Former Christie’s Rainmaker Brett Gorvy on How He’s Creating a New Power Center in the Gallery World
The man who gave Christie's its first billion-dollar week explains his new market strategy in an interview with artnet's Andrew Goldstein.
When one thinks of the art economy, the auction houses often represent the pinnacles—the mountainous aeries where the gale-force market winds blow the strongest, and where stakes for success are highest, the price of failure most stark. For nearly a quarter century, Brett Gorvy toiled in these mountains, first as a contemporary art specialist for Christie’s in London and then, as newer art began to outstrip the classics in market power, as the auction house’s head of postwar and contemporary art worldwide. Now, as of last December, Gorvy has decided to come back down to earth, joining the respected dealer and fellow auction veteran Dominque Lévy to form a new boutique gallery, Lévy Gorvy, with tasteful showrooms in New York and London. But, far from settling into a cushy life of the gentleman gallerist, the former Christie’s rainmaker has a heady plan: to build a new kind of hybridized market model within the shell of a gallery that can match the auction houses strength for strength.
A taste of the gallery’s strategy will be on offer this week at Art Basel, when Gorvy comes to the art world’s premier fair as an exhibitor for the first time. In Lévy Gorvy’s booth will be a major painting by the Chinese artist Zao Wou-Ki (who represents a key part of the gallery’s ambitious foray into the Asian market); a brand-new painting by Dan Colen, the former enfant terrible of “Warhol’s Children” fame who just signed on to work with the gallery; and, of course, the must-have sparkler of the current moment, a Jean-Michel Basquiat. Each of these works signals a facet of the gallery’s master plan—and anyone who hopes to buy one will be expected to act fast.
To find out more about what Lévy Gorvy gallery has in the works, artnet News’s Andrew Goldstein visited Gorvy in his modest Upper East Side office, where a small Andy Warhol dollar-sign painting and a few other diminutive works hang on walls that remain mostly bare. Here’s what they talked about.
I’ve heard that, before Christie’s, you actually started out as an art journalist. Is that true?
Oh, definitely, yes—I did five or six years of it. I started out working as a journalist at the end of the ‘80s, freelancing for newspapers and all sorts of art magazines and then working for the National Magazine Company on a revamped British version of Connoisseur, which Thomas Hoving had edited in the United States. I was taken on as a features editor, and then I did an interview with Hugues Joffre, who was then running the contemporary department at Sotheby’s—and the next day he offered me a job. I turned him down, because I loved being a journalist at the time. A year and a half later, after he had left Sotheby’s to join Christie’s, he called me up out of the blue and said, “Look, now I have a more interesting position to offer,” which was to be the next head of Christie’s contemporary art department in London.
That sounds amazing now, but at that point contemporary art was the sixth department in the whole sort of echelon of things in London, so even then it took me about three months to make the decision, because I love writing. Then I made the decision and now, 23 years later, I’ve finally left. But my career in journalism was actually important for me in many ways, because it’s not only about how you look at pictures, it’s also about the way you articulate them.
I have a feeling journalists around the world are taking notes right now.
Well, I had no intention of that being the way things went. Funnily enough, when I was debating whether to make the leap, my father said, “Take the job, and if you don’t love it after a year you’ll write a book.” So, 23 years later, I’m now writing Instagram posts, but still not the book.
From such humble beginnings, you went on to have an extraordinary career at Christie’s, leading the auction house to its first billion-dollar auction week in 2015 and overseeing such landmark sales as Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) for $179 million, a world record for an artwork sold at auction. For someone who is as big a Picasso fan as you seem to be, to judge from your Instagram, that must have been a nice feather in the cap.
And for that painting in particular, too. You know, sometimes the most satisfying thing about a sale is the work of art, sometimes it’s how you got the work for sale, and sometimes it’s how you persuaded someone to buy a painting of that quality. With the Picasso, it was a perfect storm: a great painting, a great moment, a great provenance, coming to sale through myself and Loïc Gouzer—who was very much responsible for that consignment—and then selling to a buyer I was very proud to have sold it to.
Now you have made headlines again, stepping down from Christie’s in December to join Dominique Lévy in creating Lévy Gorvy. It was a surprising move, leaving a very powerful job to essentially work in a boutique gallery.
