fee). Prior to the sale at 2 p.m., we had time to examine all the lots.  Jane caught sight of this Pakistan rug which was much to her liking, and it was one of the early pieces put on sale. It was a steal and we were pleased. And we had no more discretionary money for anything after that. But we stayed for the experience, and an experience it turned out to be.


As I go on, let me declare openly that I have a complex, personal, historical response to the affluent.  Quite frankly, sum it up as a strong awareness of class differences, compounded with envy, disgust, annoyance, jealousy and resentment for the display - ostentatious or not - of money. An offbeat anecdote will serve well here. A colleague of Orson Welles, who clearly was not well-heeled at the time, revealed his annoyance with Welles in an interview many decades later. I mention the years because it still rankled this man. Apparently Welles would have a meal and tip the waiter an exorbitant amount beyond the worth of the service: a hundred dollar bill in this instance (consider that it was during the Depression). Of course, Welles could very well argue that his largesse moved money about, that no one was harmed, probably helping the waiter with his own income and that is capitalism. And yes it is. The friend felt that Welles' gratuity was unnecessary, grandiose in ways, unrealistic and not needed. I see the case for that. In fact, I side with the friend over the unnecessary expenditure for, perhaps, show. In short, I detect not that the man would have wanted the cash for himself, or drooled over it, or envied Welles. I feel he thought that kind of cash could have been used elsewhere, perhaps in a better way. I share that as well. At this auction I saw glut and I loathed it, triggering all the "old" feelings from storming the Bastille to waiting until the Revolution. What asshole thinks capitalism, socialism, communism are ways to run the world? They are all deeply flawed isms with a plethora of perverse permutations.


So here we were in an auction brought about by a rich couple in a divorce who clearly could not get together on how to sell their treasures, and in their legal animosity left it to a judge to decide.  And here at this auction were other very well-to-do individuals reaping a rich whirlwind, good capitalists as they were. It was a feeding frenzy of a kind. Glut and loathing came together, and here it is specifically. At the end of a long row, two women, dressed fashionably, bejeweled (especially the younger one), were apparently mother and daughter on a spending spree. Before I blather on, let me say that I crudely estimated that within four hours they spent at least $60,000 on jewelry, carpets and several paintings by Peter Max (the "artist" from the 60s), whose paintings are in a Caesar's Palace gallery selling for inordinate amounts (between you and me, absolute dreck!). The criticism I use for any artist is how has he or she grown over the years. Max is in reversal, each year he becomes more and more of a dwarf, right up there with the decadent smeary works of Thomas Kinkade.


The mother and daughter team bid so often that I remember their auction number (#377), and so did the auctioneer; for in this dismal sale of his they were his hope to salvage the day. The couple was not insufferable, nor smug, but they did joke between themselves that they apparently were the only ones, in effect, at the auction, or that it came to be that they hit it right and with their money things were going their way. I felt I was at Bloomie's with these women on a spree. They had taste in jewels, and carpets, shrewd buyers both. Years from now when the market is up they may treble their investments if they choose to sell them: good capitalists, all.


 I looked about and saw the day workers struggling for the pittance they would get for toting the rugs about and displaying heavily framed pictures, and the auctioneer who was parasitically living off this couple (his faves) and his lousy attitude to his workers. I looked at myself, middle-class, and I looked at the well-to-do, pissing away money in this recession.  Nevada is particularly hard hit. And in that microcosm was everything I needed to know about the pigs in Animal Farm.  We were all alike and the differences were not of character, intellect or family but of random good fortune or random rotten luck. And I was galled, I must admit, that $60,000 went for things. (I know a family that "lives" on $35,000.) The glut and the gluttons I found appalling. I don't want to hear about the way it is.  I know what the way is.  I can think of immeasurable takes on this event and my gut-level response to it all, skewed as it is in places. But I also know what is abominable. And please don't tell me about the million-dollar auctions for art works, or that I should have gone to a less expensive auction (a ridiculous idea, given that I was here!).  The same saddle fits any number of steeds you ride. I saw gluttony, and it appalled. It rankled.


I experienced "pin" money by the affluent being used.  No, they did not flaunt it, to their credit, for that would have been overbearing and too much to endure; but in their very nonchalance I felt they revealed all about money, the world, and themselves. I could banter and say that being rich doesn't make them bad people, that poverty builds character and so on. Perhaps it all comes down to me (doesn't it always?), with my express need for modesty, reserve, thoughtfulness - and tact. I call it class - with no differences, poor and rich.








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