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Brett’s Bet: What Gorvy’s Sudden Exit from Christie’s May Mean for the Art Market

One thing I know about Brett Gorvy, Christie’s departing chairman of Post-War and Contemporary art, is that he’s very smart—probably the savviest auction-house specialist I’ve ever encountered. So it’s almost impossible not to interpret his decision to change course after 23 years, leaving the frenzied auction world for the sedate sanctum of an old-school gallery, as indicative of art-market climate change.

chrisgorbas

Brett Gorvy in front of the $57.29-million Basquiat, “Untitled,” 1982, sold by Christie’s last May
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In keeping with the “old school” vibe, the press release issued by Dominique Lévy Gallery, announcing its reinvention next month as Lévy Gorvy (almost rhymes!) invokes as role models the “tireless advocacy of the 20th-century connoisseur dealers who are our heroes—Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Pierre Matisse, Leo Castelli, and Peggy Guggenheim“—all of whom are known at least as much for their close, nurturing relationships with their artists as for their business success.

One element of this gallery partnership will be “a new bespoke advisory and collections management service,” according to its announcement. “Our advisory department will…work very closely with artists’ families, foundations and estates, and estate attorneys to protect and advance the legacy of significant career artists internationally, engineering the embrace of new generations of curators, collectors, and audiences.”

Sounds as if this will put them in competition with a contemporary art colleague Gorvy knows well—his former Christie’s associate, Amy Cappellazzo, whose advisory service, Art Agency, Partners, was recently acquired by Sotheby’s. In fact, the entire auction business has lately been a chaotic game of musical chairs—so much so that it sometimes seems like Christie’s has become Sotheby’s and vice versa.

Interestingly, Christie’s press release about Gorvy’s departure omits any mention of Dominique Lévy or her gallery. But it does quote Gorvy saying this:

I will still have close synergy with Christie’s, most especially in 2017 as I will continue to work with the Post-War and Contemporary team on specific exhibition projects and key consignments.

In a wide-ranging interview with the NY TimesRobin Pogrebin, Gorvy, 52, explained that he “wanted to start a new chapter,” while he had “one more opportunity.” My guess is that his age and urge for change weren’t the driving factors: He didn’t need a weatherman to see which way the wind was blowing. All you have to do is read the reports on the recent evening auctions and the reduced level of excitement and subdued mood at Art Basel Miami to know that air has been seeping out of the inflated, high-pressure auction and art-fair markets. (Surprisingly, given journalistic reports of smaller crowds, the Miami fair reported attendance of 77,000, the same number as last year. Sales figures were not reported.)

The auction houses’ loss may prove to be dealers’ gains. In particular, auction officials may have outsmarted themselves with the secret side deals that they have engineered with third-party guarantors and irrevocable bidders, which at times seem to be setting the ceiling, rather than the floor, for bidders, as detailed by Scott Reyburn this insightful NY Times article.

As I wrote last May:

How many participants in today’s pre-engineered auctions actually have “reasonable knowledge” of the complex machinations underlying these sales, so that they possess the “relevant facts” in weighing how much they should bid? And how can they be confident that auctions provide a level playing field for buyers, when a potential bidder may have cut a secret non-cash deal with the auction house to facilitate his purchase?

What’s more, the commission fees that the auction houses charge buyers, which are sometimes used to enrich the sellers’ take, keep rising. Sotheby’s buyer’s premium, increased right before the big fall auctions, added almost $1 million to hammer price of a $6.1 million Moholy-Nagy purchased by the Museum of Modern Art.

The days when speculators and investors flocked to art as a high-performing asset class and/or a preserver of capital may, mercifully, be over. Now the game must be to strengthen the trust and confidence of buyers. To that end, Sotheby’s has just announced its acquisition of scientist James Martin‘s Orion Analytical, to help it “detect anomalies and anachronisms that raise questions about the attribution [my link, not theirs] or age of works, or prove works [to be] misattributed or fake.”

an ArtsJournal blog