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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.

Lead image: used under Creative Commons licence (CC BY-SA 3.0; original image cropped)