How A Game Of Rock, Paper, Scissors Won A Multi-Million Art Deal For Christie's

How A Game Of Rock, Paper, Scissors Won A Multi-Million Art Deal For Christie's
Image: Shutterstock.

In 2005, Takashi Hashiyama, president of Japanese electronics giant Maspro Denkoh Corporation, faced a dilemma. His company boasted an enviable art collection, and the time had come to auction some of it off. The problem? He couldn't decide which auction house to use.

The stakes were high; this consignment was worth around $20 million and included works by Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall and Camille Pissarro.

According to Hashiyama, Christie's and Sotheby's were equally up to the task. Both auction houses had been founded in London in the mid-1700s and boasted centuries of experience selling fine art. Both also had offices around the globe, though Christie's remains a particularly Londonian icon; its headquarters are located in Mayfair, a mere stone's through from Pall Mall, where James Christie made his first sale all the way back in 1766.

Christie's current HQ in King Street, Mayfair. Image courtesy Christie's.

Eventually, Hashiyama resolved to let fate decide which auction house to opt for... via a game of rock, paper, scissors.

The game differed somewhat from your typical playground format. Instead of using hand gestures to convey their choice, a representative from each company would write down either, 'rock', 'paper', or 'scissors' on a piece of paper before handing it to a Maspro manager who would announce the winner.

That's how experts from Christie's and Sotheby's ended up sitting opposite one another in a conference room at Maspro's Tokyo office, waiting to see which choice would claim the multi-million dollar deal.

The respective auction houses had very different approaches to the game. Per The New York Times, Sotheby's perceived it merely as a matter of chance, whereas Christie's researched the psychology of the game and even spoken to school-aged children before making their choice.

While Christie's haven't revealed much about their methodology it seemingly paid off: their 'scissors' triumphing over Sotheby's 'paper' and won them the consignment. But could this turn of events really have been predicted? Well, it's complicated...

Les Grands Arbres au Jas de Bouffan by Paul Cezanne - one of the paintings up for grabs. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Statistically, 'rock' is the most common first throw, so perhaps the children consulted by Christie's were right when they advised avoiding this 'too obvious' choice. However, if the other side had chosen 'rock', they would have of course smashed Christie's choice, 'scissors'. It seems that Christie's was banking on Sotheby's knowing this theory and therefore choosing 'paper' to beat 'rock'.

If it had been a best-of-three set-up, a more coherent strategy could have been deployed. A study at the State Key Laboratory of Theoretical Physics in China found that the winners of one round tend to stick with their initial choice the second time. According to this theory, had Sotheby's been given the chance to redeem themselves, it would have been smartest to play 'rock', as Christie's would be most likely to play 'scissors' again.

Unfortunately for Sotheby's, though, it was not to be. The collection was ultimately auctioned off at Christie's New York salesroom, with one Cézanne painting selling for a whopping $11.7m.

Last Updated 11 November 2020