Is Christie’s Abandoning the Impressionism and Modern Art Market?

The house's most recent hire for the struggling department may offer clues.

Pablo Picasso Femmes d'Alger (1955).
Photo; Courtesy Christie's.

When Christie’s puts Pablo Picasso’s storied 1955 painting Les Femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) on the auction block with an estimate of $140 million next week, it may make history in more ways than one.

With that canvas, the auction house aims to set an auction record not only for the artist (Picasso’s high stands at $106.5 million, set at Christie’s in May 2010 with the painting Nude, Green Leaves and Bust), but also for any work of art at auction. That high water mark stands at $142 million for a triptych, Three Studies of Lucian Freud, by Francis Bacon, sold at Christie’s in 2013.

“It’s one of the great Picassos, period,” Derek Gillman, the new chairman of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department, told ABC Australia, “and it’s one of the last great Picassos that has been in private hands.”

But while Picasso is a modern icon, this masterpiece is being offered not in the May 13 Impressionist and modern art evening sale, but rather on May 11, as part of a “curated” event the house is calling “Looking Forward to the Past.” Titled like a James Bond film, the sale will offer “a distinct and dynamic perspective on some of the greatest and most revolutionary artists of the 20th century,” Christie’s touts on its website—purportedly by showing how the artists looked to art history for inspiration.

The sale will also include a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti tagged in the highly elevated region of $130 million, which could set a record for a sculpture at auction (see $140 Million Picasso at Christie’s Is World’s Most Expensive Painting at Auction and Giacometti Bronze Set to Become the World’s Most Expensive Sculpture at Christie’s May Auction).

Getting the works for the auction has been a team effort, according to the house, but it’s billed as being conceptualized by postwar and contemporary art specialist Loic Gouzer, who has fronted headline-grabbing sales before, notably a May 2014 sale that set a dozen artist records (see Christie’s New Contemporary Sale a $135 Million Thumping Success). That blockbuster followed a 2013 sale he organized with Leonardo DiCaprio that benefited the movie star’s foundation, which aims to support efforts of environmental preservation. That sale set 13 artist records.

After all the very best modern works have been sold off and the buzz from the 20th-century auction dies down, the Impressionist and modern art sale will quietly kick off. The sale’s low total—it’s expected to bring in just $160 million—raises the question, is that sale getting phased out? And if so, what will move into its place?

The house has been making other surprising moves lately. For one, it recently shook up its calendar. While the houses have for many years held their Impressionist and modern sales in the first week of May, Christie’s moved this month’s sale to the following Thursday, without so much as announcing this seismic shift with a press release (see Why Is Christie’s Shaking Up Its Spring Auction Schedule?).


Derek Gillman. Photo: Philly Record.

Derek Gillman. Photo: Philly Record.


Enter Former Barnes Head Derek Gillman

If changes are afoot, maybe we can find a clue as to what’s going on in the house’s most recent hire for the struggling department.

The auctioneer is of course always in competition for the best consignments and personnel with arch-rival Sotheby’s, and while Christie’s has notched ever-larger sales of postwar and contemporary art (see Epic Christie’s $852.9 Million Blockbuster Contemporary Art Sale Is the Highest Ever), it has lagged in the Impressionist and modern department.

Hoping to turn things around, the auctioneer’s headhunters turned up Gillman, who had left the Barnes Foundation in January 2014 after the institution’s contested move from the suburbs into Philadelphia proper (see Christie’s Appoints New Impressionist and Modern Art Chairman for the Americas).

To review: the Barnes move went against the founder’s wishes, spurred legal challenges, and was the subject of the contentious 2009 documentary The Art of the Steal. Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo branded the move “death by disembowelment,” and the New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff dubbed the move “a crime.”

The foundation’s unparalleled collection of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and modern paintings, along with extensive holdings of decorative arts, is now on view in a new $150-million building and it precisely mimics the setup of the old galleries. Museum officials boast a fivefold increase in annual attendance since the move. At the time of Gillman’s resignation, the museum proclaimed that he had increased its endowment by $50 million, but it hasn’t answered emailed requests and phone calls asking for the before-and-after figures that would shed light on how major that increase was.

Gillman isn’t the first museum director to make the leap to an auction house. Lisa Dennison has served since 2007 in the postwar and contemporary art department at Sotheby’s New York, since leaving the Guggenheim after two years as the director and a whopping three decades in the museum’s curatorial department.

But in conversations with artnet News, several top New York art advisers and dealers, speaking off the record, scratched their heads at Gillman’s appointment. Two of them pointed out that Dennison’s Guggenheim tenure involved courting lenders and donors, which is not something that would have been required in the case of running the Barnes.

