The Time Sotheby's and Christie's Played 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' for a Cézanne


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In 2005, a Japanese electronics company called Maspro Denkoh Corp. decided to sell its Impressionist art collection. From Cézanne’s Large Trees Under the Jas de Bouffan, a landscape worth $16 million (pictured), to smaller works by Picasso and Van Gogh, the pieces Maspro Denkoh had hanging on the walls would have been enough to impress any aficionado.

In fact, experts were impressed—prestigious auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s were both eager to get in on the action. To choose between the two potential hosts for the epic sale, Maspro Denkoh president Takashi Hashiyama asked representatives from each auction house to explain how they would go about getting top bids for the Cézanne, the heart of the collection. The proposals ended up being so similar that Hashiyama still couldn’t choose. Rather than make a decision himself, he asked Christie’s and Sotheby’s to convene on their own in order to figure out who would take responsibility for the sales. The two auction houses still couldn’t come to a conclusion.

To settle the matter once and for all, Hashiyama resorted to a technique that has resolved playground disputes for centuries: a rousing game of "rock, paper, scissors." The president of Christie’s in Japan spent the weekend reading up on strategies and consulting experts, including a colleague’s 11-year-old twins, Flora and Alice, who recommended using scissors. “Rock is way too obvious, and scissors beats paper,” Flora explained.

On the other hand, Sotheby’s didn’t prepare at all. “This is a game of chance, so we didn’t really give it that much thought,” Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art expert said.

Both auction houses were asked to write their “weapon” choices on pieces of paper, which were then turned over to an accountant. “Looking at the face of the accountant holding the piece of paper, you could tell nothing,” Jonathan Rendell, deputy chairman at Christie’s, told NPR. “He looks at it for what was probably 30 seconds, and your heart’s in your mouth.”

In the end, Christie’s preparations paid off. Their scissors beat Sotheby’s paper. The twins were unimpressed with Sotheby’s choice. “You never go paper. It’s a weak move,” Alice said, years later. Flora agreed: “Paper just sounds that it’s not going to win.”