I don’t know, if you look at the history of the auction world that has actually been the normal trajectory for people when they get up to a certain point in their career, though maybe not as high as I got. Look at Nick Maclean and Chris Eykyn, who were heads of a department and left to set up their own business. Look at Phillipe Ségalot, who left to set up his own business, and same with Stephane Connery. Working at an auction house is a phenomenal training, obviously—you have access to great art, you have access to an amazing group of collectors who become your friends, and you learn how to work as a team, which is incredibly important within this environment. But you also learn ultimately how to understand the valuation of works of art and price them, so that’s a great plus—it’s very difficult to have that experience in the outside world.
So, for me, when I made the decision to leave there were a few considerations that were important. One is that I was very much loving what I was doing, because you don’t want to leave out of anger or frustration—you want to leave when you’re still enjoying it, at your full ability, like any kind of athlete. I was 52 when I made the decision, and the age was very important for my thinking, because if I stayed at Christie’s it would be until I was 57, and while that’s still young in many people’s minds it’s not young enough to be able to create something with your full energy. The other consideration was about Dominique, because Dominique and I had worked together at Christie’s and we were a good team then, and then when she left to work at L&M she continued to be a consignor and buyer at auction, so we knew each other very well through that. I saw we are very parallel in terms of our work ethic, and our taste.
One other big draw for me was when I learned Dominique was taking over this building, because the prospect of actually working with artists was something that appealed to me. I couldn’t do that at Christies, of course, where I spent my time winning paintings and selling them, running a team of 120 people worldwide, and dealing with senior management—which I realized had taken me further away from the art, and from what had actually driven me to do what I do. Ultimately, I wanted to be a little more in control of my own destiny, and the timing was perfect—the market is very strong and quite predictable, because we aren’t in a downturn market or a ridiculously upturn market, but rather a sustainable kind of marketplace. It makes more sense to not be in a downturn or ridiculously holding onto a rocket, because then there’s much more sanity and you can actually make rational decisions. I consider myself to be very rational in a very frenetic world—the basis of what I do comes from having a head in the clouds, but feet on the ground.
When it comes to laying the groundwork to partnering with Dominique, I suppose it also helped that your wife, the art dealer Amy Gold, had worked with her at L&M.
Yes, she tested the waters. When Amy and I met she was in charge of the Chicago office at Christie’s—she was the first female deputy chairman at the auction house—and when she left after 10 years she joined Dominique and Bob for almost two years, before deciding that she wanted to spend more time with our daughter, who was five at the time, and balancing her life. Obviously, it helped that my wife could vouch for her, and vouch for me.
Sounds like a good reference to have.
One of the things you realize is that a partnership is like a marriage, in that you have to be incredibly understanding of your partner’s pluses and blindsides, because one’s strengths can be the other’s weaknesses, and vice versa. So Dominique is not just a friend—we’re both workaholics, we both flagellate ourselves, but we both like to have a work/life balance. Because I’m not just this guy who does all these big sales—in fact, I have a dog, I have a daughter, I have a life up in Tuxedo Park. In this line of work you need to be as balanced as you can be, because otherwise this world doesn’t really allow you to escape.
Speaking of balance, the traditional role of a gallerist encompasses both selling art and also putting on exhibitions. Is putting on shows something that interests you, or that you’re comfortable with?
I’m very excited about the notion of doing exhibitions, because one of the things that I did at Christie’s—and one of the reasons why the sales became what they did—was because I was very much behind the curatorial aspect of the catalog. I was incredibly involved with putting them together and thinking how you can make a much more accessible catalog, which is not just for a small collective of elitist collectors but for a much broader audience. Because I believe in education, I believe in mass market, and I believe that everyone’s taste is viable and you have to embrace it and help them grow.
Interestingly enough, the de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki show we did earlier this year was the first one Dominique and I created, even though it started two years ago when she came to me at Christie’s with the support of the de Kooning estate and basically said she wanted to do the show, and that she wanted to do the show in Asia. The penetration that Christie’s has in Asia—and, more importantly, the penetration that I had there, because I had worked so much in Asia—would be of great benefit for this type of project. So we worked very closely at that point to come up with the concept, and by pure chance the timing worked for it to be the first show we did here, as a collaboration between Christie’s and the newly established Lévy Gorvy—whereas three months before, it was going to be Christie’s and Dominique Lévy.
