Apollo Magazine

The first billion-dollar auction? Plus ça change…

The sale of masterpieces at Christie’s shattered records – but has it really changed the art market?

Christie’s Paul Allen

Courtesy Christie’s

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories.

Christie’s held the first ever billion-dollar sale this week when they auctioned off the collection of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen – and with big auctions come big press statements. So it was that Alex Rotter, Christie’s chairman of 20th and 21st century art, said, ‘He changed the way we live our lives, now, he’s changed the art market’.

There is certainly no doubt that shifting $1.62bn of art over two days is no small feat. Rakewell would be very proud to have achieved that. Yet your roving correspondent can’t help but feel that Rotter might have made a little bit of an overstatement.

On Wednesday evening, the art market seemed to be working in a very effective, traditional fashion. People piled into the saleroom, specialists lined the phone banks and bids came in from across the world. Certain commentators have raised the point that every single lot in the evening sale was guaranteed – where, effectively, a third-party had promised to take on the lot at a set price regardless of what happens on the night – but guarantees are nothing new. Indeed, with such vast numbers and so many guarantees there was nothing new about this at all – it felt positively like a return to the big auctions at the turn of the millennium.

The most innovative part of the auction is that it was led by two auctioneers – a step in a pleasingly egalitarian direction, given that the stage is normally held just by one person. But Rakewell isn’t sure that this is quite enough to signify a transformation of the way the market works. Instead, the Allen sale just confirms what we always knew – find big names of outstanding quality, make sure the whole world knows about it and the rest should take care of itself. It’s really just a lesson in old-fashioned marketing.

Got a story for Rakewell? Get in touch at rakewell@apollomag.com or via @Rakewelltweets.

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