“We just sold a Turner for £30.3 million.”
George Wachter is Chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America and Co-Chairman of Old Master Paintings Worldwide, with over forty years of experience in his field. He joined Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings department in 1973 and has been instrumental in the sale of the most important Old Master Paintings collections at auction.
Are you satisfied with last night’s sale at Sotheby’s London of the Turner oil painting “Rome, from Mount Aventine” for £30.3 million?
I am very pleased. It was so exciting to see that Turner’s market is so strong and that we had five serious bidders for the work. We had already sold the sister painting to this one for $46 million at auction just a few years ago, but this work is now the second most expensive Old Master Painting ever sold at auction, after the great Rubens “Massacre of the Innocents” that we sold in July 2002.
You also sold “Sacrament of Ordination” by Nicolas Poussin to the Kimbell Art Museum for $25 million dollars?
It was a private sale. It did not sell at Christie’s at auction, so we were in touch with the owner and negotiated a price between him and The Kimbell. It took a while, but we made the deal.
You have been working for Sotheby’s for 40 years. What has changed in the world of auctions?
I think plenty has changed. It has gone from a largely wholesale business to more of a retail one. In 1973, it was all about dealers. Private collectors almost never passed through our doors. When Alfred Taubman took over Sotheby’s in 1983, the dynamics changed. He brought the idea of playing to the private market, reaching out to clients through advertising, writing letters, and holding travelling exhibitions. He wanted to bring paintings to people, and I think over time and with computer systems this has become easier. For instance, for our New York sale on January 29th, museum curators have already received online highlights.
The dealers at that time obviously did not like that change. Until then they had tremendous control, but private collectors were not well served. However the smart dealers have since found their own niche and succeeded, and some dealers offer things that the auction houses do not. In the 1980s, I myself started to reach out to private collectors, and nowadays we also do many private sales at Sotheby’s. We have been very successful in part because we are more widespread than the dealers—we have offices and people all over the world who can help us conclude a sale.
I think each alley—auction and private sale—brings its own rewards. If you sell privately, you ask a high price and then negotiate. Auctions determine price on their own. Last July, in our London office, we had a painting by the Flemish artist Jan Brueghel the Elder, son of the famous Pieter Brueghel. We gave an estimate of £2-3 million, and it made £6 million, an unheard of price before then.
Are Old Masters out of fashion vis-à-vis contemporary art?
Contemporary art has its own space, so to speak, and usually different clients. I don’t know how it will play out long term, but it is very successful now, fuelled by lots of young people who find it more exciting—so it is easy to get more press. But I myself am less accustomed to navigating that market.
Is contemporary art a bubble?
I am certain there are parts that are a bubble, but with the Rothkos, De Koonings, Jasper Johns, Warhols, etc.—artists with depth and history—that is not a bubble. They represent a level of quality and importance.
Is it easy to collect them?
You can still get some of the most important works because they are owned privately and therefore more available.
Is that not also the case for Old Masters?
Sometimes, like you saw this week, a Turner of the highest quality comes to Sotheby’s. You can still find the best of the best, and this Turner is very much that, but the masterpieces are less plentiful.
How do you find them?
For the most part, you know where they are.
Is art a fashion?
It could be. I think there are forces at play in art collecting that are not typical of other areas. I think that the Contemporary market is more driven by fashion, but there are certainly such trends in Old Masters as well. New people become interested in and will buy Old Masters, but there are also patterns of taste. For example, at one point, every major museum wanted a Mattia Preti. Today it is hard to sell one, because he is out of fashion. You cannot create a fashion—all you can do is to keep your antennas alert.
On January 29th in New York we are having a sale for prominent dealer Fabrizio Moretti. The idea emerged from his wanting to clear out his stock. I told him that if he wanted a successful auction in New York, he should sell good quality pictures at prices that make them exciting. Every quality painting becomes exciting at the right price. Determining that amount is the key.
How do you establish the right price?
Experienced buyers will know. We have put together a sale of 32 Lots for Moretti: all Renaissance and Mannerist works and nothing from later than 1600. That caters to the current tastes—many people seem to prefer Renaissance at present, and fewer want Baroque.
How is the market for Impressionists?
We are doing well in that area—they are more like Old Masters. In the U.S., extraordinary Impressionist collections were formed from 1945 to 1970, when you could buy these works for low prices. Eventually these collectors started dying, and one collection after another was sold, even as recently as this year, with Mrs. Mellon.
There is a tremendous desire for the great Impressionists. We just sold a Van Gogh for $61 million in early November. It was on the market privately, but nobody could sell it for $50 million, the asking price. We put it at auction at $30-40 million, and an Asian client bought it for $61 million. Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Degas—these artists all do extremely well.