It was perfect, because it was a demonstration of all the pleasure and ambition of doing important shows here, and it introduced a dialogue that opened people’s eyes to Zao Wou-Ki who wouldn’t normally look at the work. We hope to accomplish something of that dimension when we take the show to Asia [to Hong Kong later this year], where people will know Zao Wou-Ki but where it will be an introduction to de Kooning.
So, what will be your first official show to arise out of your collaboration at Lévy Gorvy proper?
I would say the Dan Colen show will be our first show, because Dominique had started talking to Dan in November of last year and then put it on hold, saying, “Look, something’s about to happen.” So Dominique and I talked about it, and in the beginning of January we went to his studio and started discussing what we could do. From that point there were subsequent meetings where we went back and forth over ideas and there were many mutations of the show, where he would come to us with ideas and we’d say, “I don’t think this will work for us, for who we are.” Then, after three or four meetings, he came in and he blew us away—he brought in this model of the show, and we said, “Oh my god, you’ve just nailed it.” So, in fact, the final show will really be about the architecture of this gallery, and how he’ll be using all three floors to create a total experience you can walk through—a total work of art. But it will also be about painting, because what we really responded to in Dan’s studio is that he’s returning to his roots in a way that’s very much to our own tastes, where it’s less about the conceptual pieces and more about just really beautiful painting.
So, that’s exciting for me, to be working with an artist. We’ve also booked two other big shows we’re planning for next year, both of which are in beginning stages. Do you see this cork board leaning against the wall? On the other side is actually one of the shows—it’s an idea I stole from Loïc Gouzer, whose technique at Christie’s was to curate his sales by sticking pictures of artworks on cork board, with the top line being the things that were the most impossible to get. By putting it all on the board and visualizing and targeting what he wanted, he was able to turn virtually everything into consignments. I work with a similar kind of mentality—you put your dream idea on a board and shape it accordingly, and from that you come up with something that can really work.
How far in advance are you planning your shows?
I had a meeting today with our director of exhibitions and I came up with basically a three-year plan for our exhibition program. I think three years is how far museums plan in advance. What we want to have is a blend of major exhibitions, without pretending to be a museum—although I think the best exhibitions this year have been in galleries. I mean, there have been fantastic museum shows, but you can’t rival what Acquavella did with the Miró constellation show, doing it in tandem with Pace. Cindy Sherman at Mnuchin is a gorgeous show—frankly, I think it’s more interesting than the MoMA show, as just a fantastic spotlight on an artist. I hope people felt the same way with the de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki show.
The only way these kinds of shows can be feasible is if you have a financial commitment and also a focus, which is how this kind of gallery works. Here I mean less from a purely curatorial aspect, and more curatorial in that it’s highly focused on our client base from a business point of view, and on the art-collecting sphere we feel very close to. To me, it’s obvious that if you’re not thinking three years in advance—especially when it takes so long to actually perfect these shows—you’re actually doing a disservice to what you’re doing as a business.
At the same time, we want to work incredibly flexibly, which is why we’re looking at doing a program of maybe six exhibitions where out of those you’ll maybe have four that will be very strict, scheduled far in advance, and then you’ll do two shows that are more spontaneous to reflect wherever you are at that particular moment in time.
When it comes to your debut with the Dan Colen show, however, it would seem as if there are some risks involved. After all, the last time he had a premiere at a major gallery—an expensively produced assortment of kicked-over motorcycles, chewing-gum paintings, and brick walls at Gagosian in 2010—the critical response was not positive, to say the least.
It was horrible! Wasn’t it voted worst exhibition of the year? But I think you just have to look at the art, and the artist. You know, everyone has a bad show. I’ve had bad auctions, and I’ve had great auctions. I think Dan is an incredibly talented guy who by his very nature doesn’t want to be pigeonholed: he’s a sculptor, a painter, a performance artist—he’s everything that he wants to be. But sometimes what you need is structure, and an aspect of control over what you’re doing. One thing I learned early on at Christie’s is that if you want to succeed in a corporation you have to be a corporate spirit, you have to love working in a team, but you also have to know how to balance your individuality within a corporate environment. Otherwise, people who are often great individuals will come to blows with the corporate sensibility.
