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Going for the Archrival’s Jugular? Christie’s Assures Clients About Its “Continuity of Activity”

A Message from Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti, which hit my inbox late Friday, included a boldfaced passage that struck me (and probably some of his firm’s clients) as an implied gibe at archrival Sotheby’s.

Here’s a key excerpt:

We [Christie’s] have benefited from decades of stable, supportive shareholder ownership, and a financially robust balance sheet. This stability and strength allow us to reassure our clients about the continuity of our activity [their boldface, not mine].

Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti

As I reported two weeks ago, Sotheby’s, in its recently released 2019 annual report, had explicitly raised what it called “substantial doubt” about its own “ability to continue as a going concern,” accompanied by a balance sheet that was not “robust”—a $71.2-million net loss in 2019, compared to net income of $108.6 million the previous year—a shortfall that predated the current Covid Crisis.

Now almost all markets, including the art market, are reeling, with in-person art fairs canceled and auction houses constrained by the unlikelihood, for the foreseeable future, of the mounting of crowded live events like this pre-pandemic sale at Sotheby’s:

Christie’s self-praise about decades of stability implicitly invited comparison with Sotheby’s organizational turmoil and staff turnover in recent years. What’s more, Christie’s has responded more thoughtfully and creatively to the latest challenges: As I suggested here, Sotheby’s had put a much more optimistic spin than Christie’s on tentative plans (which Christie’s has now sensibly abandoned) to hold live evening and day auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in New York at the end of June (which had already been postponed from May).

To stir up interest from possible buyers and consignors, the wishful thinkers at Sotheby’s had gone so far as to announce three star lots for its hoped-for June sales—a Bacon, a Still and a Lichtenstein. Christie’s was more circumspect: It had also penciled in sales for the end of June, but, unlike Sotheby’s, it held back from announcing any highlights and cautiously noted that it would “confirm the timing, format, venue and highlights of our major New York 20th Century Week sales once we have more specific and timely guidance from public health officials and New York state and local government. The health and safety of our staff, our clients and the larger community remains our number-one priority.”

A mere eight and a half hours after I published my post expressing skepticism about the feasibility of the June target dates, an update arrived in my inbox from Charles Stewart, Sotheby’s fledgling CEO, reaffirming that “we plan to hold our evening and day sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art in New York the week of 29 June, pending the lifting of certain restrictions and confirmation from the relevant authorities. You will hear more about our specific plans and innovations to ensure success and safety, and we are excited about the very high quality of the sales.”

L to R: Charles Stewart, Sotheby’s CEO, with Lauren Gioia, director of communications, & Grégoire Billault, head of Contemporary Art Department
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Contacted by me on Monday, a Sotheby’s spokesperson reaffirmed his firm’s previously released statement about the conditional plans for the week of June 29. At this writing, the two major New York evening sales are indicated by unclickable placeholders on Sotheby’s online calendar, with their auction dates given as: “TBA”.

Screenshot from Sotheby’s online calendar

This contrasts with Christie’s cancellation of its June plans for sales of 20th-century objects, and its adoption of a new concept—ONE: A Global Sale of the 20th Century, now scheduled for July 10. Lumping together Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art and design, it is “aiming to be the same size as a typical evening sale, somewhere between 50-70 lots [emphasis added]” according to a Christie’s spokesperson.

But unlike a “typical evening sale,” it will (in the words of Christie’s above-linked press release) be “the first of its kind relay-style auction.” Here’s how the auction house described this passing of the baton (or, more precisely, the hammer) among auctioneers in far-flung locations:

Utilizing streaming technology, [the sale] will take place in real time across the time zones from four of the art world’s major hubs: Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York. The sale will offer a range of exceptional works over four consecutive sessions led by principle auctioneers in each region, starting in Hong Kong.

Whether auctions can be held in front of live audiences in the salesrooms of all of those locations remains to be seen (with New York as the most iffy). The plan involves “both in-person and online audiences,” in the words of the announcement.

