Mario Tavella is Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, and President General Director of Sotheby’s France.
You have worked at Sotheby’s since 1991, so you must have a loyal personality type?
Let’s say that it took me a long time to find a job that I liked. I finally found a job that fit me like a glove, so, at age twenty-eight, after having worked in family companies, I changed paths and careers.
You are an expert on the decorative arts. What does this mean at Sotheby’s?
Decorative arts are objects, and I’m specialised in objects from the sixteenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth century. I have kind of abandoned the field, though I do still write articles about it. My training was in decorative arts, but, today, with the work that I do, I have had to widen my horizons to include other things, such as jewellery, African art, Art Deco, contemporary art, and the “Old Masters”. For example, in July, I was in Tel Aviv working with some colleagues on a contemporary art collection that we will sell in Paris in December.
“Italian sales are something new for Sotheby’s. We created a market that didn’t exist before.”
Speaking of decorative arts, antique furnishings are no longer popular today. Prices are very low. Why is that?
There has been quite a radical reversal in trends when it comes to collecting. It is going to be a long-term trend perhaps, given that things went too far in creating spaces that were too full, too cluttered, and so people have gone in the opposite direction. Today, people want to live in spaces that are lighter, and especially where they can combine the antique with the modern, the contemporary with archaeological elements, Art Deco and African art. The popularity of contemporary furnishings made by Gio Ponti, Carlo Mollino, or Jean Prouvé, for example, is off the charts.
Is this a trend?
It is most certainly a trend, like at the beginning of the last century when important American collectors collected Renaissance-era furnishings that are hard to sell today, despite the fact that they are pieces of excellent manufacture. However, when I talk about it being a trend, I don’t mean that these are frivolous choices. There are highly informed clients behind these choices. But, as I said, these days, living in more linear spaces is the trend.
The same goes for antique paintings. Aside from some incredibly high quality paintings, the rest are in a free fall. Some bronze collectables or certain types of marble are holding up better, because they mesh well with modern styles.
Today, many collectors are collecting pieces from twentieth-century Italian artists such as Alberto Burri, Lucio Fontana, and Piero Manzoni or “arte povera” artists like Jannis Kounellis, Alighiero Boetti, Mario Merz, and Michelangelo Pistoletto. What has changed?
Fortunately, the auction houses have understood the importance of these Italian artists. For quite a few years now, auction houses in London—such as Sotheby’s, for example—have been organising auctions each October focused on art, especially Italian modern art. This has allowed us to get the names of these artists out there on a worldwide scale. Fontana’s value at auction and at the various art fairs around the world has led to quite significant prices. These prices have been achieved thanks to the promotion that has been done over the years.
Do you think that the prices for certain artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, and Damien Hirst, are overstated? Do museums have difficulty buying their work?
It depends on the museum. It is all relative. If prices are exorbitant…and, for example, let’s say that the prices for London real estate are exorbitant! I think that only future generations will be able to judge if the prices were truly exorbitant. I can say one thing: Relative to the prices paid for contemporary art, other areas, such as archaeology and certain antique furnishings and paintings, seem extremely undervalued.
“Even though we are seen as a commercial organisation focused on profit, we are also a great cultural organisation.”
What is most important for an auction house?
Having excellent experts in every category. They are the backbone of the organisation. Administrative workers come and go, but it takes years to train good experts, and you need to know how to keep them. I think that a good auction house also needs to be innovative and branch into new sectors. For example, Italian sales are something new for Sotheby’s. We created a market that didn’t exist before. In this sense, even though we are seen as a commercial organisation focused on profit, we are also a great cultural organisation. For example, our catalogues have become full-blown art books in their own right, and we hold exhibitions that are curated just as if they were held in a museum.
Do auction houses sell some of everything?
Sotheby’s has existed since 1744. It is the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange. We started with books, and now we sell in about forty different categories.
How are sales?
With the auctions we have good years and years that are not as good. We rely on family estates, and it depends on how the economy is around the world. If there is a crisis in China or Russia we feel it right away, just like dealers do for that matter.
Do people prefer to buy from dealers or from auction houses?
There are those that prefer to buy from a gallery owner or a dealer because they can take the piece home, look at it, and decide gradually. At an auction, you need to be fast and to be able to react quickly.
Some people say that the auction houses have killed off galleries. Is this true?
There is certainly a great deal of competition. Perhaps it is because we’ve modernised more and we are more effective in terms of marketing and being more visible…but I see that the most cultured and passionate gallery owners are not dying out. Actually, they are continuing to work very well.
The de Ligne Coral Cabinets, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Published by M. Tavella, Burlington Magazine, 2014.
Gathering Asian buyers, Sotheby’s Paris, 2017
Mixing the styles, Sotheby’s Paris, 2017
The Grimani hardstones table top, World record price £3,509,000, Sotheby’s London, 2015
“I’ve made some of my closest friends at work in one way or another, having created a relationship built on trust.”
Who are your clients?
The most disparate range of people. From ultra-rich collectors who once came from thirty different countries and now come from seventy different countries. We have private clients as well as dealers, interior designers, museums, jewellers, and public institutions. Currently, one-third of our clients come from across the Atlantic, one-third come from Europe, and the rest come from the Middle East and the East. We have an auction house in Hong Kong.
You have handled many collections and estate sales…
Yes, I’m really interested in these types of sales. I took part in the Lily Safra sale, I curated the auction for the Bruni Tedeschi family at the Castello di Castagneto, which was a big auction… and then the auction of pieces that had belonged to the Turin based antiques dealer Giuseppe Rossi, which was an enormous success. Managing collections is the most enjoyable part of my job, because you get on the same wavelength with the seller. The economic part isn’t the only important factor. It is also important to leave a good memory behind.
How important is the actual auctioneer?
I’ve never done it, although they’ve asked me many times. The auctioneer brings energy and rhythm, and knows when he can convince someone in the room to make the next offer, for example. I prefer to talk to the client on the phone, advising him when to bow out because the price has gone too high or telling him he should keep going because that piece is important for his collection. The most satisfying thing about my work is that I’ve made some of my closest friends at work in one way or another, having created a relationship built on trust. This is very gratifying, for example, when a client asks my opinion on something being sold by another auction house or a dealer.
Are you still enthusiastic about your work after so many years?
Yes, I am.
What kind of market is Paris today?
It was once the main market, but today it has fallen to fourth place, after New York, London and Hong Kong, but there has been a new energy in the air these last few months. This may be due, in part, to President Macron and also due to Brexit. People say that Paris is coming back into vogue. For me, it is very important because, in Paris we deal in all of the main areas, such as ancient art, African art, Art Deco, and modern and contemporary art. While London seems to be especially focused on contemporary art.
Enjoy this interview? Share it with a friend.
Paris, September 2017
Portrait of Mario Tavella by Samuel Kirszenbaum.