There are lot of new buyers, but sadly, people are not very brave. In this age of ArtNet (a publically available internet database that lists auction records for the last 25 years or so), people are more likely to buy something with a track record. Without something to compare, people are not comfortable spending their money. This is why Old Masters are more difficult to sell—there are just fewer comparisons. We recently offered a stunning picture by Giovanni da Rimini from circa 1300 and estimated it at £2-3 million. There is no auction record for Giovanni da Rimini on the Internet. So how could we explain our price? We had to work hard to educate private collectors about how rare, beautiful, and important it was. We ultimately had a bidding war between three collectors and two dealers, and the painting sold for close to £6 million.
Today do museums have enough money to compete with private collectors?
Some do, like the Kimbell, the Getty, the Metropolitan, the MFA Boston, the National Gallery in Washington, The Louvre, the National Gallery in London, and the Prado. But they don’t buy at auction often enough.
Is Old Master collectors a small world?
There are fewer collectors than for contemporary art, but not fewer than twenty years ago—maybe more, in fact. The world likes the “Maastricht Principle”: what you buy or sell has to be at the right moment in the right place. For Old Master collectors, going to TEFAF Maastricht in March is a must, to see what is shown there and come back with a painting. The January sale in New York and the July sale in London operate on the on the same principle. For collectors, dealers, and art historians, these are the events of the year. People want to be involved.
How are your human relations with clients? Is it hard to convince them to sell? Are there sad stories of bankruptcy, necessity to sell?
As a specialist and representative of Sotheby’s, I have close relationships with people who trust me. They will often come to me with a specific goal they want me to accomplish. Broadly, there are three reasons for selling: divorce, death, and taxes. Sometimes it can be for estate planning and yes, sometimes bankruptcy. What you need to do as an auction house is maintain trust of the people who are making decisions.
How important is the actual auctioneer?
I never wanted to be one. I don’t see distances well enough to be comfortable on the podium, but Henry Wyndham is the Sotheby’s auctioneer who sells Impressionists and Old Masters in New York and London, and he is the best. He mixes humour and a relaxed feeling with incredible focus, and he brings out bids from people that they didn’t expect to make. He finds the way to bring out the bidders’ passion. He was excellent selling the Turner the other night!
How much money do you need to go to an auction as a buyer?
You can buy a very nice Old Master painting or drawing for under $100,000. There are some, such as small Dutch masters from the 17th Century, that you can buy for $40,000-60,000.
How does the combination of interior design and collecting work?
One primary rule is that what is “out” in terms of fashion is exactly what you should buy. Today you can buy gorgeous French 18th Century furniture for practically no money. They say no one wants it, but history shows that it will come back into style. It isn’t so hard to buck the trend—what is not “in” is where opportunity is. Today you can buy great decorative arts inexpensively.
Why do people buy?
Some buy for investment and some for love, but for most it’s a little bit of both—at the end of the day, collectors like to know that there is some value in their purchases.
What do you advise?
For private collectors, I would say, “Be creative, don’t just follow the sheep as they walk off the cliff. Look to areas that are perhaps not so popular, find things that appeal to you, and try to get them.” It is important for people to seek advice. An auction specialist, a restorer, and a museum curator can all provide it, but what matters is receiving it from someone knowledgeable. There are so many pockets where you can get tremendous value, particularly if you don’t do what everybody else does.
Is this job a passion for you?
I love the people I work with, and I love the immense amount of artwork that that surrounds me and passes through my hands. That’s why I have stayed so long. There is nowhere else but Sotheby’s or Christie’s where you can have that kind of experience. So yes, it’s one of my biggest passions.
Why is there such a large difference between the minimum and the maximum price that they ask on sale?
The only number that matters is the low estimate. The reserve has to be either at or below that amount. In a normal Old Masters auction, 80% of the lots offered sell, and in Contemporary, 90%.
But how is the market now?
Going up: it does what the stock market does. We have had so many $10 million or more prices recently: The Turner, a Georgia O’Keeffe, a number of Rothkos, a blue diamond, a pocket watch, a chicken cup—there is a lot of money available for great things.
Are you nervous before a sale?
I feel stressed, but once the sale begins I cannot do anything anymore. We have had a few depressing sales, but for the most part, they go very well. Records often happen, but the amount of work you do for a good sale or a bad sale is the same. But when it’s great, you certainly feel great.
What is best, to make a discovery?
Discoveries are so exciting. When I was 27, I walked into an apartment in UN Plaza in New York, specifically to look at a painting by Dirk Hals. As I was I leaving, I saw a piece that looked just like a photo (and the owner said was a photo) but which looked like a beautiful flower painting to me. I asked the owner, “Are you sure it is a photo?” I took it to Sotheby’s, and we realized it was a staggering Flower Painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder. It made $550,000…a great deal of money in 1978. Amazing. That was fun!
December 4th, 2014