When conducting a business deal, it’s common to start and end with a handshake.
What isn’t common is determining the outcome of that deal with a game of rock, paper, scissors, especially when there are millions of dollars on the line.
In 2005, this is exactly how Japanese electronics giant Maspro Denkoh Corporation determined which auction house would be in charge of selling works, worth about $20 million, from its art collection.
Unable to choose whether to consign the trove to Sotheby’s or Christie’s, company president Takashi Hashiyama put the decision in the auction houses’ hands: Representatives from each company would visit Maspro’s Tokyo office to compete in a game of rock, paper, scissors.
The winner of the high-stakes match would be greatly rewarded in auction fees. Maspro’s collection included a landscape by Paul Cézanne, “Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan” (1885–87), as well as works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall and Camille Pissarro.
What followed was quite possibly the most high-stakes game of rock, paper, scissors ever played.
The rival auction houses approached the impending game very differently. Kanae Ishibashi, the then president of Christie’s in Japan, took the challenge seriously. She studied the psychology of the game and phoned a friend: She consulted 11-year-olds Alice and Flora Maclean, the twin daughters of Nicholas Maclean, the international director of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department at the time, figuring they’d have more expertise on the playground ritual than she.
The twins suggested Ishibashi start with scissors — as Flora explained to the New York Times: “Rock is way too obvious, and scissors beats paper.” In preparation for the competition, the auction house executive also prayed, carried charm beads and sprinkled salt for good luck.
Sotheby’s had a different strategy. They believed that the game would come down to chance.
…”so we didn’t really give it that much thought,” Blake Koh, a former specialist in the house’s Los Angeles office, said at the time, also speaking to the Times (he now works at Phillips auction house). “We had no strategy in mind.”
On the day of the game, Ishibashi met her Sotheby’s competitor in a boardroom. Instead of playing the game the traditional way (making the gesture for a rock, paper or scissors on an outstretched palm), the competitors wrote their choice on a piece of paper.
Ishibashi dutifully chose scissors, beating her paper-throwing opponent in one swift go — scissors cut paper.
The game, it turned out, was not as arbitrary as Sotheby’s had believed. Chegg, a homework help company, has since employed the situation as an example of game theory. The website’s framing of the quandary suggests that students create a payoff matrix that assumes a firm’s “dominant strategy” is “to always choose scissors.”
Or, as Alice Maclean told NPR a decade after she’d given Ishibashi the same advice: “You never go paper … It’s a weak move.”
Christie’s preparation paid off.
Cézanne’s “Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan,” a lush oil on canvas that depicts a grassy clearing and brush trees in Aix-en-Provence, was the third-biggest lot of the house’s May 4 evening sale, fetching $11.8 million. The Picasso streetscape, “Boulevard de Clichy” (1901), which features a grand white Parisian building behind pointillist trees, realized $1.7 million.
Van Gogh’s take on the same theme, “Vue de la chambre de l’artiste, rue Lepic” (1887), which focuses more on the city’s sky and rooftops, beat its top estimate of $2 million and sold for $2.7 million.
Rendell now credits his rise up the Christie’s corporate ladder to that decisive win and the subsequent sale.
Make sure to show this article to anyone who has ever argued with you about the strategy, or lack thereof, that goes into rock, paper, scissors.
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