Highlights include (clockwise below, from top left): Pablo Picasso, “Les Femmes d’Alger, version ‘F’” (estimate: in the region of 25 million); Roy Lichtenstein, “Nude with Joyous Painting” (estimate: in the region of $30 million); Zao Wou-Ki, “21.10.63” (estimate: in excess of $10 million); Ed Ruscha, “Annie,” (estimate: $20-30 million).

Screenshot from Christie’s announcement

All of the above works will be offered in New York, except for the Zao (offered in Hong Kong).

Christie’s may have been prescient in perceiving that ordinary plans may be inadequate in extraordinary times. Fast off the mark, it may have gotten a leg up on the competition, thanks to the market smarts of its deep bench of long-distance runners.

Perhaps its savviest, most seasoned player is Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas (and co-signor of Cerutti’s email, quoted at the top of this post):

Marc Porter
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

A Christie’s lifer, Porter has been at the firm for 28 years (not counting his four-month defection to Sotheby’s). By contrast, Stewart had no art-market experience prior to coming to Sotheby’s last October (when the publicly traded company was taken private by BidFair USA, owned by telecommunications mogul Patrick Drahi).

In a wide-ranging interview with Mary von Aue, editorial director of the Observer, Porter analyzed this season of the art market’s discontent and predicted where things may be headed:

We have four times as many scheduled online sales between now and June as we had last year at the same time….We are, I think, at the end of a very long history of gathering in one room to exchange things. Over the last few years, that has become less and less important in terms of the actual end user’s being present in the room.

End users are either using an agent, or are on the telephone or bidding online, and this method of completing a transaction is accelerating. That’s my gut feeling about what we’ll be seeing in the future [edited for clarity].

If so, farewell “auction fever”—the contagion that spreads among the susceptible in a packed salesroom. Stay-at-home sales are likely to flatten the fervor.

Porter had told von Aue that “what has absolutely been put on hold is the sale of significant numbers of estates, and that will return in the fall.” But a spokesperson for rival Sotheby’s assured me that the 26 works from the collection of the late Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson, highlights of its contemporary offerings, are still planned for its June sale:

Clyfford Still, “1947-Y-No.1,” 1947 (Sotheby’s estimate: $25-35 million)
Collection of the late Harry W. and Mary Margaret Anderson

We may soon hear how Sotheby’s has done with at its own attempted auction innovation—In Confidence: Selected Masterpieces. Launched on May 15 and ending May 23, it’s a 12-lot sale (see them here) based in Hong Kong, for which written commission bids are being submitted confidentially.

Here’s one highlight:

Yayoi Kusama, ‘Untitled’, 1960

As described in Sotheby’s press release:

Bidders will be notified if they have been outbid and will have a final chance to submit a best and final offer by the preset deadline, at which point the winning bidder will be established. All bidding information and results will remain confidential. The bidding process will be monitored by an independent auditor.

It sounds like they’re trying to genetically engineer an unnatural cross between two species—private sale and silent auction. I wonder whether auction clients will feel comfortable with this contrivance: Veiling bids in semi-secrecy runs counter to the auction principle of transparency. What’s more, the highest “confidential” bidder can then be sabotaged in an endgame that gives others a last chance to prevail. By contrast, conventional sales at auction houses and dealers offer instant gratification: You quickly know whether your offer has clinched the work or not.

A telling test of the post(?)-Covid market may come in late June if Sotheby’s is able to proceed with its evening sales. NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he hopes to begin phased reopening of businesses in the city by mid-June, but he has not yet announced what activities will be allowed and under what conditions. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Museum recently pushed back its tentatively planned reopening to mid-August at the earliest, from the previous target date of July 1.

One can imagine that if Sotheby’s somehow does manage to pull off its June evening sales, it will have bragging rights over Christie’s, attracting clients who are eager to resume selling- and buying-as-usual. Perhaps this feat can be achieved by limiting the size of the live audience, if any; enforcing social distancing; requiring masks; maybe even checking temperatures at the door. As a backup, perhaps they’ll keep it online and on phones. (That’s my own guess, not their announcement.)

To me, the June convening of crowds (even in controlled numbers) at New York auctions or museums still sounds like a long shot. Time (and Mayor de Blasio) will soon tell.

All I wanna know is: When can I visit my two Long Island grandchildren again?!?

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