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Something has gone very wrong at Christie’s

9 March 2017

The old joke used to be that Christie’s were gentlemen pretending to be businessmen and Sotheby’s were businessmen pretending to be gentlemen. Bring back the gentlemen. Just an hour or two after Christie’s announced that it was closing its South Kensington saleroom, scaling back operations in Amsterdam and losing 12 per cent of its workforce – some 250 employees – a member of its contemporary art department posted a crass and gloating Instagram effusively thanking those colleagues and collectors who made the previous evening’s contemporary sale such a wild success. It read like a breathless Oscar acceptance speech but without the humility. One of the hashtags was #christiesreloaded. Perhaps #christiesfired would have been more appropriate.

It seems that the contemporary department has chosen to forget that CSK, and the firm’s traditional core collecting categories, long provided the stable financial revenue that cushioned the activities of other less profitable departments – contemporary art among them. Turnovers may be high here, but the profit margins are not necessarily so. After one of their most spectacular recent auction successes, for instance, the sale in 2013 of Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog (Orange) for $58.4m, the most expensive work of art by a living artist sold at auction, the consignor Peter Brandt told the New York Times that the sale had cost Christie’s money. To secure his business, the house waived the seller’s commission, and then, as a sweetener, gave him a large share of the buyer’s fees. Such an arrangement is not unusual.

Quite apart from the human cost of the proposed redundancies, which is believed will result in departments such as furniture and house sales decimated, this move smacks of corporate short-termism as well as hubris. It seems that the auction house, prompted by the number-crunchers, is putting all its eggs in one or two baskets – modern and contemporary art, the latter conveniently offering by its very nature an unlimited supply of material. But what happens when there is a slowdown in the contemporary art market? When will the new global super-rich so assiduously courted by the company no longer need the services of traditional auction houses?

Perhaps part of the decision to close CSK involves the value of its prime London site. When the firm needed to raise funds in 2013, it sold its 2.7-acre warehouse site in Wansdworth for £40m – its best business deal in years. But the writing has been on the wall for years for their secondary London saleroom. Specialist departments have closed, experts been dispatched. High fees for sellers and buyers have made it a less appealing place to do business. So many auctions have gone online – cost effective in one sense but not allowing the possibility for people to look, handle, and learn from experts.

I bought my first painting when I took a friend to a textile sale at South Ken and wandered into the adjoining preview. This saleroom was all about fostering the next generation of collectors. Those who could spend hundreds or a few thousands now might one day spend millions. The message the auction-house is sending is clear: the focus from now on will be on clients with more money than they know what to do with.

No doubt more will be done to attract new buyers at lower price levels in King Street, whose rooms are too often underused, but the continual contraction of the offer is more worrying and suggests incredulity that clients could possibly want any other kind of works of art. Sitting at the preview of TEFAF in Maastricht, the greatest art and antiques fair in the world, the exhibition halls are already packed with people – young, old and middle-aged – looking at absolutely everything, and buying too.

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12 comments

  1. George Goldner Mar 10 2017 at 1:58 pm

    I am in full agreement with the excellent piece by Susan Moore. Most collectors begin modestly and need to learn the market in steps. Christie’s is making a mistake in abandoning the beginner. Furthermore, the current fashion for Contemporary “art” rests on three pillars: tax laws favoring the super rich; money laundering; and lack of education. This cycle will end eventually and Christie’s will be left without a dependable game plan.

  2. Bertil Jaeger Mar 10 2017 at 2:21 pm

    A very sad story indeed….

  3. VICTOR JUDGE Mar 10 2017 at 3:56 pm

    The sheer arrogance of their junior ‘experts’ continually dismissing good pieces via emailed mages and treating collectors as if they are foolish idiots has finally come home to roost.

    Knowledge on Chinese porcelain is now held in a few hands and the chance of a normal person gaining access to the cognoscenti is virtually nil.

    When the market moves on they will be no better than Ebay.

