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“Contemporary Confidence” Game: Brett Gorvy Tells How Christie’s Got it Done

The headline for my last post was: Christie’s Gets It Done. At the press preview for last night’s confidence-restoring contemporary sale, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman of Post-War and Contemporary art, told me how he had worked to achieve that. With the benefit of hindsight, his strategy worked, but with some added help from the previous night’s disappointing Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and modern works.

Brett Gorvy in front of the $57.29-million Basquiat Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Brett Gorvy in front of the $57.29-million Basquiat
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As reported by Bloomberg‘s Katya Kazakina, “Christie’s staff members made phone calls” yesterday before the start of their Contemporary sale, “asking sellers to reduce their minimum prices,” in light of the softening market that was painfully obvious at Sotheby’s. This hasty renegotiation is a time-honored practice when a rival house is first out of the gate and stumbles.

But there was more to Gorvy’s game plan before this emergency recalibration. Here are some edited excerpts from his comments to me almost two weeks ago:

We took a very conservative attitude in putting the sale together. We had understood the market as looking for top quality, priced as reasonably as possible to encourage bidding. There is a sense that a correction has happened and we are responding to that correction by bringing material to market that we feel is going to be universal in appeal.

We’re looking at the May sales as a way of understanding the market. In November, the market was very split between one level—a $170-million Modigliani—and other levels, where we saw paintings sell, but with a much smaller number of individuals competing at the higher levels. Whether the Twombly at Sotheby’s or the [Warhol] “Four Marilyns” that we had, the works sold but there was not the same intensity of bidding that we’d seen at the May sales a year ago. [That less intense bidding also characterized this month’s sales so far.]

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Modigliani, “Nu couché (Reclining Nude), 1917-18

While there seems to be fantastic enthusiasm in the marketplace, volume is down and we’re not seeing estates coming. That’s just a question of timing: They haven’t become available.

We started with a very cautious approach. We wanted to build confidence back in the market. We saw very strong buyers present, but people were saying: “I don’t want to be the last man standing. I don’t want to bid high for an object if ultimately there has been a correction.”

People are seeing the price of oil coming down. Or they’re seeing the stock market in China affected. That brings a certain psychological impact.

Money is still as ready. The buying appetite is still there. What needs to happen is confidence. We said “no” to a lot of people this season in terms of putting material up when we thought the price was going to be too expensive. We felt we should go for material that’s a little more classical in terms of taste—very tried, true and tested. For young contemporary works, we went for those objects where we felt the estimate span was very attractive.

Behind me [we were in Christie’s galleries] is the largest and one of the best Richard Princes I’ve ever seen. This was a piece that, at the height of the Prince market in 2007-08, when he had his Guggenheim show, we would maybe have estimated at $9-12 million.

Richard Prince, "Runaway Nurse," 2007 Sold for $9.69 million ($8.5 million hammer); presale est.: $7-10 million Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Richard Prince, “Runaway Nurse,” 2007
Sold for $9.69 million ($8.5 million hammer); Presale est.: $7-10 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

[As reported in the above-linked Bloomberg piece by Kazakina, this “Nurse” was part of an $81.4-million buying binge by Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa, 40, the founder of an online retailer. Maezawa set new auction records for Prince and also for Basquiat.]

We talked to our consignors about an estimate strategy that, in some cases, prevented us from bringing more material into the marketplace. Collectors said, “I’d rather wait it out a season and see where it is.”

Last May, we would have easily estimated the Rothko at $45-65 million. We were able to persuade the seller to put it in a $30-40 million, because we thought it was the best way of encouraging [bidders].

Rothko, "No. 17," 1957 Sold for $32.65 million ($29 million hammer) Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Rothko, “No. 17,” 1957
Sold for $32.65 million ($29 million hammer)
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Tonight we’ll see if Sotheby’s can rise to the challenge of hitting its own marks in its Contemporary sale. Given the underperformance on Monday, it’s got a lot riding on getting it done.

an ArtsJournal blog