With Dan, I think a large part of why he came to us was a mutual agreement that a union of what Lévy Gorvy represents and what Dan represents is perfect in terms of timing, since at Lévy Gorvy we’re establishing a new identity in terms of the partnership and Dan wants to continue doing what he’s been doing for these past few years, which is really going back to basics, back to the studio, back to painting. That coincided perfectly with what we wanted, because there’s always risk in terms of producing a new body of work, and what attracts us is the fact that here’s an artist with a great track record, who’s very well positioned in museum collections, and who has a really strong core following, but who had basically been given too much scope in terms of his previous shows.
That was pretty much the critical complaint with the Gagosian show—that, as Roberta Smith put it, he “made the mistake of ignoring that he is, for better and for worse, a virtuoso painter.”
When you give someone too much freedom, they either excel or they get to a point where they lose their focus. What we tried to do with Dan is present a structure, and I give much more credit to Dominique here. I don’t want to say she was a taskmaster, but she was incredibly critical, and sometimes one appreciates constructive criticism, and that’s what happened. Although, to be clear, she wasn’t critical of the work—she was blown away by the body of work she’d seen in the studio, and that’s why she told me to go see it even though most of the artists we work with, from de Kooning to the living artists, are of a generation where the work is typically coming from a secondary-market position.
But, with Dan, here was an artist who had a track record, who’d kind of gone off the rails, and yet was painting some amazing work, so there was the opportunity to reposition him—not in a marketing sense, but in a real constructive way, and give him a new platform. At the same time, we didn’t want to take over full representation of an artist—that’s not who we are—which is why we’re working in tandem with Gagosian and Massimo De Carlo. We’ve realized we don’t need to be singular, and in fact we’d prefer to have strong collaborations with many different individuals.
Can you expand on that a bit more? Who else are you working with?
For one thing, because of our strong auction background, we have very close ties with now all three auction houses. That gives us an understanding of how markets work and how values work, because we can dissect the results of the auctions at all three houses and know exactly what happened. For most people—the journalists as much as the public—all you see ultimately is that the results were very strong, and that only two works didn’t sell at Sotheby’s, only three works out of 70 didn’t sell at Christie’s, et cetera. But if you have the ability to take away that veil, by being very close to the market at all levels, then you can see the reality of the marketplace.
It comes with experience. There isn’t anyone else who’s had 23 years of auction experience who’s doing this job—or there might be someone who’s worked in auctions for 23 years, but they weren’t running the postwar and contemporary department at a high level, selling $100 million paintings. Before the Basquiat auction, in fact, I realized that I had personally sold, either privately or at auction, every major Basquiat in his top 20 paintings at one time or another. That’s a rather frightening thing to have on your books, but it’s the nature of being in the market for such a long amount of time. That’s something we can bring to our clients, and it adds a lot of value to our clients from an advisory point of view.
Because, you know, we have friends everywhere. A gentleman who just called me now is a former colleague who is now working at another auction house, and that’s a great thing when your friends move because ultimately you can be friends with everyone who there may be an opportunity of working with. That’s an idea I like a lot, just as I like working with an artist.
You clearly have a formidable network in the Western art market. What about in Asia? As one can see with your de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki show, that region is clearly a priority for you. Also, a fifth of the artists listed on the Lévy Gorvy website are Asian. How will you leverage partnerships in Asia?
You know, I’ve done a lot of work in Asia over the years, and we want to continue our position there. We believe very firmly in the strength of the market there, not just in China but all over Asia, and, having worked there, you know all of the nuances, and who are the people to deal with. But the fact is you don’t need to have a gallery everywhere. Just look at Hong Kong, with the Pedder Building—it’s a chance to have a gallery in the same building where every other gallery is but that no one goes into.
