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Cuckoo Clockwork: An Afternoon With Christie’s Loic Gouzer

Swiss specialist brings big numbers, guaranteed

Over the past few years Christie’s Senior Vice President Loic Gouzer has carved out a prominent spot for himself at the house, but in May it was a viral video, easily the auction world’s first, that brought him to the attention of the wider world.

Gouzer commissioned the YouTube video to promote his auction, “If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday,” which was named for a Richard Prince joke painting in the sale. In it a skateboarder grinds and kickflips through Christie’s galleries and back rooms, which most people have never seen, this and its lighting consistent with the press materials’ promise to showcase “the gritty, underbelly-esque side of contemporary art.” The skater tumbles just after he passes a Martin Kippenberger self-portrait in one of the galleries—one that would go on to sell for an artist’s record-making $18.6 million at the sale—just as the electronica-rock soundtrack fades away.

Ad Week praised Christie’s for making “an ad that doesn’t smell 250 years old” (a reference to Christie’s establishment in 1766). “Pretty slick,” said NPR. The stuffier executives at Christie’s weren’t pleased, because they thought it portrayed the auction house and its works in an unserious light, though this was never Gouzer’s intention.

“It’s actually just my favorite part of any sale,” Gouzer said behind the wheel of his pickup truck in Montauk at the end of the summer. “When you call the admin and you say, ‘I need this piece, it’s being shown in Tokyo right now, but I need it in New York tomorrow,’ and then they send it and you uncrate it. And it just looks so good. It’s my favorite way to see art.”

Loic Gouzer of Christie’s contemporary sales department. ©2014 CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.

Loic Gouzer of Christie’s contemporary sales department.

©2014 CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD.

But the video, like the sale, represented something new for the company, something that Gouzer, a specialist in the contemporary art department, seems to embrace and personify. “If I Live” raised $134.6 million across 35 works of art, and another Gouzer staged with Leonardo DiCaprio in 2013 raised $38.8 million for environmental causes with 33 lots. Christie’s currently seems to be ahead in the race to dominate the contemporary auction market, and their success is thanks to people like Gouzer.

Gouzer, and those who work with him, credit him with helping to changing the market for certain artists with high-selling, high-profile lots, which, the conventional wisdom has it, raise the prices for work by the artist across the board. Among his higher figures were the Kippenberger, Yves Klein’s FC1 (1962), which sold for $36.5 million in 2012, Alexander Calder’s $18.6 million Lily of Force (1945) (also in that sale), and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Dustheads (1982), which currently holds the record for that artist at auction, $48.8 million from a 2013 sale. At the time the Klein and Calder were record-breakers too. Works by all those artists had always traded high on the private market, but never at public auction, and rarely for that much.

Off the clock Gouzer, 34, likes to spearfish, which is why he tries to spend as much time as possible in Montauk. The Gouzer family hails from Brittany originally, and the day I’d met him in Montauk he, his brother Marc, and two friends had been out at 4 a.m. to visit a weather buoy on Gouzer’s boat—which has a massive ice coffin in the center for the day’s haul. The Gouzers are cagey about the location of their weather beacon, which has lights that draw untold numbers of tuna, rays, and sharks, because he’s worried that a commercial trawler will hear about it and “sweep everything away.”

“It’s a little ironic,” Marc said, “that Loic loves fish and goes spearfishing but if you know about the ocean, the real threat is commercial fishermen.”

“The one thing I think about 10 times a day, if it’s not a beautiful girl, it’s about what’s happening to our planet,” Gouzer said over lunch, between puffs of an e-cigarette (a habit he said he gained from DiCaprio, adding that he can still hold his breath for three and a half minutes underwater). He’s appalled by lack of coverage given to the horrors of commercial fishing and said he can’t believe that The New York Times writes a report for every single auction. “I guess once the prices go down nobody’s going to care anymore,” he sighed.

Much of Gouzer’s career has been tied up in guarantees, a system the houses have used more and more to ensure that doesn’t happen. The Kippenberger, Klein, Calder, and Basquiat all carried guarantees, as did 15 of the 35 lots of his “If I Live” sale.

Developed at Sotheby’s in 1974, auction guarantees were at first a tactic simply to make sure an artwork came to auction at all. Guarantees, in essence, promise that if a work should fail to meet a certain minimum price, the house will pay the guaranteed amount for it.

