artnet Asks: Heritage Auctions’s Leon Benrimon

This week is the auction house's first NY sale of contemporary art.

Leon Benrimon.
Image: Patrick McMullan

Heritage Auctions, the Dallas-headquartered collectibles auctioneer, is getting a jump start on the fall auction season with its first New York sale of modern and contemporary art. The sale, which takes place October 28, will feature works from the likes of Ai Weiwei, Andy Warhol, and Robert Rauschenberg.

This foray into the contemporary art auction season in New York is a bold move for a company that has found considerable success in other markets. It has positioned itself as the world’s third biggest auction house on the strength of sales in everything from domain names and luxury handbags to movie posterssports, comics, and cars (as well as comic book cars).

artnet News checked in with Leon Benrimon, Heritage‘s New York director of modern and contemporary art, to learn more about the ambitious upcoming sale.

Modern and Contemporary Art, Part I: New York will take place on October 28. The second part will take place in Dallas on November 14.

Robert Motherwell, <em>Untitled (Ochre with Black Line)</em>, 1972–73/1974. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Robert Motherwell, Untitled (Ochre with Black Line), 1972–73/1974.
Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Why is Heritage looking to expand into the market for modern and contemporary art?
We aren’t trying to compete with Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Phillips, as we are offering clients a viable alternative to buy and sell great works that often get overlooked elsewhere. It’s not an accident that our upcoming sale of modern and contemporary art in New York is on its own on October 28, not during the traditional week other houses have their sales.

We give clients who want to sell a six and seven figure works the kind of attention and care that an eight or nine figure work might get with others. As a result, we can offer marketing and business terms that are unparalleled elsewhere for these works. A great example of that is the full page ad that we just ran in the New York Times Friday arts section for Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera, expected to fetch $400,000–600,000 in our upcoming sale. At a bigger house, you would need to add a zero or two to that estimate to get that kind of exposure and marketing.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010). Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010).
Photo: Heritage Auctions.

What are the advantages to selling modern and contemporary works at Heritage, rather than with the other houses?
Going to the bigger houses is often a daunting process. It can be very isolating and intimidating.

We answer every inquiry sent whether it be via e-mail, our fantastic website, over the phone, or in person. We post our reserves in advance of the auction for everyone to see. We give clients an artnet-like list of all works we have sold in the past so they can make an educated decision on how to bid.

Our buyers premiums escalate at much lower levels than Sotheby’s, Christie’s, or Phillips, and as a result bidders like to bid with us more, and sellers get more on their bottom line when the works sells for the same price as it does elsewhere. There is no smoke and mirrors here, no cloak and dagger.

Mel Ramos, A Sinister Figure Lurks in the Shadows(1962). Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Mel Ramos, A Sinister Figure Lurks in the Shadows (1962).
Photo: Heritage Auctions.

What is Heritage focusing on for its first New York sale in contemporary art?
We asked ourselves for every work, where would this sell best? Where would it have the most bidders? Where would our consignors get the best value? When we realized that there were a significant number of works that we felt would do better in New York, we elected to have the sale here.

One will notice that unlike other houses, we have quite a few low value works in New York, and quite a few high value works in Dallas, because we focused on where bidders for those works were most likely to bid. We made these selections by listening to our clients and hearing their preferences.

We are happy to get to know clients who may not have known us because we hadn’t done a New York sale before. They may know us for the other categories which we excel in like luxury handbags, sports, or comics; but now they get a chance to see us doing modern and contemporary in New York, which is of course very exciting.

Andy Warhol, $ (Quadrant), 1982. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Andy Warhol, $ (Quadrant), 1982.
Photo: Heritage Auctions.

What are you expectations for sales in this first outing?  
Of course I hope and anticipate that this sale will be a great success. But I am sure, like all things in life, it won’t be perfect. It’s likely that there will be ups and downs, unexpected, great surprises, and slight disappointments. The more important thing is that we, as a department and as a company, will learn, pivot and adjust.

Looking down the road, I think we will continue to capitalize on what we do best. By continuing to offer buyers and sellers more options, in a friendly, easy and approachable manner, I think that we will continue to give clients an alternative to buy and sell their entire collections from start to finish, and from top to bottom.

Tom Wesselmann, <em>Blonde Vivienne (Filled In)</em>, 1985/1995. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

Tom Wesselmann, Blonde Vivienne (Filled In), 1985/1995. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

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