The problem with Hong Kong, and with what London will be soon, is that it’s a trading place, so people convene there at one moment but then there are long stretches of time when no one’s there. So for a gallery it’s difficult to build a program there, unless you’re a massive gallery like Gagosian or Zwirner, where you’re constantly bringing your artists there. What we realized, similarly with the de Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki show, is that anything’s possible—we can say, “Ok, let’s do Dan Colen in Shanghai,” or whichever area we think may be best with him—specifically if we do it in tandem with Gagosian or Massimo De Carlo. Because we all have the same goal. We all want Dan to succeed, and we succeed if he does.
That makes sense, because currently you have a gallery in New York and a gallery in London, but I’ve heard you’re only opening an office in Shanghai.
And in Hong Kong too—we really need an office in Hong Kong in order to function, because a lot of clients want to have a base outside of mainland China, either because they want to have their assets outside of the mainland or because they prefer that way of buying. It’s like with a lot of West Coast collectors in America—they prefer to come to New York to buy, even if it’s from a dealer who has a gallery out on the West Coast. People buy more when they’re traveling.
So, from our point of view, Hong Kong is where we’ll have the best access to the top collectors who we can ultimately develop. One of the most exciting aspects about Asia is that the learning curve of Asian collectors is phenomenal. I’ve never come across that speed of understanding markets and artists and desiring to learn more and read more. Before when we’ve had big wealth come in, like when the Russians came in, most of the clients appointed advisors and bought mainly from Gagosian, so their collections are kind of carbon-copy collections. That’s a generalization, but they certainly didn’t have the same kind of learning or sophistication I’ve seen in Asia, where within six months a client can go from spending a couple million dollars to a hundred million dollars—and it’s not just that they’re spending more money, they’re understanding why they are spending that money. I see that consistently in Asia.
From the outside, one would think that Lévy Gorvy is your typical boutique blue-chip gallery, but it sounds as if your ambitions go far beyond your typical gallery. Recently you also hired a digital marketing specialist, Claudia Paradelo, from Sotheby’s, which seems out of scope with a simple two-gallery operation. How do you envision Lévy Gorvy evolving?
First of all, we don’t want to be in direct competition with Gagosian or David Zwirner—we don’t have that ambition in the slightest. So the idea of having multiple galleries worldwide and having a massive artist program is just not who we are. What we do see ourselves as is a boutique, a haute-couture gallery that ultimately adapts itself and takes advantage of market changes and opportunities but is very sustained and has growth over a longer period of time. So, we’re not doing fly-by-night situations—we will test, we will experiment. That’s why, for me, opening offices in Asia is a much more realistic approach. It’s about sitting down one-on-one with the clients, explaining opportunities, and exclusively bringing pictures. Dominique and I look back to the traditional ideal of a dealer—the Pierre Matisses, the Castellis, the Ileana Sonnabends—who were trailblazing in what they did, even if their operations and, back then, their markets, were relatively small.
On the other hand, we have ambitions to very much be part of a global marketplace, in terms of being in certain regions where we have great confidence and where we can have the ability to partner with other galleries or museums or whoever it might be to be broader than what we are alone. It’s no different than working with auction houses. We see ourselves very much as part of the auction world, which also differentiates us from many other entities because of the advisory role we can play, whether you’re bringing a work of art into auction or you’re buying on behalf of someone. But where will we be in five years? I have no idea—I don’t really want to know. It’s kind of an adventure. I like to be incredibly responsive, and flexible.
Considering how long a relationship you had with Christie’s, and the generous terms of your departure that allowed you to join the gallery without your typical “gardening leave” noncompete period, some have speculated that Lévy Gorvy might eventually link up with Christie’s as a counterbalance to what Sotheby’s is doing with Amy Cappellazzo’s Art Agency Partners.
Frankly, I don’t really know what Art Agency Partners is. I think they project themselves in different ways in different circumstances, so it’s difficult to know what you’re comparing yourself against. I’m sure there are aspects of Art Agency Partners that are similar to what we do, but my presumption is that they’re also dealing with estate planning—Adam Chinn has a particular history in that business—and we don’t have that aspect. But I think one of the conflicts of interest that exist there is their relationship with an auction house. Whenever you’re being paid as an advisor, you have to be completely transparent to the clients as to what service you’re providing, but when you’re a part of an auction house there’s always a conflict of interest, because are you representing the seller, or are you representing the buyer? I think what people find difficult to understand—and certainly they lost clients because of this—is how you can have an ownership position within the auction house and remain unbiased, or objective, in your opinions for your clients. It’s impossible.
