In real life, the so-called world's largest truffle is the size of a healthy cauliflower. It was unearthed in Umbria late last month and, as promised, arrived in New York City last week after a 4,330-mile plane trip. Initially sized at 4.16 pounds, it'd shrunk a bit during its trip and came in a few ounces under that when it went up for auction at Sotheby's this past Saturday morning. I arrived to watch the scene unfold and discover who, exactly, is looking to spend more than $50,000 for four pounds of fungus.
About 50 people in haute sweatsuits, tailored camel-hair jackets, or tweed were gathered on the Upper East Side in the voluminous seventh-floor gallery at 9:15 in the morning. Turns out many were there for a 9:30 wine auction. For the truffle, 25 prospective bidders sat at white-tablecloth-draped tables in the center of the room, waiting, while the auctioneer ran through the standard terms of the sale. "Please note that the payment for the truffle must be received by Sotheby's no later 5 p.m. on Monday, December the 8th, 2014," he said. He explained that the world's largest white truffle was not being sold with any particular authenticity guarantees.
When Gabriel Balestra, whose family owns Sabatino Tartufi, entered the room carrying the prized truffle on a pedestal, the crowd broke out into thunderous applause, and everyone took out their phones to take pictures. It seemed improbable, but the large gallery room filled immediately with the perfume of white truffles, which has been compared to everything from wet wood to old socks to sex.
"That's one huge white truffle," a prospective bidder said, his horn-rimmed glasses sliding down his nose as the truffle glided past him.
"The reason why truffles have gotten so cheap all of a sudden is because they dropped all the import taxes," another man said, turning to his wife, as Balestra breezed the pedestal past the next table.
"I wish I could take a picture of the smell," the wife said, her eyes closed.
Bidding started at $40,000 but quickly jumped to $42,500. Then $45,000, $47,500. An employee named Brad was on the phone with a bidder and raised the bid to $50,000. The auctioneer held the number there in cordial, rapid-fire cadence: "Against the room, against all of you standing, at $50,000. Brad has it at the desk at 50. With Brad at 50. Fifty thousand. You can put down your iPhones, you can bid," the auctioneer said. The crowd giggled and kept taking pictures.
"There's only one person who can invite their friends and have this great white truffle. Brad has it at $50,000. I'm selling to Brad. Last chance and fair warning. Last chance for the Big Shave —
"Sold for $50,000," the auctioneer said, gavel coming down on the sounding block. The audience clapped and the truffle disappeared into a back room. The whole thing took about three minutes. Including a 22.5 percent buyer's premium, the final sale was $61,250, with some of that money going to nonprofits such as Citymeals-on-Wheels and the Children's Glaucoma Foundation.
The buyer, I was told, wished to remain anonymous. Sotheby's was only allowed to disclose that he or she was in Taiwan. The truffle itself will have a chaperone on its flight to Asia, rounding out more than 12,000 miles in ten days.