Smaller Houses Can Win Big

Although Christie’s and Sotheby’s dominate the international auction market, smaller auction houses around the world also vie aggressively to win property for their sales, going after primarily lower-end and middle-market material that sells for under $1 million, and often for considerably less.

Although Christie’s and Sotheby’s dominate the international auction market, smaller auction houses around the world also vie aggressively to win property for their sales, going after primarily lower-end and middle-market material that sells for under $1 million, and often for considerably less.

Says Howard Rutkowksi, director of contemporary and modern art at London-based Bonhams, “We’ve been lucky with one or two things, but mostly we chip away at the lower end of the market that Christie’s and Sotheby’s don’t care that much about, and we devote tender, loving care to it.”

While it is more often Sotheby’s and Christie’s that land the kind of property that grabs headlines, Tajan in Paris made news a year ago when it sold the estate of art dealer Julien Levy for more than $9 million, and another Paris firm, Artcurial, drew worldwide attention when it sold 20 sketches owned by Picasso mistress Genevieve Laporte for a total of $1.87 million last June. “We have a small but very professional and reactive team of experts and specialists who are often on the move to visit clients for inventories in France and abroad,” says Artcurial auctioneer Francis Briest.

To win consignments, the smaller auction houses offer many of the same incentives Christie’s and Sotheby’s do, including preview exhibitions and high-quality catalogues, as well as creative marketing, expertise, and outreach. Berlin-based Villa Grisebach decided to show 54 artworks in its first exhibition preview in New York last May, which led to one of the works, Max Beckmann’s 1942 Anni (Girl with Fan) , fetching €3.9 million ($4.7 million)—a record price for an artwork at auction in Germany—at a sale one month later.

When it came to vying for the Levy estate, Tajan owner Rodica Seward, a former investment banking executive, says her firm “was very lucky to be considered. Normally Tajan would not even have been mentioned. The client got my name from someone who knew me from the financial world.” Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips competed for the collection, but the heirs, who reside in Connecticut, gave it to Tajan, says Seward, because she offered to sell the entire estate in a three-day single-owner sale—“an homage to Julien Levy’’—rather than breaking up the material into evening, day, and arcade sales.

Eight auction houses have pooled their resources as part of International Auctioneers: Artcurial, Dorotheum in Vienna, Bukowskis in Stockholm, Porro & C. in Milan, GMAI Auctentia in Madrid, Galerie Koller in Zurich, Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne, and Swann Galleries in New York.

The association publishes a preview magazine that is mailed to a shared client list and produces joint advertisements, catalogues, and exhibitions. “The idea is to give clients more international exposure so that we can compete with Christie’s and Sotheby’s without becoming one company,” says Lempertz managing director Takuro Ito.

Michaela Derra, a spokesperson for Munich-based Ketterer Kunst, says that some sellers, like the consignor of Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1988), which sold for 552,000 ($667,920) at Ketterer last year, choose to sell a work by a German artist through a smaller German firm because “we provide a lot more attention to such a work than the huge auction houses that might sell four or five Richter paintings in one auction.”

Meanwhile, Dorotheum spokesperson Doris Krumpl says that some clients opt to sell works by regional artists, like Ferdinand George Waldmí¼ller and Alfons Walde, at the Dorotheum because of their popularity in Austria. Likewise, smaller firms also gain the loyalty of regional collectors who, says Ito, have “bought from us in the past,” or because “their parents bought from Lempertz.”

Some consignments are won because clients prefer to sell artworks in more remote locations. Cyril Koller, owner of Galerie Koller in Zurich, says that an American client recently consigned Bird as Buddha by Jean-Michel Basquiat to Koller because he had purchased it at a Christie’s May sale in New York a year earlier. “It came to us through an American dealer, who told the collector that it didn’t make sense to offer the same painting a year later again in New York,” says Koller. “He told him there were other possibilities on the other side of the world.” The painting, for which the consignor had paid $309,900 at Christie’s, sold at Koller for nearly $400,000.

“Sometimes you can get better prices in remote places for international artworks,” concurs Peter Christmas-Mí¸eller, director of sales at Bruun Rasmussen in Copenhagen. “Professionals can make a good profit if a work is not that exposed internationally. Buyers can be tempted to pay a higher price because no one knows about it.”

Kathleen Doyle, chairman and chief executive of Doyle New York, says that when it comes to competing for consignments, “If we want the property, we will go to the mat to be able to sell the property.” Her firm won a consignment of Chinese porcelain works from the estate of F. Gordon Morrill in June 2003. Within 90 days, Doyle produced a hardbound catalogue and arranged for the collection to be shown in Hong Kong before the auction took place in New York that September. The collection grossed more than $12 million and set a then-record for Chinese porcelain when a rare Yuan Dynasty flask fetched $5.8 million.

Swann Galleries president Nicholas Lowry says his firm attracts sellers primarily through its expertise. Swann recently competed for a large consignment worth between $2 million and $3 million. “That’s a big deal for us,” says Lowry. Still, when Lowry and his father, company chairman George Lowry, made their proposal to the client, they kept things simple, forgoing any PowerPoint presentations and glossy brochures. “We don’t do bells and whistles,” says Lowry. “This is not movie-star stuff. This is auction stuff. We really concentrate on the essentials.”

Tajan’s Seward says her intention is to rejuvenate the Paris art market. “I want to focus on client services, run the business very well, and attract consignors who want more personal attention than perhaps they would get at Christie’s and Sotheby’s,” says Seward. “I’m not dreaming that we are going to get the $10 million works.” But, she adds, “Maybe one day.”

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