Will Lévy Gorvy have a special relationship with Chrirstie’s, in that or any other capacity?
No, definitely not. One of the reasons I left Christie’s is because I wanted to work equally with the whole industry. If you work with only one auction house you obviously become an employee, or maybe a junior partner, of a big company. My commitment now to Christie’s is twofold. One part is an emotional commitment—these are my friends and colleagues—but before I was leaving I also made sure to communicate that I was happy to follow through on the consignments I was working on, even though I was leaving, if the seller wanted me as an advisor to them. It’s a big collection that I will be working with the seller to bring to market in Paris in October, with a wonderfully important Jean-Michel Basquiat, but it had to be as an outside advisor to them, giving the client an extra dimension if they wanted it. Because it’s incredibly important to Dominique and myself that we are an individual company. We’ve committed ourselves financially to this project with the understanding that we can work with any business partner where it will be mutually beneficial, with no conflict of interest.
So there are no other things that I’m doing with Christie’s that are not equal to what I would be and am doing with Sotheby’s and Phillip’s. That’s very important, because while I worked for 22 years at Christie’s, Rob Manley and Jean-Paul Engelen are people I worked with very closely there and now they’re at Phillips as a team, so clearly I feel very comfortable with them, and similarly, Amy Cappelazzo at Sotheby’s was my partner for 11 years—before Dominique she was my other “wife.” So there are all these very strong relationships that I couldn’t actually use working at Christie’s, because they were the “enemy.”
Well, now that you’ve swapped the auction world for life as a gallerist, you’re about to embark on an important rite of passage: standing at the booth at your first Art Basel art fair in Switzerland. Fairs are simultaneously among the most glamorous parts of the art business and the least, forcing you into the grind of traveling the globe from one brightly lit convention center to another. A few months back, you did your first Art Basel Hong Kong. Do you enjoy art fairs?
Maybe it’s because I’m a newbie in this, but I love it. I’m also used to it, in a way, because at Christie’s I had the policy where during the previews I pretty much lived in the galleries for two weeks, because I figured you could do everything by phone—and my assistants could bring me coffee and things when I needed it—and I actually enjoyed being downstairs because you have the connection with the art in a way that you can’t have from your desk. When you’re on the floor, connecting the works of art to a client, developing that relationship, and communicating your knowledge and passion, that’s part of the fun of things.
It’s also incredibly exhausting, because you’re standing on your feet all day and talking in a highly focused way with a lot of people at the same time. That kind of intensity is exhilarating, though, because I’m a total junkie. The thing I miss from the auction world is the momentum, feeding on the adrenaline of the panicked moments, where you have to make very quick decisions, literally under the hammer. You don’t really have that in the gallery world, where you have very measured decision-making. Except maybe in the thrum of an art fair, which these days are less and less fun because the collectors don’t all come in at once—the VIP system of having groups makes it much more measured.
So, will you bring a hammer to your booth to ramp things up a notch?
No, but I think I’ll have a bottle of whisky!
Considering that there are now innumerable ways to sell an artwork over a great distance—say, via an emailed jpeg, a phone call, or on Instagram, as you’ve proven—what would you say is the best use of an art fair? What makes it indispensable?
If you look at the psychology of buyers, the art fair is incredibly important, and it’s becoming more important—but it also needs to become a more deliberate, strategic aspect of what you do. I mean, we will be doing eight art fairs this year that were already committed to last year, but we’ve decided that this is just not where we want to be. We want to be doing maybe six fairs maximum, and be very clear about why we are doing each fair rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to be in that region. With specific fairs that we believe strongly in, we don’t need to do them from a purely commercial point of view, although obviously you want to cover your expenses, but it’s mainly about knowing the region and becoming well-placed within a collector group.
