Each month in The Hammer, art industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art world insider, his brushes with fame and his invaluable insight into the workings internal art market.
New York is back in full force. Just had an exciting week in the buzzing big apple. In some ways, it feels like Covid never happened, like the wars are a long way off and the stock market isn’t going through a big downturn.
Some things are nevertheless reminiscent of the pandemic: by visiting Frieze, the security guards give the impression of being there more to monitor visitors who are not wearing masks than to protect the works. On your iPhone, Uber will only confirm your ride once you check the box confirming that you are wearing a mask. The street extensions of most restaurants are thankfully still in place and are hopefully here to stay. It adds a whiff of Paris to the electricity of Manhattan. You can’t get a restaurant reservation almost anywhere unless you book days in advance, which I hate to do because it takes away all the spontaneity.
At the height of the Covid, the seasonality of the art market disappeared. It’s mostly back, except Christie’s did its big sales a week before Sotheby’s and Phillips auctions, and before the Frieze art fair. European collectors are returning to New York in person and in force. With hotel prices sometimes tripling from pre-pandemic levels, most overseas visitors have had to pick the week ahead. New York’s major museums and institutions as well as major commercial galleries all staged top-notch exhibitions. The glorious spring weather only added to the fun of getting back to physicality to enjoy the art and mingle with friends and colleagues.
It’s also as if the return to pre-Covid art market normality has eliminated all grand intentions to innovate and transform the way the art market works. The art world has always known how to defend the status quo and resist change. At the start of the lockdown, it felt like once it was all over (which, by the way, we don’t really know), things would never be the same. First, we would have traveled far less, and second, we would have completely changed existing business models. Not much is happening with all of this. In a way, that’s understandable. In our personal lives, we decide to make profound changes when we experience great turbulence. However, as soon as we overcome them, we tend to revert to our old ways. I guess it’s human nature.
By far the most dynamic part of the two weeks of auctions has been the fierce competition for works by emerging artists who, in some cases, were totally unknown eighteen months ago, and for whom prices have sometimes been achieved well over ten times what was originally requested. in the primary market. The main financial beneficiaries of these large increases are the so-called “serious” collectors initially chosen by the galleries to be worthy of owning these works, and the auction houses that sell them. This is done to the detriment of the artists themselves and the dealers who defend their work. Prices rising too quickly make it very difficult for artists to maintain that level for more than one or two auction seasons. Most artists whose public auction price levels have fallen after an initial feverish price spike never return to those initial levels. Sure, the best survive such dips, and their second comings are much stronger, but they are the exception.
Collecting seems to be a matter of choosing and selecting the works you fall in love with. In reality, it is about being chosen and selected by the gallery who decides which works you can obtain (if any). Asking about the prices and availability of certain works in the early hours of Frieze only reinforces this impression. When an exhibition of say 15 new works by a new hot artist takes place and they are all the same size, the asking price will be the same for all of them. In reality, however, there will be two or three works that are much better than all the others, and that any collector will want. It is the gallery in this case that decides to whom it sells the most desirable work. It is therefore understandable that at an auction you are prepared to pay a much higher price because you are the one who chooses the work you want. Competing in real time against several competitors during the auction makes you pay the “true” price of a work at that precise moment.
When a dealer offers you a work privately on the secondary market and you ask for a justification of the asking price, references will be made to similar works that have sold publicly in the recent past. The feeling of competition is less palpable than in an auction and there is not the pressure of the hammer which is about to fall which forces you to decide in a fraction of a second whether to bid or not. I remember having offered, a long time ago, a fabulous still life by Cézanne to a mega-collector. I knew that was exactly what he was looking for. When I articulated to him the price the seller wanted for it, he told me it was ridiculous and way too high. So I couldn’t sell it and the owner decided to take it to one of the major auction houses. When the lot arrived, there was a lively bidding by several interested parties. “My” collector made a bid over the phone, and the price quickly rose well above the price at which I had offered it to him. He hung on to it until he emerged victorious in the bidding battle. Far from being upset to have had to pay so much more, I know that if he had bought it from me in the context of a private transaction, he would not have felt the same degree of satisfaction.
Being active both as a dealer and as an auctioneer, I ultimately prefer auctions. As an auctioneer, I believe that I can get the highest possible price at all times, whether I personally like the work or not. As a merchant, I am unable to sell a painting that I am not in love with. As a buyer in the primary market, it will sometimes be difficult to be chosen by the sales gallery, and as a buyer in the secondary market, I can very easily react in exactly the same way as the great collector and buyer of the Cézanne still. life did when I offered it to her privately. The different mythologies at play in private transactions and auctions never cease to fascinate me.
While there is sometimes fierce competition between galleries, dealers and art fairs on one side, and major auction houses on the other, both sides badly need one another. ‘other. Galleries cannot really be successful if there is no auction market for what they are selling and vice versa, auctions need the active participation and safety net provided by galleries. The success of some feeds the success of others.
Simon de Pury is the former President and Chief Auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former European President and Chief Auctioneer of Sotheby’s and former Curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. Today he is an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, artistic advisor, photographer and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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