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Christie’s Gets London Gallery And Draws Art Dealers’ Ire

After much rumor and speculation, Christie’s International confirmed, on Feb. 23, that it had acquired Haunch of Venison, one of London’s high-profile contemporary galleries, for an undisclosed sum.

LONDON—After much rumor and speculation, Christie’s International confirmed, on Feb. 23, that it had acquired Haunch of Venison, one of London’s high-profile contemporary galleries, for an undisclosed sum.

Quite a few art-world experts and observers were surprised by the deal. Why would Haunch of Venison, a young and expanding gallery representing hugely successful artists such as Bill Viola and Keith Tyson, and with branches in Zurich and Berlin, be for sale? And why, more crucially, has it been sold to Christie’s?

There is a time-honored tradition in the art market that salerooms stick to auctions of works on the secondary market, leaving galleries to nurture the careers of artists and sell works on the primary scene. Consequently, several dealers who spoke to ARTnewsletter were very critical of the move—but did not want to be quoted because Christie’s is owned by François Pinault, one of the world’s biggest contemporary art collectors.

Christie’s had been thinking about gaining a toehold in the primary market for some time. Chief executive Ed Dolman knew Haunch of Venison cofounder Graham Southern, who had previously run the auction house’s contemporary art department in London. “Haunch of Venison was the only gallery we considered,” says Dolman.

Harry Blain, the gallery’s other cofounder, confirms it was Christie’s that made the first move. Denying rumors from rival camps that Haunch of Venison was in dire financial straits, he notes, “We’ve been in profit for some years. Last year we took £50 million in sales for gallery artists. We were not looking to sell the gallery, but the idea evolved during discussions over a period of time.

“It became clear that some extra financing was going to help us develop our program of exhibitions, support our artists on a long-term basis and facilitate important artistic projects. I couldn’t think of a good reason why we shouldn’t accept. When the dust settles, I believe it will prove to be a beneficial arrangement for artists, collectors and

museums.”

And yet, asks dealer Nicholas Logsdail, of London’s Lisson Gallery, “is this about business or is it about art? Artists need freedom of spirit.” To which both Dolman and Blain respond by stressing the gallery’s continuing independence. It may now be a wholly owned subsidiary of Christie’s, but Blain insists that his artists “will be working with Haunch of Venison and its team of curators and artists’ managers, not Christie’s.” He emphasizes that, “what’s more, we will have control of operations.”

To avoid conflict of interest, Haunch of Venison will be prevented from bidding at Christie’s auctions. “We have never and will not encourage our artists to put things into auction,” Blain maintains.

Where he will be working more closely with Christie’s, Blain says, is in its private sales of works that never appear at auction. Last year Christie’s took £137 million ($252.5 million) in private sales, including $135 million for Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, which was acquired by the Neue Galerie, New York. (ANL, 7/5/06).

Blain has a strong track record in backroom sales of secondary-market works by major artists such as Francis Bacon, Damien Hirst and Andy Warhol. It was Blain, sources say, who sold Hirst the early Bacon painting A Study for a Figure at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1943-44, which was shown recently at London’s Serpentine Gallery. He also sold several early Hirst pieces to Pinault that the artist had bought back from Charles Saatchi.

With Christie’s backing, Haunch of Venison will open a new New York gallery, to be run by Christie’s former director of private sales Barrett White. The gallery will exhibit not only Haunch of Venison artists but specially curated shows of work privately available through Christie’s. Additionally, the auction house may be able to further its designs on the Chinese market if Blain’s plans to open a gallery in Beijing come to fruition.

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