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The Repercussions For Christie’s Begin

As I’ve written, I am saddened and aghast that Christie’s is aiding Detroit creditors who want the collection of the Detroit Institute of Art to be sold to pay them by assessing the collection’s value for some unnamed creditor.  I wrote:

If I were a collector wanting to sell, I would not patronize Christie’s because of this.

Yesterday, I received my first email with a collector who came to the same conclusion. He sent me a copy of a letter he just sent to Christie’s and is allowing me to republish here without his name and with a few edits, indicated by CAPs:

As you know, in the past year, Christies auctioned for me three lots, TWO CONTEMPORARY WORKS and ONE ITEM OF EUROPEAN DECORATIVE ART. They were three items from the list that NAME OMITTED evaluated in her letter to me of June 12 of last year. I am about to begin the procedure of selling at auction eleven more items from that list, for sale presumably in the fall of 2014.

I regret to inform you that I will no longer do business with Christies. My reason is that I have learned about Christies’ predatory behavior toward The Detroit Institute of Art. I was dismayed to hear of their positively rapacious attitude, displaying mouth-watering glee at the possible prospect of their treasures being torn from that museum, to pay off debts that it did nothing to incur.

I hope you will convey my attitude and decision to those in the upper echelons of your company.

Meanwhile, permit me to say that I have nothing but the warmest feelings for you, personally. It has been a great pleasure working with you and doing business with you. I always felt you used great care and attention in working on my behalf, and I commend you to your employers.

Now, no one is under an illusion that Christie’s would pass up what will no doubt be a very large commission if it does auction the DIA’s art in favor of keeping individual collectors happy. But that doesn’t mean individuals shouldn’t voice their objections. I’m glad this man did, and I’m happy he let me share it with you.

For all we know, others may have written to Christie’s withdrawing business as well.



  1. Traditionalist says:

    This i silly. A pompous letter from someone who regularly engages with auction houses doesn’t really support the issue of high-mindedness. Does this collector really believe auction houses have never engaged in this sort of thing until now, at this particular moment, when he/she is going to make a big point of taking his/her 11 works of art elsewhere? (To another auction house, presumably which has never sought works of art from a museum–which is?)

    Has this collector never himself displayed “mouth-watering glee” in an auction sale room? Did he/she thoroughly investigate the foregoing attitude of the auction house staff or other dealers before procuring the pieces he has collected?

    Let’s face it–the art market has never been defined by museum standards of high-mindedness. I think it’s time to cut the Christie’s staff a break. They are only doing their jobs. We are wasting time in this blame game. The blame should be directed at the policy makers who have led Detroit into this fiscal mess.

    • Well, I disagree with some of what you say — and I think you are being too hard on the letter-writer. It is his choice and his right not to sell with an auction house whose behavior may facilitate the breakup of the DIA collection and he is right to let them know why, instead of doing it in silence. You don’t explain why you don’t think he has that right, nor do you say why his choice isn’t “high-minded.” The mouth-watering glee line is irrelevant in other cases — but not here.

      No one ever said that the art market is high-minded, btw — in fact, in my post, I said “business is business.” And agree that the blame should be directed at the people who created the mess. None of that takes away from this collector’s right to choose where he does business.

      • Traditionalist says:

        Thanks for responding. I’m just saying that he fact that Christie’s moved in on an opportunity shouldn’t be surprising, and shouldn’t be the issue. The issue is that works held in trust for the public should not be considered saleable assets.

        Christie’s is “predatory,” yes. But so are collectors, and so are museum curators who cultivate collectors in order to get their collections. This is the way of the art world. Does the letter-writer really believe that the cordial relationship he has enjoyed with a Christie’s staffperson is based upon anything other than the fact that he has property to sell and money to spend? Perhaps the collector is a bit confused, as his sense of self-worth seems to be conflated with the fact of his possession of material objects.

        Auction houses are not the problem here. Lest we forget, they have facilitated a great many important museum acquisitions over the decades. And a great many museums have themselves deaccessioned important works of art to auction voluntarily and sometimes spectacularly misguidedly.

        Again, let us focus instead on the policy-makers and administrators who have put Detroit in this position, and on the persons who erroneously believe that cultural artifacts held in trust for future generations are up for grabs. The sanctity of our cultural heritage is the discussion we should be having.

        • You make good points, except I think your characterization of the letter-writer is gratuitous and without any substantiation whatsoever. Therefore, I believe it is unfair. He has every right to choose with whom he will do business, based on his own perceptions and feelings.

          I also wonder about your mention of “no surprise.” No one every said this was surprising; some of us just don’t like it.

          • Traditionalist says:

            Yes, of course. I just think it may be disingenous for anyone who has been buying and selling at auction to be “appalled” by what is, as another reader has aptly put it, Christie’s professional behavior.

          • Traditionalist says:

            Sorry, I should have written Christie’s “businesslike” behavior.

  2. Emily Thompson says:

    I think Christie’s acted in a totally businesslike manner. They must have given Detroit the highest price offer for selling their art & more so than Sotheby’s & the rest. Don’t think that Christie’s was the only auction house that was contacted by Detroit. They are a fine auction house & I will continue & always do business with them.
    Isn’t it the three “D” anyway; for Death, Debt & Divorce so what else is new with selling??? It’s very sad Detroit is becoming a third world city too

    • The city of Detroit, and its agents/managers, says they did not contact Christie’s. Most probably, a creditor did.

      • Traditionalist says:

        Now we’re getting somewhere!

        Who might the creditor(s) be, laying claim to our cultural patrimony?

        This is really the direction this conversation needs to go, and would be a good point of departure for investigative reporting.

        • The (supposed) creditor in question remains known only to Christie’s. I invite you to begin the investigative reporting with the reminder that this blog does not pay me! I do it freely, and must get on to paid work.

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