So, for me, the main purpose of art fairs is to be a shop window, where a buyer can go there and have experience of seeing multiple galleries and what they offer. It’s a much more competitive environment, frankly, than in the auctions, because you’re not just competing against Sotheby’s and Phillip’s but against every other gallery you know. I mean, how many Fontanas are being bought at one time in multiple galleries? There is only a certain number of people who will want a Fontana in the best of times, let alone 30 or 40 examples. But, as a shop window, it allows you to reach a broad and very diverse public who wouldn’t necessarily come into your gallery—one of the fundamental aspects of an art fair is meeting people who you can later go see and create a relationship.
One of the biggest challenges that dealers have at an art fair is to avoid having every stand be exactly what you took to the last art fair. There are some dealers who do fantastically well at that, of course. I was talking to one dealer who specializes in one or two artists, and he literally brings the same Basquiat painting to Hong Kong and then this fair and that fair—and, amazingly enough, he will sell that painting, because someone somewhere will see it by chance and buy it. We as professionals see these paintings and know exactly what they are, but when you’ve got this massive audience coming in you have the ability to be lucky.
Frankly, that’s not interesting to us. I mean, I’m sure we’ll have pictures that we bring from one fair to another, but the fundamental objective for us is to schedule an art-fair program where you’re not scraping around to get materials but actually have a sustained campaign to use that shop window to show what we do. I love what Gagosian did at Frieze New York, when they had that wall of John Currin drawings—to me, that was a show of strength, and a dynamic way of using an art fair. In the same way, we did a focused Senga Nengudi show at the Armory Show, and it was wonderful—we sold everything, a lot of it went to museums, and it was a fantastic way to both promote an artist in depth and also define ourselves as that kind of gallery.
One could see an art fair as one primitive form of technology for the art market, assembling crowds of dealers and collectors in one place and allowing commerce to flourish, but you also are renowned for using another piece of technology, Instagram, for your business as well. A tremendous amount of information comes through your feed, and one can learn a lot about your taste—for instance, you seem to love Bruce Conner, sausages, spending time with your family, Picasso, and edgy pop music. You’ve also said that most of your “top clients are on Instagram,” and you’ve been tremendously successful in using it to make sales, such as the Basquiat portrait of Sugar Ray Robinson you reportedly sold for $24 million. Marion Maneker of Art Market Monitor, incidentally, doesn’t believe that’s true. He called the story a “whopper.”
Well, it’s true, and if he knew who the buyer was he’d tell him the full story.
So, is Instagram part of your strategy at Lévy Gorvy?
It evolved from a pure obsession. My wife will tell you she’s an Instagram widow because I find it so incredibly absorbing. People don’t understand how I put this all together so quickly, since I post every day—maybe as much as three times a day—but I try to hold myself back to once or twice a day so I can put a lot of thought into it. Ultimately, it comes out of the fact that I enjoy making these things. For instance, I love poetry—it’s what I read on airplanes, because at the end of the day I don’t have time to focus anymore—and I’m always either skimming art books or googling facts to build up knowledge, and so when I’m reading a poem I’ll be thinking about the pictures that come to mind, and that can become a post. Or when I go to a museum and I see a painting and I’m thinking about music while I’m seeing it, that evolves into a little video where you get this lovely soundtrack.
It’s so much better than journalism, because you’ve got only a minute or a certain amount of space to present something, so you’re always editing down to a strict format, but it’s still about communicating. But the other great thing about Instagram is that I’ve learned so much about exhibitions, what the galleries are doing, which artists you can feel the beat of seeing them again and again. Through Instagram, I’ve seen exhibitions from here to L.A. With the Giacometti show in London, even though I haven’t seen it in person, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen probably every room, and it’s inspired me, and now I have an understanding of it.
I see Instagram as an incredibly powerful tool, not only to influence, but certainly to very quickly communicate visual messaging. The other day, someone criticized me: “Why are you always so effusive on your Instagram? Why are you always only talking about things you like?” And I said, “I only have a short amount of time in my life to focus on this, and I don’t have time for hate.” What I’m looking for from Instagram is to be inspired and to be uplifting, and to communicate my passion and enjoyment of things. If that means selling a painting, great—but obviously it’s much easier to do that at auction, because in the private world it’s much more difficult to promote the things that you’re selling.