“In 1974, when we founded this guarantee scheme we felt that there was a real need in the market for a guaranteed result,” said David Nash, who was part of the team that first implemented guarantees at Sotheby’s. “People who were uncertain about whether to sell something at public auction or whether to take the risk could be reassured by the fact that the auction house would give them a guaranteed minimum, and it was a very straightforward system.”

As auctions became more in fashion, guarantees became more a tactic for making sure a work went to Christie’s over Sotheby’s and vice-versa, which led to deal sweeteners like sellers no longer having to pay a higher commission on guaranteed works, and then, in the 1990s, the development of the third-party guarantee. Third-party guarantees are what they sound like, guarantees where the work is backed by a third party rather than the house, often a collector who might receive a percentage of the amount the work goes over its guarantee.

Nash said guarantees tend to proliferate during boom times but now seems to be a time of particular expansion, with Sotheby’s refinancing this past August so that it could increase its “maximum permissible amount of net outstanding auction guarantees” from $300 million to $600 million, according to an SEC filing.

Nash, it should be said, no longer endorses guarantees and what they’ve become. He said he wasn’t sure that new collectors necessarily understand the system, and that it distorts perceptions of artists’ markets.

“Did you realize if you were sitting in the sales room and you were bidding against the guarantor, that if he wins it he’s going to be paying quite a lot less than you would?” Nash said. And, he said, “It is sort of the same as insider trading, because the guarantor, the auction gallery have given them as much information as they can to induce him to be the guarantor.”

The Richard Prince joke painting, If I Die, 1990, that gave Gouzer’s auction its title. It sold for $4.6 million. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014

The Richard Prince joke painting, If I Die, 1990, that gave Gouzer’s auction its title. It sold for $4.6 million.

CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014

Gouzer thinks worries about high prices are unjustified.

“In many ways, I think that if you pay the highest price, you’re getting the best deal,” he said, after he’d picked up his surfboard from a repair shop after lunch, and then drove to his house, complaining about a need to refuel his pickup. The house is an open, two-story place not far from Julian Schnabel’s. Wetsuits were draped over the balcony and in the garage a rack of spear guns hangs like they are themselves trophies. (The fish itself goes in the freezer—like most spearfishers, Gouzer likes to eat what he shoots.)

The record-breaking pieces are now famous in their own right for breaking records, he said, and moreover, a new record theoretically raises the price of all works by the artist. “People rolled their eyes at the Kippenberger selling for $20 million but I guarantee the next time a Kippenberger of that quality comes up at auction it’s going to go for $20 million and people won’t bat an eye.” (Christie’s actually does have a similar one coming up this Wednesday, estimated to sell for $15 million to $20 million.)

“Guaranteed art allows people to do business,” he shrugged. And if now he says he has 15 people he can call who will guarantee almost anything for him because they trust him so much, “we’re never looking for guarantors. We have more people willing to jump with us than we have works of art.”

Gouzer’s attitude about guarantees came about by necessity as much as by design.

“When I first came to New York,” in 2007 from Sotheby’s London office, he said, “I used to ask people for a cigarette on the street, just so I could talk to them.” He felt on the outside of things and Sotheby’s frustrated him in its reliance on “the three Ds,” death, debt and divorce. “It was a very passive, friendly relationship,” with sellers, he said. He saw older specialists going from “gala to gala,” in the hopes that lots would land on his lap. For a guy like him with “no pedigree, no background,” who’d much rather be playing soccer or hanging out downtown, it seemed as though he had no hope of competing, even if he’d tried to become chummy with the heads of estates.

With the growth of the market he saw the business becoming more of a business anyway. “The collectors changed with the prices going up, and if they have a $50 million estate they’re not just going to give it to a friend,” he said.

So instead, he would cold call potential sellers promising large, guaranteed sums for their works, calling or texting many times until he heard back, often with success. Guarantors need not even be close friends, since any Basquiat collector has a natural interest in making sure Basquiats sell for high amounts in public, so Gouzer could count on numbers rather than personal relationships there too.

Frank Moore, a collector who has been aggressively courted by Gouzer (and is now friendly with him), said that he was impressed at how high he had gone with his guaranteed offer for a work he was trying to get him to sell.