The auction house declined to make Gillman available for an interview or to answer questions by email for this article.

At least one New York dealer and auction house veteran, though, is sanguine about Gillman.

“Derek is a great hire,” Daniella Luxembourg told artnet News by phone. Luxembourg herself worked for Sotheby’s for years before starting a partnership with auctioneer Simon de Pury (now an artnet News columnist) which was then bought by luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault and merged with auction house Phillips.

“Auction houses have a long and successful history with academics and curators,” she said, citing examples such as Charles Moffett, who left Sotheby’s in November after sixteen years and was previously a curator at institutions such as the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York.

“Derek has a broad base of knowledge,” she added, “and knowledge is the biggest asset in that game.”

Todd Levin, director of New York’s Levin Art Group, cautions against judging Gillman too soon.

“With a slightly unexpected choice like Gillman, Christie’s picked someone who won’t be immediately judged based on his brand,” Levin said. “Sotheby’s made a similar choice with its new CEO, Tad Smith. It gives them a little breathing room.”

A Résumé Mostly in Museums

As it happens, Gillman got his start at Christie’s. In 1977, he kicked off a four-year stint in the Chinese art department at the auction house’s London branch. But his experience since then has been with nonprofits. After Christie’s, he headed to the British Museum as a research assistant on Chinese art.

From 1985-95, he directed the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, whose collections span from Oceanic, African, and Asian art to Picasso, Giacometti, and Modigliani. He also earned a law degree during that time. He then jetted to Australia for a four-year term as deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

From 1999 to 2006, he was executive director and provost, then president and CEO, of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia museum and art school. Asked about his achievements there, a press rep cited overseeing the school’s anniversary and converting a formerly industrial building into additional gallery and classroom space.

Upheaval at Both Houses

Gillman’s duties will encompass enticing collectors to choose Christie’s over Sotheby’s when they decide to part with their Picassos, Monets, and Renoirs. He’ll also cultivate new clients in both the U.S. and China, where perhaps his academic specialty in Chinese art will come in handy. Gillman was traveling in London and Shanghai in the weeks leading up to the May sales.

He’ll report to Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas since 2010, while Giovanna Bertazzoni, international head of Impressionist and modern art, and Brooke Lampley, international director and head of development, run the department.

Gillman’s appointment comes amid turmoil at both houses after the November auctions, with longtime CEO Bill Ruprecht forced out at Sotheby’s, quickly followed by the outing of Christie’s head Steven Murphy (see Say Goodbye to the Rug Guy, Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht Pushed Out and Why Was Christie’s CEO Steven Murphy Fired?).

Former Madison Square Garden CEO Tad Smith got the nod at Sotheby’s (see Will Sotheby’s Again Fall Victim to Corporate Hubris With Dan Loeb, Tad Smith Takeover?), while Patricia Barbizet, a longtime employee of Christie’s owner François Pinault, is running the show at Rockefeller Center, in an appointment that insiders speculate may be temporary.

Having created a position for the newcomer, the auctioneer has to be hoping for good things from Gillman and his colleagues, especially when reviewing the numbers on recent sales.

Since May 2011, only one of its eight New York Impressionist and modern art auctions (the November 2014 sale) has edged past its pre-sale high estimate; four fell short of the house’s lowest expectation, while three came within the estimated range. Its archrival, Sotheby’s, has bested it seven out of those eight times, four of those times doubling Christie’s total.

When presented with these realities, the house defended its record, pointing out that its 2014 total in Impressionism and modern art was higher than the year before and that the percentage of lots that found buyers at these sales “outpaced our competitor.”

To be fair, better “sell-through rates,” as the houses call them, reflect more tightly edited sales, which is useful in a landscape where, season after season, bidders say that there’s a dearth of great material on offer.

Is the Impressionist and Modern Sale Getting Phased Out?

Christie’s is promoting its May 11 sale, with the Picasso and the Giacometti, as spanning “from Monet to Kippenberger.” The house seems to want to shake up the long-held categories (Impressionists and modern artists together, postwar and contemporary in their own sale) that have pertained for years. In the process, though, will it undermine its own Impressionist and modern department by siphoning off the top consignments? What’s more, moving the sale to the end of auction season may put it at a further disadvantage, as potential buyers could find themselves tapped out.

It’s ironic; Gillman moved the Barnes’ Impressionist and modern masterpieces from the suburbs to Philadelphia. Is the house moving its best offerings from those historical periods to a new venue, too, and just as Gillman arrives?

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