Sotheby’s Continues to Nab Artist Estates, Gaining Representation of the Sculptor Robert Graham

The agency has signed on 12 clients in the nine months since launching its new service.

Robert Graham. Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.

Sotheby’s has been steadily building up its advisory service for artist estates. Art Agency Partners, the auction house’s advisory arm, has signed on 12 clients in the nine months since launching the service, including those of sculptor Robert Graham and the artist Vito Acconci.

Graham, the Los Angeles sculptor best known for his voyeuristic plexiglass dioramas and magnificent bronze sculptures of the female nude, was the first client to join the agency this summer, though the relationship has remained relatively quiet until now.

The partnership was cemented with a month-long exhibition of 20 works at Sotheby’s S|2 gallery last month that included bronzes, fragments, and drawings made of graphite and wax. The show was accompanied by a 120-page catalogue.

Robert Graham Fragment (Lise Torso Painted 10-20-78) (1978). Photo: courtesy of Art Agency, Partners.

When the artist died in 2008, management of his estate fell to his son Steven and Graham’s former assistant Noriko Fujinami. The artist left behind a vast number of uncatalogued works, and because of the unexpected timing of his death, he made few provisions for his heirs to carry on his legacy.

Nine years after Graham’s death, however, Fujinami says the job ultimately became too big for two people. “Steven and I thought we were at the point where we needed outside help, or we needed something other than the two of us working on this,” she says. So they turned to Art Agency Partners.

The challenges facing the Graham estate aren’t uncommon. According to Christy MacLear, vice chairman of Art Agency Partners and the former director of the Rauschenberg Foundation, too many artists’ heirs can become overwhelmed by the weight and sheer logistical challenge of sorting through an artist’s legacy.

Art Agency Partners isn’t the only one to spot this opportunity. Last month, a new company called Art Legacy Planning launched a similar service, although it targets smaller artists and estates that might not yet be able to afford Art Agency Partners or be of interest to a major gallery.

Robert Graham Fragment (Lise Torso Painted 10-20-78) (1978). Photo: courtesy of Art Agency, Partners.

Although most of the estates that have signed on with Sotheby’s wish to keep their partnership confidential, others will be announced publicly in the coming months, MacLear says. In its first months of operation, the agency has helped find a gallery for a deceased artist and worked with a living artist on an oral history project. It is also helping Maria Acconci, the wife of Vito Acconci, plan a center dedicated to the late artist’s archives and work.

In return for its services, Art Agency Partners charges estates a consulting fee. A spokesman for Sotheby’s says the majority of estates pay a monthly retainer, although he declined to disclose exact figures.

Robert Graham Koreen (1993). Photo: courtesy of Art Agency, Partners.

Steven Graham says the partnership is already paying dividends. “It’s hard to know where to turn and where to get help, and they [Sotheby’s] are realizing that,” he told artnet News.

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