Simon de Pury on Why Artists Are So Risk-Averse—and How He’s Determined to Show Them a New Way to Navigate the Market
Amidst the art market's "silly season," our columnist explains why the time is right for an art-market experiment.
Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
August, in many parts of Europe at least, is often referred to as the silly season since so many businesses simply close down for the whole month. Therein lies one of the big cultural differences with the U.S., where the word “holiday,” while also part of the vocabulary, is something one can never ever admit to be taking. Even if your interlocutor is in the middle of a safari in Africa, he will not confess to it and sound very professional on a Zoom call, blaming weak wifi for not being visible on video. The art world is somewhat in slow motion during this month. The top galleries haven’t begun doing events in the summer in St. Tropez or Mykonos the way they do in St. Moritz or Gstaad in the winter.
It is this apparent August lull which prompted me to counterintuitively stage “Women – Art in Times of Chaos” during this month. Sixteen female artists that I admire have each contributed a work that they have completed in the past three years to an online exhibition on de-PURY.com and an auction that will be conducted by my avatar on August 25, at 5 p.m. British Standard Time.
With the pandemic, war, ever-stronger polarization, and the climate catastrophe, we have clearly entered times of chaos. Artists are mediums and tend to see things that we common mortals can’t yet see. This is what prompted the idea for this exhibition. My motivation with the auction was for the artists and the galleries championing their work to be the financial beneficiaries of the hammer price. This opens the door for the artists to sell some of their primary market works via auction to complement their traditional sales avenues of galleries and art fairs.
The buyers at the auction are committing not to put any of the works back on the market for three years. To ask for a commitment beyond that seemed neither fair nor enforceable. I will share with the artists and their galleries the identities of the successful bidders as well as of the underbidders. They will therefore benefit from the same market intelligence they have when the artists sell through their galleries in the time-tested way. de PURY will charge a buyer’s premium of 18 percent instead of the minimum 25 percent charged by the main three houses. Three percent of the hammer price will be deducted from the buyer’s premium and will be paid to U.N. Women, the United Nations organization that is the largest women’s charity in the world and delivers programs, policies, and standards that uphold women’s human rights.
The artworks themselves will be shipped only once, after the auction, when they will be sent from the artist’s studios or galleries directly to their new owners. This will of course have a big advantage from an environmental point of view as well as for the conservation of the works themselves. No physical catalogue or leaflets will be printed or sent. Auction houses’ success during COVID has demonstrated that collectors no longer have to see artworks in person before making a purchase; condition reports give them the necessary comfort.
The pandemic has also demonstrated that works do not need to be sold solely during the main auction weeks or during the big art fairs. The art calendar has become much more flexible and we should be gradually moving towards a whole-year, 24/7 approach to selling works of art. The financial markets, after all, are not seasonal and allow you to transact at any given moment.
The auction itself will be accessible only online. It will, however, happen in real time as nothing focuses a buyer’s mind better than having to decide whether to continue bidding in a split second. My avatar is loosely based on the Royal Bobbleheads, which I collect and which grace the bathroom in my small Monte Carlo apartment. The avatar will gesticulate while my live voice relays the bids as they come in. Of course, there is no real need for it as it would be enough just to watch the prices going up. However, whether you conduct a live auction or one which is only online, humor and entertainment will hopefully lighten up things a bit.
The really sobering thing in preparing this project has been to see how challenging it was to get it moving in the first place.
Back in a previous life when I was at Sotheby’s, I took immense pride at the end of each auction season in determining how much of the annual turnover I had been instrumental in securing for the firm. I am certain that, over the years, the key rainmakers at Sotheby’s and Christie’s were doing the same.
Every time one of them left, you felt it was going to really hurt the auction house. It actually never did, as these companies’ brands have, over the years, proven to be stronger than their most talented stars. In what was once a duopoly between Sotheby’s and Christie’s, 100 percent of all potential business automatically landed on your desk. You simply had to make sure that you were winning slightly more often than losing. What you were losing was automatically going to your competitor.
When, in 2001, I started at what was then Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg, I realized that you had to do one hundred times the effort for a hundredth of the result. It is only when we began with time to establish a track record in specialized areas such as contemporary art, design, and photography that things gradually became a bit easier.
Now, with 50 years of experience in the art world and art market, this moment feels again like starting from scratch. Nobody cares what you did before. Yet these are precisely the most exciting moments.
I have always been struck by how risk-averse most artists are. There are few domains in which its main actors are so worried to do one step which could be seen as being out of line. The one big exception of course is Damien Hirst, who throughout his career has been extremely bold and courageous. The main dealers and gallery owners have been extremely good at defending the status quo and resisting change, even in the face of the technological revolution. The pandemic forced their hand to a certain degree.
With the health restrictions mostly behind us, the temptation is big to simply return to the way things were done before. I am therefore all the more admiring of such professionals such as Almine Rech-Picasso, Johann König, C L E A R I N G New York /Brussels, 193 Gallery, and all the artists participating in “Women – Art in Times of Chaos,” who were prepared to take a risk and experiment with new ways of doing things.
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company, former Europe chairman and chief auctioneer of Sotheby’s, and former curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection. He is now an auctioneer, curator, private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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