Charlie Rose talks to fine art auc­tion­eer Si­mon de Pury

The renowned auc­tion­eer and art ex­pert de­scribes the mar­ket’s re­cent swings and his phi­los­o­phy of what to bid on

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS -

Tell me about the art mar­ket to­day and where you see it headed.

A lot of own­ers of top works have de­cided to hold back. This season there are far less re­ally top-end works on the mar­ket. These last few years, lit­er­ally from 2009 up to the end of last year, prices kept climb­ing. If you did own some­thing truly ex­cep­tional, you were tempted to feel “Maybe now is the mo­ment I should put it on the mar­ket.” So the vol­ume in the auc­tions is con­sid­er­ably lower than it was. But the sales that have taken place so far have been very solid.

You’ve seen many auc­tions take place. Of­fer us ad­vice, a maxim.

I’ve seen peo­ple who are bril­liant busi­ness­peo­ple but who, when they ap­proach art, only want to buy bar­gains. And I’ve never seen a good col­lec­tion made by some­one just buy­ing bar­gains. Of­ten I’ve seen peo­ple who felt they had over­paid, but for some­thing re­ally ex­cep­tional. In the end, it was that work which in­creased the most in value over time. Qual­ity is es­sen­tial.

And isn’t it eas­ier to see qual­ity when you know the life’s work of an artist?

Ev­ery artist had some good days and some less good days. So you know what are the best works. But when you buy the work of a young artist, you don’t know how he’s go­ing to hold up. You don’t know how ac­tive he will be, how he will grow. So you take a bet, it’s a kind of gut in­stinct. I was ex­cited to see this week that one of my all-time fa­vorite artists, Mark Brad­ford, has been sell­ing very well. When we first sold a work by him, we de­cided to put him straight­away into the even­ing sale. The first time a work of his sold at auc­tion, it made $180,000 or in that range. This week, we’ve seen prices in ex­cess of $3 mil­lion for him.

How much spec­u­la­tion is go­ing on? In other words, peo­ple buy­ing pieces they love but would eas­ily get rid of for the right of­fer?

There are, of course, as many mo­ti­va­tions for col­lect­ing as there are col­lec­tors. And some are in­ter­ested by the spec­u­la­tive as­pect of it all. But even the most se­ri­ous col­lec­tors have never seen a sin­gle col­lec­tor who would show you a work and say, “Lis­ten, I bought this for $1 mil­lion and now it’s only worth $200,000.” So even those who buy out of pas­sion for art as their prime mo­ti­va­tion take con­tent­ment when they see that what they’ve spent money on has been a good in­vest­ment.

What hap­pens to the mar­ket in tough eco­nomic times?

The last two pe­ri­ods of real read­just­ment were in 1990 and 2008. The boom in the late ’80s had been fu­eled by Ja­panese col­lec­tors. In May 1990, world records were beaten for

Dr. Ga­chet by Van Gogh at Christie’s for $82 mil­lion. Then in June, all Ja­panese buy­ers had with­drawn from the mar­ket. It’s by ’96, ’97 that it re­ally gath­ers steam again. In ’08, it’s the op­po­site. It stopped in Oc­to­ber 2008, but then in March 2009, there was the Pierre Bergé auc­tion, which was the most suc­cess­ful auc­tion, at the time, ever to take place.

What’s hap­pen­ing at Sotheby’s, which you left in 1997?

A num­ber of spe­cial­ists who have spent many years there have re­cently left. There has al­ways been some mo­bil­ity, with peo­ple mov­ing on, of­fer­ing an op­por­tu­nity for the ju­nior staff to move up one or two notches. What’s maybe un­usual, in terms of what has hap­pened re­cently, is the num­ber of sea­soned spe­cial­ists who did leave. I think that some of these spe­cial­ists will go to other houses. Some will be­come art deal­ers.

What are the les­sons you’ve learned from a life­time in art?

You have to keep look­ing. It’s es­sen­tial to al­ways visit all the ex­hi­bi­tions, the art fairs, the auc­tion pre­views, the bi­en­ni­als. You have to stay in it. You have to stay cur­rent. You can’t sud­denly say, “OK,” and take a step back. In any case, you don’t want to take a step back be­cause it’s too en­joy­able. You can’t ever see too much art.

“I’ve never seen a good col­lec­tion made by some­one just buy­ing bar­gains”

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