“Some people come up with an idea of what they think is high but it’s ridiculous because they don’t know the market,” Moore said. “Loic knows the market and he knows that there’s a certain market for an artist and a certain market for certain works by that artist and that those two markets are separate.”

Gouzer saw himself at the moment of a “changing of the guard.” Not everyone felt the same way and his aggressive guarantee-oriented style, along with a few other personnel issues—among them having a falling out with the company’s chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer, who declined to comment for this article—led to his being pushed out of the contemporary department and leaving Sotheby’s in December 2010.

But Christie’s bid high on that which Sotheby’s had sold at a loss. Gouzer was in talks to join an art consultancy over the holidays when that following January Brett Gorvy—Christie’s international head of contemporary art—took a five-hour train ride from Lucerne, where he was spending the holidays with his family, to Verbier, where Loic was spending his. The two had a long lunch as Gorvy tried to sell Gouzer on Christie’s. The two got on well (in their interviews both men, with typical auction house hyperbole, independently described the other as a “genius”), and Gouzer seemed sold by the time Gorvy hopped on the train back to Lucerne.

Gorvy said he knew he wanted Gouzer because his energy and aggression would be useful in the new market that was developing. He’d heard stories about Gouzer’s clashes with Sotheby’s, how others in his department balked at his 2010 decision to guarantee an abstract Gerhard Richter painting from 1992 for $5 million despite the fact that it had sold for just $1.2 million five years prior at Christie’s. After market downturns, like the one in 2008, auction houses have to buy-in more works and tend to be more hesitant about guarantees, but this one was third-party and the work sold to a phone bidder for a whopping $11.3 million, over an estimate of $5.5 million to $7.5 million. This vindicated Gouzer, Gorvy said, and helped lift the Richter abstract market to its current height.

Plus, Gorvy said, “I liked the idea that he’d been kicked out of Sotheby’s and that he’d fought with Tobias Meyer, who’s been my nemesis for most of my career.”

Jeff Koons’s Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985, sold above estimate at the “If I Live” sale for $6.8 million. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014

Jeff Koons’s Two Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, 1985, sold above estimate at the “If I Live” sale for $6.8 million.

CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014

The collector Adam Lindemann, over the phone, also said he liked Gouzer’s aggressive prices. “I first met him through Christoph Van de Weghe and I found him young and energetic and cocky. I didn’t really bother with him.” The two became friends, though, after Gouzer’s name came up when Lindemann was looking for someone to accompany him on a high-octane ski trip to Alaska. He soon came to admire his business sense too. Gouzer’s role in an $18.6-million guaranteed Calder sale, he said, paved the way for the new Calder record achieved this past spring, $25.9 million.

“There’s no reason why if you’ve got a $100 million [Alberto] Giacometti you can’t have a $50 million Calder,” Lindemann said. “So I think he’s got a good radar for these things.”

The dealer Philippe Ségalot, when asked to compare “If I Live,” Gouzer’s personally curated sale, with his own for Phillips de Pury in 2010, or any of his own when he ran the contemporary department at Christie’s before that, said his own were much more of a “self-portrait” rather than being market-driven and that Gouzer’s was more “willing to take risks with guarantees” (though he emphasized that he was sure Gouzer liked all the work in the sale). He also said he strove to keep his estimates low, but again attributed this to the market.

Ségalot also said he wouldn’t have necessarily included younger artists like Louis Eisner and Alex Israel in his own sales but that in this market “if you wait too long you’re going to turn around” and see them making six figures, which means then it’s too late to invest.

At his house in Montauk, Gouzer said this was why he’d included some younger artists in his sale and that he’d never meant to infringe on the territory of Phillips (which dropped “de Pury” after the departure of its chairman and auctioneer Simon de Pury in 2012), the smallest of the three auction houses and the traditional place younger art trades publicly.

Gouzer’s one-off “If I Live” was also initially scheduled for Monday, one hour before Phillips’, but this too, he said, was not an attempt to move in on Phillips’ territory, and blamed an error in the calendar shared by all the houses. (Phillips then moved theirs to Thursday, after Gouzer’s, Christie’s $745 million proper contemporary sale—the highest ever single auction total—and Sotheby’s. Phillips took in $114.1 million, below its all-sale low estimate of $124 million. After the sale then-CEO Michael McGinnis, obliquely referencing Christie’s scheduling, said the move wasn’t “fair to our consignors.”)

