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​New relations between auction houses and museums

[06 Feb 2018]

In 2017, Sotheby’s exhibited some 60 works by Diego GIACOMETTI at the Galerie Charpentier in Paris for a week. This was not an ordinary pre-sale exhibition of works so that buyers could familiarize themselves with the works before possibly bidding the following day. In fact, nothing was for sale in the Fantastic World of Diego Giacometti, the first exhibition of work by the Swiss sculptor in the French capital since the one mounted by the Museum of Decorative Arts in 1986. Sotheby’s had quite simply asked a number of private owners to lend their works and then stage-managed a show highlighting the artist’s bestiary works using modern museological scenography, and published a 90-page catalogue to boot. In short… the sort of things museums do.

In fact, over the last few years, auction houses have been prompting major changes and nowadays get involved in initiatives where, a priori, we would not expect to find them. Having seen the auction houses develop specialised sales (Street Art, Comics, etc.) and then rush towards the development of ‘live’ and ‘online’ sales in order to adapt to the contemporary consumption habits of a new generation of art buyers, we are now seeing them react to another interesting reality: although online sales are an indispensable commercial dimension for any auction operator these days, the market needs other levers to stimulate potential buyers. The auctioneers are therefore looking at new ways to boost the ‘off-line’ experience by putting ‘physical contact’ at the heart of their business models, and, for that, they are taking inspiration from cultural institutions.

At the same time, relations between museums and the art market are becoming much more tangible. With increasing regularity museums are calling upon powerful galleries and collectors to finance certain exhibition projects or produce works in their mutual interest: the museums in search of funding; the galleries and collectors in search of institutional visibility. Thus, some public institutions have dedicated exhibitions to certain galleries, such as Lille’s Tripostal with Saatchi and Emmanuel Perrotin. The traditional boundaries between the institutional cultural world and the art market are becoming more porous. This can also be seen in appointments to important positions: in 2014, Qatar Museums appointed Guy Bennett as head of collections and acquisitions after 13 years at Christie’s. In the other direction, Guillaume Cerutti joined Sotheby’s in 2007 and Christie’s in 2016. He was previously CEO of the Centre Pompidou and had participated in the redaction of France’s Aillagon Law (2003) on sponsorship and foundations.

Museums and corporate collections

In Anglo-Saxon countries, where relations between museums and the art market are less inhibited than in France, auction houses – first and foremost Christie’s and Sotheby’s – offer a wide range of skills and expertise. Their Museums and Corporate Collections departments offer assistance in fundraising, making contact with private collectors and provide access to their archives for curators and researchers. The avowed objective is of course to prompt museums to sell their works through them. The New York MoMA, for example, regularly sells through auctioneers, using the funds raised to finance new acquisitions. In January 2018, no less than two Christie’s sales were dedicated to the sale of photographs by Garry Winogrand and Bill Brandt from the MoMA’s collections. Nothing like this happens in France: its public collections are considered inalienable, so museums cannot sell anything. That said, in France, the Aillagon law has prompted museums and art dealers to approach each other: often sales of major private collections give rise, thanks to such collaborations, to significant donations, as we saw in March 2016 at the sale of the Christopher Forbes collection dedicated to Napoleon III at Osenat in Fontainebleau.

Auctioneers mount exhibitions

Outside France, such partnerships have created a genuine permeability between the art market and cultural institutions, with each learning from the other. As part of their adaptation to the ‘new art market’, auction operators are increasingly employing museum techniques. In an ever-more globalised art market, the major auction houses – Christie’s and Sotheby’s – are increasingly organizing international roadshows for their star lots.

LEONARDO DA VINCI’s now super-famous Salvator Mundi was taken to Hong Kong, London, New York and San Francisco at Christie’s expense before going on sale on 15 November 2017. Selected highlights from the forthcoming sale of the Rockefeller Collection at Christie’s in May 2018 were first shown in Hong Kong in a global trip stopping at Christie’s flagship locations in London, Los Angeles and New York. The logistics, insurance, scenography and marketing are of course very expensive; but these costs are considered essential to attract the world’s wealthiest collectors.

However, auction houses are not just borrowing the idea of traveling exhibitions from museums; they are also adopting the Carte Blanche principle. The Guimet Museum in Paris recently gave carte blanche to the Indian artist Jayashree CHAKRAVARTY to do whatever she wanted with its space and the museum’s collections. Likewise, certain auctioneers employ ‘guest stars’ to present a selection of a few lots at a sale, or in the case of ‘curated’ sales, to select all the lots, organise the sale and design the catalogue.

In France, to add prestige to a catalogue lacking ‘star’ lots or to spice up a rather dreary catalogue, the auctioneers invite big names like Shahan Minassian or Louis Benech to a banal sale of “Interiors” to attract an audience that would otherwise probably not attend.

One example: the #TTTOP evening sale on 3 October 2016 at Sotheby’s curated by the pop artist T.O.P was a triumph, generating a total of $17.4 million, setting several new records.

Some auction houses have even taken the lead by creating special purpose entities to manage a new series of events that have little in common with classic auction sales. Two years ago Artcurial announced the creation of its Agence Artcurial Culture that offers businesses, foundations and collectors ways to exploit their real estate assets by organizing festivals, lectures, conferences and ready-made exhibitions (no sales) in order to strengthen their ‘cultural identities’. After providing such services for the legendary Orient-Express company, the Agency imagined Space Museum for Paris’s main international airport (Paris-Charles de Gaulle) and, since 2012, organises two exhibitions a year in this space, in partnership with the Rodin Museum and the Picasso Museum. Serge Lemoine, former CEO of the Musée d’Orsay (Paris’s prestigious museum of 19th Century Art) is on the Agency’s Scientific Council.

In short, auction companies have started a process of redefining the art market accompanied by new practices that accord with contemporary lifestyles and buying practices. At the heart of this process we see auction houses – primarily Anglo-Saxon – increasingly involved in staging art-oriented events such as befores, previews and must-sees in order to foster loyalty within an ever-younger, more versatile and demanding clientele.

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