  4. Who needs connoisseurship when you have oligarchs and greater fool theory…

  5. Charles Miller / Charles Miller Ltd Mar 11 2017 at 10:36 am

    As an ex-CSKer and one who was part of the famous Collectors Department which was axed in 2007, I’ve been predicting this tragedy for some time. It started long before 2007 when the management structures were moved “horizontally” and global heads of this and that popped up all over the place.. soon we were inundated with meetings and targets, meetings about meetings and former colleagues who learnt to speak the “corporate speak” so beloved by accountants became managers and thrived, the technical specialists hung out to dry. I recall we even had to post our own sale notifications to clients as there was no budget available within the marketing dept. When the coup de grace fell, we were gathered as a department (about twenty or so) and told that sales that required tressle tables for lots were no longer suitable, and neither was the demographic – “old men inspecting k-bins” was the overly harsh summary. The irony was that whilst we had a tiny but profitable turnover of around £10m, we generated perhaps 80% of the stories reported in various press – this was not allowed to to be considered by the accountants now firmly running the place and so off we all went. Many of us have formed our our Houses specialising in our subjects and not looked back, but when one recalled the glory days of CSK – a 30ft valuation counter lined with specialists handling a crowd five deep with objects to be assessed, with perhaps 3 sales happening simultaneously around the building with porters installing others or sorting collections out, it was one of the most exciting places in London and, had a more visonary management been in charge, they would have seen that there’s room for all of us – leave the Contemporary to the big new rooms and let CSK be the powerhouse for beginners and collectors – all would come good. Alas – RIP CSK, it was an honour to have served with one of the best.

  6. I would like to believe that tax laws favouring the super-rich, the frequent laundering of money and the lack of education will end in the UK. But I don’t. These are the things that our current government are assiduously supporting.

    In the current political and economic climate, Christies are right on the money.

  7. Irén Rákosa Mar 12 2017 at 12:01 pm

    I am very sorry to hear about the closing of CSK.
    However, I agree with you previous email, who wrote: “arrogance of their junior ‘experts’ continually dismissing good pieces via emailed images and treating collectors as if they are foolish idiots”.
    Some of us are long term dealers, collectors. Particularly collectors know more than anybody at Christi’s.
    Also about Chinese & Japanese Art. Very few people are experts, and certainly nobody lately at Christie’s.
    I used to buy Asian art 10 years ago at CSK, but later it stopped selling lower priced items, favouring only very high priced pieced.
    Naw, that is the real arrogance!

  8. Miles Wynn Cato Mar 20 2017 at 5:46 pm

    Not only is this a loss the art/antiques trade and private collectors, it is a real loss to London. What will the saleroom become? In all likelihood, another soul-less restaurant or a clothes shop selling to more of the faceless, transitoryy, international super-rich. Until a few years ago Christie’s South Ken was eccentric, exciting, energetic, scruffy and part of an unmistakably British array of businesses which are rapidly being cleansed from a vast swathe of prime-London. It is just another step towards our capital city becoming totally divorced from the rest of the U.K, economically, socially and culturally – it won’t end well.

  9. Ms. Moore’s comment is on the money and indeed the situation is very sad. I have bough at CSK a few times, not often mind you as I am Canadian, but it was a way for me to start collecting nice object that were still at a reasonable price. My taste and budget have improved over the years and I am now buying more substantial pieces. But it started at the bottom of the collecting ladder. Having just returned from TEFAF, I can confirm that there is interest in a lot more than modern and contemporary art. And the buyers for all of these goodies run the age gamut.

    I can only see the parallel in Christies decision to withdraw from these segments of the art market (for that is what it is) to most investors that pile in when a market is hot and forgetting where there is value. The modern/contemporary market will never disappear but other markets will come back… plus ca change…

  10. Good. Knobs the lot of them.

  11. Christiane Monarchi Apr 2 2017 at 5:56 pm

    There has been no better place to peruse and acquire unique items for the home, art collection, jewellery, textiles, prints – in a friendly and approachable way. CSK will be missed, and the experts with it.

  12. Take a look at the security Management who have been top heavy for years

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