The art of the auctioneer.
Simon de Pury is one of the leading figures in the art market. He is renowned for his legendary performance on the auction podium and for his deep and longstanding knowledge of the global marketplace.
What was your experience of early life?
I was raised in Basel, then my parents spent ten years in Japan where I went to High School. My father ran the Japanese side of Hoffmann-La Roche and my mother studied Ikebana at the Sogetsu School and then opened a school of Ikebana in Basel.
As a young man didn’t you want to be an artist?
I went to Japan nourishing the dream of becoming an artist myself, and this was still my dream when, returning to Switzerland to do military service, I went through New York with my drawings. I didn’t know anyone so I decided to approach three galleries. Either one would take me or I would study law in Switzerland.
At which three galleries did you find out if your destiny was to be an artist?
At the Knoedler Gallery they laughed at me when I asked to see Mr Knoedler and said, “There is no Mr Knoedler.” At Castelli they said Mr Leo Castelli was not there and that they only dealt in American art. At the Staempfli Gallery they said they would show them to Mr Staempfli and that I was to come back in two hours. I went to Central Park, and when I came back the lady said, “Oh, Mr Staempfli loved your work, but it’s not the exact thing we deal in.” I told my parents what had happened – and for a short time I studied law.
A short time because you were not happy in your studies?
No. In despair my mother called the art dealer Ernst Beyeler in Basel and said, “Please see him, he is a desperate case. I don’t know what to do with him anymore.” Mr Beyeler’s first question to me was, “Is your love for art physical or intellectual?”
What did you reply?
“Purely physical.” He said, “In that case you have to become an art dealer. If you had answered ‘intellectual’ you would have had to become an art historian.” He made a plan for me – to go to Galerie Kornfeld for three months, then one year at Sotheby’s in London, one year in New York at the Marlborough Gallery, and then back to him for a discussion.
So this was how your career started?
Yes. I asked to meet Mr Kornfeld in Bern and he received me on a Friday and said, “I expect you Monday morning for work.” He gave me drawings and work by Picasso and Kirchner and said, “Familiarise yourself with this material.” This was the right track for me.
And then you worked for Sotheby’s?
In London and Geneva. I got to know Baron Heinrich von Thyssen and he offered me a job.
You became curator of the Thyssen Collection?
Yes, in the Villa Favorita in Lugano. I clicked with his humour and personality. It was a fantastic opportunity aged 27 and I am grateful for it. We organised exchange exhibitions with the Soviets and I travelled around the world meeting curators and artists. This was enormously helpful for what I did subsequently. Baron Thyssen was a mentor to me, and whenever I see young men or ladies who want to do something in the art world I try to give them as much time as possible.
You are now a famous auctioneer. What happens to you when you knock down the auctioneer’s gavel on a painting or a sculpture for more than £100 million pounds?
A sensation similar to a football player who just scored a goal. It is a moment of completion for a process that has taken several months. The financial fate of the object is under your gavel, and when it falls on your pulpit that’s your moment of closure.
How much does the auctioneer really change the outcome of an auction?
It’s very difficult to say this item made 10% more because of a good auctioneer. If you as a bidder had set a limit in your mind and I succeed in you making one step beyond what you had decided, that is a good result; and if you also get two people bidding, then it can make a big difference.
What is the secret of your trade?
You try to create excitement in the room, to make people realise that once it’s gone it’s gone and they have to make up their minds to go for it. As a collector I know how you regret paintings that have escaped. It hurts you for years. But you never suffer from something that you bought. That is why in an auction scenario you can get a better price than if I offer it to you privately. You buy because of the atmosphere, the immediacy – a split second makes you decide. It’s a high adrenalin activity for both auctioneer and bidder.
The art of an auctioneer is to create desire?
Yes, that’s what you try to do. At the end of the day to create desire is the art of the great auctioneer. Even the greatest artwork needs a wrapping to create desire, to enable you to realise that it will change your life to live with it. Passion is a key ingredient. Being on the podium is like acting and I put myself on the same wavelength as that of the auction. I am so attuned I can tell who will raise their hand. I don’t have that when I sit next to an auctioneer, only when I do it myself. The art of an auctioneer is intuition, passion, curiosity, creating the desire, being a good actor.
As your career progressed you became European Director of Sotheby’s, you had your own company, you took over Phillips with Daniella Luxembourg. What are you doing now?
I have started a new online business with Natalie Massenet, the co-founder of Net-A-Porter. We did an auction in mid-October in London with Christie’s, the sale of the Lambert collection, and are planning more auctions and activities. We will announce new sales in due course.
Are you changing your way of working by being online?