More importantly, he said, there wasn’t that much young art in his sale. He isn’t interested in it. “There’s a whole structure in place to keep bad art or mediocre art in place,” he said of supposed young art speculators like the collector Stefan Simchowitz. “It’s a house of cards.”

Shortly after this Gouzer paused to answer his Blackberry. “Hi AAaaaaadam,” he said playfully, as he had when Lindemann, who happens to have a place in Montauk, called him in the car earlier. They’d planned to go surfing together, a hobby Lindemann introduced him to a few years ago and the collector was asking him to come over and check out the waves.

At Lindemann’s Gouzer and his friends trudged with him over to the bluffs and watched the waves in silence for a while, standing between the Franz West and Urs Fischer at either end of the spacious back yard. Dan Loeb—the activist hedge fund investor and new Sotheby’s board member following his calls for that public company to lower its overhead—also stopped by to scope the waves. Everyone besides Loeb decided the waves might be better near Montauk’s famous lighthouse and formed a caravan over to the beach at its base, Gouzer fretting about his nearly empty gas tank. They grabbed their boards from the truck bed and mingled with some beach bum types in the parking lot.

“It’s good that you’re here,” Gouzer said to me as he walked with his board down to the beach, “So you can know what goes through my head all day while I’m at the office.” Finding lots to sell is not so different from surfing, where the goal is to find the right point at which one joins the wave. Nor is it so different from spearfishing. “It’s about efficiency, it’s about knowing your environment, but there’s more to it. We call it ‘being fishy,’ it’s where you swim like a fish so they don’t notice you, get up close to them—”

“Then you fuck ’em up!” said one of the beach bums, who’d been walking nearby. (That’s putting it mildly: later back at the house we’d watch some slow-motion spearfishing videos on a laptop. Tuna can rarely be taken down with a single bolt, and after the shot a spearfisher usually has to reel in the fish and stab it many times in the brain.)

At some point it was decided that it would not be best for me to join them in the water since I have no surfing experience. Instead I sat on the rocky beach with Pablo, a burly man who works for Lindemann and handles his boards, something of a caddy. Pablo and I both spent a lot of time on our phones, as it was hard to perceive who among the wet-suited dots far out where the waves were breaking, was our crew. Gouzer stayed out longer than anyone, and floated far down the beach, in the end just paddling as his friends dried off on the shore.

“Our business is in such an infancy that even a failure is a success,” Gouzer said as he drove back from the beach. He referred to the risk he took with his semi-controversial skateboarding video, though he also meant with his sale itself. The surfboards outnumbered the trucks passengers as they rested in the bed—his friends and brother had returned in a separate car to get ready for an evening reggae concert. The car slowed and Gouzer pulled over to the shoulder. He shut off the car then tried to start it again but the engine failed to turn over. He was completely out of gas.

Gouzer tried calling his brother, who said he’d come, but shortly after a car stopped on the road to the left. It was Pablo. “You need gas?” he asked. “I’ll get you five liters.”

Talk turned to the art market as we waited in the cab. Earlier he’d been evasive on the topic of people like Wade Guyton who, at the time of “If I Live,” implied Gouzer’s sale artificially inflated the market (“Do you know Guyton? I’d like to have a coffee with him sometime”), but, as often that day, the metaphors were irritatingly present. I asked if he ever worried that he was contributing to the kind of house of cards he described Simchowitz and other young art speculators as building, only at a higher level. What if the next Kippenberger doesn’t sell for $20 million? “You know, Wade Guyton,” I said, referencing the Instagram account, might be worried about “the whole thing running out of gas.”

Gouzer thought for a minute. “The only thing we can do,” he said, “is we’re gonna smell the wind or whatever. If something is gonna happen, it’s gonna happen. If the wave is gonna come, you might as well take it. And that’s the way I wanted to do it. Those prices would happen with us,” or without he meant, presumably, “that price is gonna happen. Our job is to make it happen as smooth as possible.

“I understand for artists it’s different. DiCaprio, his career was made overnight by Titanic, but other actors they do a bad movie and their career is ruined,” he said. “So I understand. I understand there’s a reality check for all artists but the art world needs to catch up.”

