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Brunch before munch

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POSH NOSH: "You can't have a bowl of nuts on the table anymore - it has to be world-class food, " says Lydia Fenet, a Christie's senior vice president and highprofile auctioneer

Before an auction of rare Italian masterworks by Fra Bartolommeo and Simone Martini, Sotheby's rolled out some rarefied Italian treats, including imported guanciale in vinaigrette. For an offering of Japanese contemporary art, potential bidders were treated to freshly sliced sushi. And for a preview before the sale of 'The Scream' by Edvard Munch, who grew up in Oslo, there was a lavish smorgasbord of Norwegian specialties.

"I was on the Internet for two hours looking for reindeer meat, " said Peter Marrello, the auction house's executive chef.

Luxurious trappings have always filled two of the world's largest auction houses, Christie's and Sotheby's. But until recently, food and drink were considered at best an afterthought, and at worst a messy menace to the often-fragile artifacts in the exhibition rooms.

Now, they are increasingly an obsession : a lure to bidders and a lubricant for bids. In New York, both houses have their own kitchens and in-house caterers;Sotheby's deemed its food important enough to give Marrello, 48, the title of executive chef. To cook for special occasions, Christie's has imported celebrated chefs including Thomas Keller, Mario Batali, Marcus Samuelsson and Geoffrey Zakarian, while Sotheby's has invited Daniel Boulud and Nobu Matsuhisa.

"You can't have a bowl of nuts on the table anymore - it has to be world-class food, " said Lydia Fenet, a Christie's senior vice president and high-profile auctioneer. "People want what is new and different. And it is competitive, and intense. "

Christie's spent more than $1 million on food and wine in New York last year, up more than 20% since 2009;during that time, the number of catered events there has risen 35%, to more than 400, according to persons with knowledge of the auction house.

Sotheby's officials said their expenditures were roughly comparable, though they declined to separate food and drink spending from marketing costs. Attendance at the house's 300 catered events in 2011 was up 20% over the previous year.

"Our clients are more knowledgeable and passionate about food, and now you have to do something that no one else can do, " said Lisa Dennison, the chairwoman of Sotheby's North and South America, who blogs on the company's website about hot new restaurants as well as art.

Cuisine is an increasingly vital component of marketing in this secretive world because "food and drink make an auction into an event and not just a sale, " said Arlan Ettinger, president of Guernsey's auction house in Manhattan. And the traditional buyer's commission of more than 10% to the auction houses can support a high level of fare.

The new excitement about food has been driven, auction executives say, by a number of forces: the slow uptick in the economy, the continued strength of the luxury market, the increasing globalization of bidders and the trend toward buying trophies like art and jewelry as investments. Meanwhile, there is "a constant evolution in the sophistication" of clients' palates, said Erin McAndrew, a Christie's vice president.

One collector said what auction houses would not. "Food and wine put you in the mood to buy, " said Joseph Rescigno, an opera conductor and devoted wine collector. "How much you buy can depend on how much you drink, " he said with a laugh, adding that he had attended so many wine auctions that "I should get a frequent-drinker discount. "

At Christie's recent Green Auction for nonprofit environmental groups, Fenet was well on her way to coaxing $600, 000 in bids from a crowd of 350. "Look now, " she said, teasing a shy audience. "If you need a drink, why, you can just run back to the bar, and nobody will hold it against you. "

Indeed, the organic 2010 reduced-sulfite Frey sauvignon blanc was flowing freely. The foie gras crostini were fast disappearing. Moments later, she lowered the hammer, selling a weekend scuba-diving jaunt for $14, 000.

That is not to suggest that a square of salmon tartare on ciabatta, or a sip of Bordeaux, catapulted the April jewelry sales at Christie's to $70. 7 million. But "food is paramount because you want to know that the auction house has made a commitment, " said Mark Schwarz, a securities lawyer, as he attended a recent auction there. "It speaks to the importance of the event. "

Food and drink are served most often at preview parties or dinners to drum up interest, rather than at the auctions themselves. Just a few years ago, the standard offerings were those same old hors d'oeuvres hauled out at most gardenvariety receptions and cocktail mixers.

That no longer suffices. "When the food is extremely sparse, people resent that - and loudly complain, " said Ken Rosen, a real estate lawyer who was sampling the fare at a Christie's auction on a recent evening.

In the old days, auction houses would hold a one-size-fits-all bash for collectors at all levels, "so we'd have 700 people at the party before our Impressionist sale, " said Michael Moore, director of special events at Sotheby's North America.

But now, busy auction weeks are a whirl of precisely targeted breakfasts, lunches, brunches, afternoon teas, cocktail receptions and seated dinners for anywhere from 10 to 300 potential bidders - not to mention the charity receptions, "where 1, 500 people come through, " said Mary Giuliani, whose events company has been Christie's in-house caterer for two years.

Fenet said the smaller meals were part of a "more bespoke" approach. "Our clients can enjoy the company of like-minded collectors, " she said, "since a small dinner is infinitely more powerful for quality time. "

For auction houses and bidders, the intimate dinner is as good as it gets.

The proximity of soon-to-be-auctioned art, which is often displayed on the dining room walls, can be powerfully affecting. "The food here is excellent, " said Leonard Lauder, a chairman of the Alzheimer's Drug Discovery Foundation auction held at Sotheby's. "But don't you think the presence of the art on these walls enhances the food greatly?"

The catering staff is trained to work with fanatical caution in proximity to auctionable artworks in the dining rooms. "No one wants to be the server who splashed something on the Botero, " said Liz Neumark, chief executive of Great Performances, Sotheby's in-house caterer for eight years.

Though food and drink aren't ordinarily served during auctions, wine sales are the great exception. "Food and wine make it more pleasurable, and help people to stay" during lengthy bidding, said Jamie Ritchie, head of the Sotheby's wine department.

At a recent 654-lot wine auction at Christie's that ran nearly six hours, the 10 am bidders encountered ranks of sliced melon, heaps of croissants, mounds of smoked salmon and pots of marmalade. By noon the buffet table had been reset with trays of sandwiches, including an onion ficelle rich with prime rib, as well as salads and sides like fingerling potatoes with haricots vert and black olives. Bidders washed it all down with Taittinger Cuvêe Prestige.

Playfulness is increasingly on the preview menu. For last year's sale of Andy Warhol's "Self-Portrait" for $38. 4 million, servers at Christie's wore Warhol-style wigs. The November auction of "Tomato Head (Green)" by the artist Paul McCarthy, which sold for $4. 6 million, offered tomato treats, including mini grilled-cheese-and-tomato sandwiches. At a recent event at Sotheby's to promote the memoir "Ali in Wonderland" by the comedian Ali Wentworth, cocktails were served in Lewis Carroll-inspired teacups, and snacks in Mad Hatter top hats.

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