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Christie’s Explains Its Contemporary Auction Triumph (with videos)

Mutual admirers at Christie's Contemporary press preview: Left, Koji Inoue, head of Christie's Contemporary evening sale; Right, Brett Gorvy, the auction house's Contemporary Art chair Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Self-congratulatory at Christie’s Contemporary press preview: Left, Koji Inoue, head of the evening sale; Right, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman for contemporary art

While you’re all winging your way to Art Basel Miami (which, for an eighth consecutive year, I’m not attending), your thoughts may be straying to Christie’s record-breaking $691.58-million Contemporary evening sale, which some feel may mark the rise before the fall. You will probably not be surprised to hear Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman for postwar and contemporary art, suggest (in the second of my two CultureGrrl Videos, below) that last month’s market surge was just the beginning.

In my previous post on Christie’s bravura sale, I attributed some of its astonishing success to the auction house’s many convoluted (and, to my mind, possibly problematic) pre-arrangements with interested third parties. The auctioneer’s lengthy presale announcement (quoted in that post) demonstrated that this sale was a very meticulously, exhaustively pre-engineered production.

But more important than these newfangled, non-transparent arrangements was the old-fashioned wooing of important consignors and megabucks buyers by the auction house’s specialists and higher-ups.

Below is what Gorvy told a small group of journalists on Oct. 31, after the formal press walkthrough (which felt like a victory dance in advance). He described how Christie’s had set the stage for its triumph by seducing major consignors:

We were very competitive: We went directly to the owners and we got them, because we not only had the confidence of those collectors due to what we had achieved last season, but also, ultimately, we had a context.

The Rothko was competitive. It was one of the last objects to come into the sale. I went into my pitch and brought with me illustrations of the sale’s top lots. I placed the Rothko on the board next to them: “There’s our Jeff Koons. There’s our Warhol, there’s our Judd and there’s your Rothko.”

If you’re selling with strength, that’s a sale that you want to be part of.

The Bacon triptych, which sold for $142.4 million, a world record for any artwork at auction, was Christie’s most powerful consignment magnet. It was publicly announced as an anchor for the sale on Oct. 10.

Gorvy had more to say about how Christie’s woos the new breed of high-flying collectors (including those from Asia and Russia), who (for better or worse) “buy as much with their ears as with their eyes”:

What I think we do right is we are targeting long-term relationships and are creating, at the very beginning of a collector’s journey, close relationships that allow us to guide them through a sale and give them our best advice, telling them what to bid on and what not to bid on….

The fact that those collectors are willing to look across the whole category and not limit themselves to one artist is something that has really revolutionized our sales. Last May, that’s exactly what changed our sale format: Whereas Sotheby’s very much had individual people per object, we saw that we had collectors moving across the sale. You had one collector bidding for five or six objects, because ultimately what they were after was the best. It wasn’t as critical for them to have only Warhol. If they didn’t get that great Warhol, they wanted that great Pollock.

The new collectors coming out of Asia or Russia…are people who want to put together major holdings of art….One of the responsibilities that we have—and this is the big change and one of the things that are driving the prices so high—is the one-on-one relationship that we’ve developed with these collectors….

A lot of the collectors, especially from the emerging areas, feel more comfortable in an auction setting than they do in a private-sale setting. In a private-sale setting, they want to know what the comparables are. In an auction, the fact that there’s an underbidder—someone who would take it away if they were not there—justifies, in their mind [emphasis added], the price….

Last season at Sotheby’s, the Richter painting [“Domplatz, Mailand (Cathedral Square, Milan),” 1968, which you will see Tobias Meyer discuss in the CultureGrrl Video below] totally undersold. [It fetched $37.1 million, with buyers premium, against a hammer-price presale estimate of $30-40 million.]…The buyer of that painting was a genius.

This is what I’m going to be doing with collectors for the next two weeks: I’m going to be walking through this room and say, “This is the price level I think you should go to on this object. If you can buy it anywhere at this number or below this, you’re a genius, and I promise you the next day I will come to you and give an offer higher than what you just bought it at.”

This is exactly what happened in May: I came to people after the sale with three or four objects where underbidders were so regretful that they hadn’t gone the distance, that they offered higher numbers afterwards.

Notwithstanding Christie’s market smarts, I personally prefer the press previews for evening sales at Sotheby’s, because its officials sound like museum curators when discussing the merits of the artworks temporarily entrusted to them. Their competitors, by contrast, come across as market-driven salesmen.

Years ago, the standard take on the difference between the two houses was that Sotheby’s officials were businessmen trying to be gentlemen, while those at Christie’s were gentlemen trying to be businessmen. Now I would over-generalize in the opposite direction, even after the recent departure of Tobias Meyer, whose trenchant disquisitions on the works that most interested him made those works more interesting to me (and also, I presume, to discerning collectors).

In the wake of Meyer’s exit, Geri Thomas, whose New York- and Chicago-based Thomas & Associates serves as an employment agency for arts-and-culture jobs, suggested to me yesterday that more Sotheby’s personnel may be looking to depart (perhaps, in part, due to the unsettled situation there). She told me she’s been receiving an unusual influx of résumés from Sotheby’s employees—“not from any of the key players yet, but from mid-level, going-to-senior specialists of departments.” Ordinarily, she said, such overtures wouldn’t occur until after the auction specialists had returned home from Art Basel Miami and/or received annual bonuses.

In contrast with Meyer’s cultured demeanor, Koji Inoue, head of Christie’s Contemporary evening sales, seems more interested in discussing market value than discoursing on artistic value when guiding the press through his offerings.

You can compare Tobias’ and Koji’s approaches in this CultureGrrl Video wherein they address the press in May and October of this year, respectively:

Finally, below is Gorvy, taking his premature (but ultimately justified) victory lap at Christie’s October press preview for the landmark Nov. 12 evening Contemporary sale. He makes a telling comparison between American buyers, who are “filling in gaps” and “starting with knowledge” (always a good thing) vs. the new breed of emerging buyers who are “moving throughout the sale and bidding on multiple objects.”

I can’t help but think that any megabucks “emerging buyer” who takes a scattershot approach, relying on an auction-house specialist to shape his collection and believing that an underbidder (possibly an interested third-party guarantor) assures that he’s getting a fair price is a naïve neophyte: He needs to develop his own eye, cast his gaze much more broadly and get his own feel for the market. Failing that, he needs a knowledgeable, disinterested advisor.

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