Klein, Calder, and Basquiat, for example, he said, people couldn’t believe those prices until they happened, then they did. “The good thing is we’re not playing with lives,” he said. “We’re not playing with the economies of other countries, we’re not playing with mortgage packages. At the end of the day we’re playing with art.” He paused. “But it is amazing, the effect you can have.”

Bliss Bucket, 2010, by Ed Ruscha was for sale at Gouzer’s benefit auction organized with Leonardo DiCaprio. CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014

Bliss Bucket, 2010, by Ed Ruscha was for sale at Gouzer’s benefit auction organized with Leonardo DiCaprio.

CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2014

Gouzer’s methodology comes with drawbacks: it’s not as though every Basquiat now sells for a record amount and if, as Nash speculated, the new buyers in places like Asia don’t necessarily understand the auction house machinery they’ll soon learn it. Then there’s the fact that guarantees cut into the bottom line, since an auction house has to either split its profits with a guarantor or buy a work itself. (There’s no telling what Christie’s, which unlike Sotheby’s is a private company owned by the billionaire Francois Pinault, spends on guarantees, or on other deals. Peter Brant recently told The New York Times that he paid no commission on the $58.4 million sale of his Jeff Koons balloon dog last year.)

Gorvy said Christie’s was happy with Gouzer’s sale, even if they won’t be doing it again. They may do some other one-off, he said, just not with Gouzer. And even if there were many guarantees in “If I Live,” Gorvy said many lots went so far beyond them that the house had a good night. The Kippenberger that sold for $18.6 million, he said, went for double its third-party guarantee. Plus there were many other lots without guarantees.

“Ultimately people see the success that he brings,” Gorvy said of Gouzer. “Everyone wants to be with a winner. If you’ve got a guy who has predicted the future for art as well and consistently as Loic—he’s like a Steve Cohen in the vein of art because, you know, everyone wanted to get into Steve Cohen’s fund when it opened because of all its returns. So I see him very much a Steve Cohen figure.”

Minus the insider trading, I said. “Exactly, exactly,” said Gorvy.

Back at the house Gouzer made sashimi out of some mahi mahi he’d shot the day before. “All everybody wants to talk about is art,” he said. He wanted to talk conservation.

When the guarantee came in for Yves Klein’s FC1 (1962), the one that would set the record at $36.5 million, the well-off seller apparently told Gouzer that it was for so much money that he didn’t know what to do with it. Gouzer suggested that one or two of those millions go to Oceana, a conservation nonprofit he discovered for that purpose, where he now sits on the board. A cynic would say that the partnership, well advertised in the lot’s catalogue listing, helped the price go up since people are looser with their charity dollars, but it’s hard to doubt Gouzer’s passion for the environment if you’ve ever spent time with him around the ocean.

He believes that portioning off parts of the world so that they cannot be fished, hunted, or otherwise developed is key to the protection of the Earth, one of the things he found he had in common with DiCaprio, whom he says he met through mutual friends. DiCaprio has an affinity for tigers, as does Gouzer for sharks. Both subscribe to the apex predator theory. “Apex predators are a sign of health,” Gouzer said. “By protecting the sharks, you protect the environment, you protect what’s under them.”

Of the $38.8 million raised by the DiCaprio auction, Gouzer said $3 million has gone to Oceana, $3 million to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which works with a variety of conservation efforts, and $3 million has gone to the World Wildlife Fund. The rest he’s not certain, but said that there’s a committee at Christie’s that was established to handle the dispensation of the rest of the funds.

Even if he says that’s where his real passion lies (“My office at Christie’s looks like I’m about to move out in five minutes”), Gouzer said a career change to full-time philanthropy is unlikely for the near future. “I want to continue raising money,” for his cause through auctions, he said. “I know how to raise money, how to convince people how to spend money, or give money. It’s pretty similar.”

He says he talks to his clients about the environment frequently. “I talk about it not only because it’s what I’m most interested in but because maybe I can use art as a Trojan Horse to get to know every billionaire in the world,” he said. “And once I do maybe I can do a mass conversion and say, ‘Okay, you’ve spent enough on art. Now it’s time to spend on conservation.'”

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