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Rotter Chatter: How Sotheby’s, with Reconstituted Board, May Recharge Contemporary Art Sales

Alex Rotter, Sotheby's Co-Head of Worldwide Contemporary Art. in front of Basquiat, "Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi," 1983 Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Alex Rotter, Sotheby’s co-head of contemporary art, with Basquiat’s “Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi,” 1983
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

If you follow my tweets @CultureGrrl, you already know that I attended yesterday’s annual meeting at Sotheby’s, which elevated activist investor Daniel Loeb from a thorn in Sotheby’s side to its newly elected board member (joined on the board by his two hand-picked candidates—Harry Wilson, an expert in corporate restructurings and turnarounds and Olivier Reza, president of Reza Gem, a French jewelry company).

In victory laps before and after the meeting, Loeb chatted up new and old board members, but seemed to stay clear of CEO William Ruprecht, with whom he had exchanged some famously harsh words before their ceasefire in what the NY Times called, “one of the bitterest corporate fights in recent memory.”

Loeb seated himself front and center, directly in front of Ruprecht, as the CEO announced the election results. Unlike other Sotheby’s annual meetings that I’ve attended, where stockholders had asked pointed questions, there wasn’t a peep from those assembled this morning. The press had been sternly warned in advance that “recording and photography/filming of any kind at this event is not permitted, including the use of smartphones for those purposes.” We were also told, upon arrival, that there would be no “availables” afterwards (i.e., the principals would not be available for comment).

As I sat glumly in Sotheby’s café to compose a few lame tweets after this non-event, a point man for Loeb’s drive to improve Sotheby’s performance—Alex Rotter, who became Sotheby’s co-head of contemporary art after the sudden departure of Tobias Meyer—wandered in. At the end of the annual meeting, I had seen Loeb, an avid collector of contemporary art, pull Rotter aside for a tête-à-tête.

“What did you discuss?” I asked Alex, hoping he wasn’t one of the non-“availables.”

“He asked me what he should buy. I advise him.”

When I asked how he thought Sotheby’s might change as a result of Loeb’s influence, he quipped that such speculation was “above my pay scale,” but added that bringing new energy to the company could be a good thing. Since Loeb is focused on improving Sotheby’s performance in general and its lagging contemporary-art performance in particular, I then asked how Rotter might change his department’s approach, in an attempt to narrow Christie’s dominance in this field.

He told me he was thinking of “rejiggering” the Impressionist/Modern and Contemporary sales. “We should not put Picasso with the Impressionists,” he stated. Noting that today’s contemporary sales “start with 1940 Calders,” he suggested that such mid-20th century works (the so-called “classic contemporary”) may be an uncomfortable fit with 21st-century works.

The success at both houses this season with distinctive collections of edgier recent works (the sale titled, “If I live I’ll see you Tuesday…” at Christie’s and the “Ahead of the Curve” sale of works from Adam Sender‘s collection at Sotheby’s) might encourage similar experimentation in the future at both houses. Rotter said he was also considering the inclusion of photography and design in future contemporary sales.

Alex candidly noted (as I had suggested here) that in gathering material for Sotheby’s latest round of major sales in New York “we definitely lost consignments because of the trauma” associated with Loeb’s aggressive assault. “But now, it’s over.”

They can only hope.

For what it’s worth (or not), here’s what I tweeted yesterday morning:

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