If you look at my Instagram you can see I show myself next to a Rothko painting that I sold in 2007, but if I had sold that Rothko privately I would not be promoting it, because that’s not how we promote things as dealers. The things I can promote through Instagram might include the works we’re taking to an art fair, which is a public display, or maybe a painting that has been sold to a museum where it’s now publicly known that we were involved with the transaction, or it’s an exhibition that we’re showing where there are works for sale.
How much art have you been able to sell via Instagram?
In the case of the Basquiat, first of all, it was through Christie’s—I was promoting a picture that we were showing in a private-sales exhibition in Hong Kong at that time. But I can say that some of the things I’ve promoted on Instagram, that we’ve had at an exhibition or in an art fair, have certainly generated additional attention, where I’ve received emails or direct mail from people asking me to send them more information. But they also then came in to see the works, so I can’t say that I’ve sold works directly from Instagram other than that one high-valued object, and that was specifically because at Christie’s you had that kind of urgency.
But that, again, is what’s so crucial about art fairs—that you have to make decisions very quickly if you want to buy a painting, because if it’s good enough and the price is right, someone else is going to buy it. I’m always amazed, even with the new VIP rules, that at the opening of a fair you have these incredibly high-powered collectors who are literally pushing their way through lines to get to the stands so that they can look at an object that they might have been told about or seen in an email or a brochure.
This is so important, because one of the biggest challenges dealers have at this moment is that people need a trigger to make decisions at a high level. A lot of people have a lot of time, and maybe this is their hobby, so if they like a painting you might have to put it on hold for them for four weeks while the buyer comes into New York, because the seller doesn’t want it out of their home. If you bring that same painting to Basel, you might sell it literally in the first hour and a half of the day because of the sheer pressure of convening so many collectors. That’s what you’re trying to use as a dealer—that slight frenzy—and it’s a very important reason why you go to these art fairs.
People like to consign works to auction because they know that prices can be bid up to astronomical sums, though. Do you think fairs can ever achieve the same prices as auctions for individual works of art?
Well, not quite, but we’re bringing a $35 million painting to Basel because we believe this is the time to bring a major historic Basquiat to market. We believe that there is an opportunity to reach a very important buying public that only happens very occasionally directly in the art fair. But why shouldn’t you be able to sell a $100 million painting in that context? It’s the same crowd as the auctions, you’ve got the best professional dealers in the world in terms of reputation all in one place. If I can sell a $100 million painting in my gallery, why shouldn’t I be able to do that at an art fair? There’s no reason for it. I think a large part of it is the preparation, because if someone comes to auction they normally have a two-week period at a minimum to learn about a work coming to auction—they’ve seen the catalogue online, they might have had the opportunity to see it in the preview exhibition, so by the time they come to New York for those two days they basically know what they’re going to bid on.
If you look at how an art fair can ultimately change, communication will be a large part of it. With Basel, we’ve got a number of paintings which are already on hold because people want to see them—they say we love the picture, we’ve seen it online, we want to see it in person. So now they’re going to have to get to the fair in the first half hour, because that’s when these things happen. We won’t hold beyond that. The key is to get someone as committed as they would be to an auction picture, to the point where the only thing they need to do is see it physically, which is obviously a crucial part. When you have that, you have the ability to sell the most expensive paintings at an art fair, because you’ve created a similar forum of speed, efficiency, and decision-making.
Now, in Hong Kong, the majority of what was selling was below $1.5 million, and while there were one or two transactions that reportedly went higher, they were were one-offs. Most of the transactions went below $1 million at Frieze in New York, with a few around $800,000 and one or two above that, but the majority were actually below $150,000. So then you have to work out, is that the fair for you? Is that the market that you can actually supply with top material, and the client base you want to deal with? It’s similar to when Christie’s shut down South Kensington—it was a decision that it was an area of the market they couldn’t really afford to be in.
At the same time, it would make sense for us to go to TEFAF, where people were selling $5 million dollar objects. It’s also why I think TEFAF in New York is already defining itself as the preeminent fair organization in America, because what they’ve achieved in terms of applications in two fairs is phenomenal. But I also remember that a Warhol sold two years ago at Basel for $35 million, so these transactions happen. It’s just about the preparation. That’s the key.
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