Cheyenne Westphal on Why This Week Might Be the ‘Most Successful Auction in Phillips’s History’

Ahead of the spring sales in New York this week, the former Sotheby's executive discusses her next chapter as chairman of Phillips.

Cheyenne at Phillips, London 2017. Photo by Monika Hoefler. Courtesy Phillips

After nearly three decades at Sotheby’s, most recently as worldwide head of the contemporary art department, auction veteran Cheyenne Westphal left to join Phillips auction house as global chairman. In March, after roughly a year spent on “gardening leave,” Westphal officially started her new role alongside the fast-growing senior team assembled by Phillips CEO Ed Dolman (who himself is a longtime former leader and CEO at Christie’s).

On the eve of New York’s spring auction “gigaweek,” in which five major evening sales will be packed into four nights, we spoke to Westphal about what motivated her to make the jump to Phillips, which areas of the market are ripe for re-evaluation, and what she has planned for the week ahead.

What have you observed in terms of broad trends in the art market in the past year? 

Well I have passed the year looking at the market from the sidelines. Broadly speaking, there was some consolidation in 2016 and a little bit of heat came out of the market. But there was still very good material appearing and solid prices being made. So much has happened in the last year—If you think back to Brexit and US elections you would have assumed some major change in the art market, but that has not been the case. For 2017, it feels as if there is more material coming on to the market, real excitement, and very strong prices being made.

Have you observed any noteworthy shifts in geographic change or demand?

As of now the three hubs—London, New York, and Hong Kong—are the centers that it all revolves around. I think we’ve all seen much more Asian participation and it involves very high prices. That has been phenomenal. You see a work selling at a very strong price, and then a few weeks later, you see it appearing in a museum in China. That is probably one of the big shifts that we’ve seen. Last June, for example, the Long Museum in Shanghai acquired a masterpiece by Jenny Saville at auction. It went on display only a month after the sale, when it was featured in “She,” their exhibition focusing on female artists.

Are there particular artists or genres that are currently generating buzz or seen as undervalued?

The market is always looking for a fresh story and fresh material. Some European artists who have been garnering great prices in London are ready to come up in price with a global audience. For example, Italian and Zero artists have been performing exceptionally well recently, including Jan Schoonhoven, who recently had a sold-out show at the David Zwirner Gallery in New York, and Michelangelo Pistoletto, whose works have soared at auction in New York in recent seasons. The global trend is still searching for blue-chip European and US artists and always looking for the ones that haven’t quite reached into the tens of millions of dollars yet and could be up for price evaluation.

How do you foresee applying your expertise and the skills you’ve honed at Sotheby’s? What new challenges are you looking forward to at Phillips?

It’s been an amazing first few weeks and I’m happy to be back in the game. I’ve really enjoyed coming in to Phillips and being part of the really exciting chemistry here. What I love is that Phillips is focused on 20th- and 21st-century art. All of our departments align and are brilliant across photographs, design, and editions. We give collectors the very best of art and objects. That is sort of the DNA of the company.

Initially, I will obviously continue to call on longstanding relationships, but also increasingly develop new ones.

While we have all watched major shifts and moves in top talent at the major houses in the past year, what influenced your decision to leave Sotheby’s and join Phillips?

There was a moment when a real shift was happening and I think Phillips really capitalized on it. Phillips is poised to become a very important auction house. We hear it from clients, buyers, and sellers. They’re ready for a third auction house to play a major major part in all categories of the 21st century. Ed Dolman was really clear in his strategy that he wanted to have the right chemistry and the right energy to make this happen over the next few years. We’re putting all our resources into having a nimble auction house that can give clients everything they desire.

What are you looking forward to at this week’s major evening sale?

We’re confident that we’ve assembled a very strong sale that could prove to be the most successful auction in Phillips’s history. With top-notch works by contemporary masters such as Peter Doig, Gerhard Richter and Willem de Kooning, our May evening sale could double or maybe even triple last year’s results. Our new team is in place and collectors have responded enthusiastically, entrusting us with fresh-to-the-market works. From our vantage point, the market for contemporary art has come back strong as we’re seeing great enthusiasm at Phillips and by the crowds descending on the Venice Biennale and the art fairs in New York.

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