On one hand it doesn’t change, on the other it does. We are online because the art world has not embraced the technological revolution. It is like a pyramid. At the top end it will continue to work the way it does now and you can have £100 million for a single artwork; then down to £50 million; to £10 million; and between £10 million and £1 million you have many more people involved. At the bottom you have eBay, with 80-100 million people who buy regularly at the biggest flea market in the world. For between $10,000 and $2 million online is a more efficient way to sell art, and one has to find a way to sell it more effectively.
How would you describe your new online business?
It is a hybrid auction site. It is a collection made on the internet, with state of the art items and a comprehensive intelligence button and information on each piece. As a collector you will go to where you find the object you want. Our auctions happen in real time, and as a vendor it’s better at auction, to create that urgency.
Is this the end of physical exhibitions and auctions?
No, what we like to do is work out what is best in each situation and also make physical exhibitions and physical auctions. You need to examine art in the flesh. Some people buy without seeing, but when you are physically in front of the work, the physical touch, the state of the object, it’s a different feeling.
Do you think the art world has changed a lot during your career?
I think the art world has changed enormously. Today it is totally global and much more international. The small world of collectors has gone main stream. Of course, prices have gone up and interest has risen in proportion. The first question has always been, “What is the insurance value?”
What makes an object’s value so important?
If it didn’t have a financial value people would not take care of it! One of my earliest experiences at Sotheby’s was an eye-opening episode when a family came in with an heirloom, carefully wrapped up as a parcel. When they had finally unwrapped it the Sotheby’s expert told them that the object had no commercial value. As it had no commercial value the same family that had so carefully unwrapped it threw it back in the box without any care whatsoever! This has not changed.
We have seen extremely high prices in recent sales, is art now just an investment?
Art clearly can be seen as an investment class, and some people have done very well. But not everything goes up, and taste is in evolution. French 18th Century furniture is far less valuable than it was. In painting, some artists are less sought after than others. As taste evolves certain categories fall in price.
Yet some artists are evergreen, like Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani, just to name a few?
Yes, because you also have a trophy category, and since there is a very limited supply of trophies and as the super-rich become wealthier and wealthier the price can only go up.
Modigliani’s “Reclining Nude” is what you would call a trophy?
The Modigliani that sold in November for $170.4 million in New York is the perfect trophy. It can be viewed as the best work he has ever done.
Caravaggio was ignored and then became iconic. How does an artist become a trophy artist?
Caravaggio is a very good example, who shows that the reflection of taste in the market evolves, both in our time and in the past. The father of Baron Thyssen bought a Caravaggio in the late 1920s, Saint Catherine of Alexandria, for $27,000. In the same year he bought a portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Ghirlandaio from Pierpont Morgan for which he paid $300,000. Today both these works are in the trophy category where any price is possible. Now they are both in the same league.
Outside of trophies, what is in fashion today?
Emerging art tendencies change very quickly. For two years it was process based abstraction, with hundreds of artists making abstract works. Now the current craze is figurative art and the year’s most hotly pursued works are figurative. Something is red hot for one or two seasons, then it changes.
Is it a gamble to invest in contemporary art?
All artists have good and bad days. You have to buy the best quality of a certain artist.
How do the artists themselves keep up?
A relatively small amount of artists are going to last it out. The most interesting thing is to follow young artists and try to judge their work before you know what they will do later on. The world never stops.
Is it difficult to be an artist today?
The great artists are the ones who constantly reinvent themselves and try new things. The greatest artists constantly evolve. When they become commercially successful it is a test to see how they cope. Take Picasso, Warhol, Twombly; their late work was viewed as being less important than their early work. This is being reassessed, and now Twombly’s late work is the most favourite. Picasso was viewed as an old man who had gone senile; now some of his late works sell for millions.
But there are very few artists who constantly evolve?
Very few. There are artists who have five years of creativity and a long life doing a pastiche of their earlier works. So the very rare, like Picasso, are unique in terms of creativity! With Picasso you think you know him well, and then you see his sculpture at the MoMA and it bowls you over. The great thing about Picasso and Warhol is that there are enough works in the market to fuel that market. A real collector of Picasso and Warhol has to have more than one.
What do you collect?
I collect high and low, plastic dinosaurs and Godzillas, special shaped mugs; but then I also buy contemporary art, photography and design.
No old masters?
Some ancient wood carvings and 18th Century drawings.
Did you ever regret your career choice?
It’s a field in which you cannot be blasé. You keep seeing and discovering things that keep you excited. The key is that your curiosity keeps you going. I don’t feel less curious than I did 45 years ago. I find it hard to imagine saying I don’t want to see any more art.
The auction world is an old profession isn’t it?
A lot of what we see today is the result of Peter Wilson’s vision when he was Chairman of Sotheby’s. Before 1959 auctions were for the trade, to buy items to sell on to private clients. It was Peter Wilson who introduced evening sales in black tie, and with Cezanne and Gauguin at very big prices he brought all the top collectors into the saleroom.
17th November 2015
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