Word leaked out this morning that Brett Gorvy, chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s—who ushered in an era of $179-million paintings, blockbuster curated sales, and clear dominance over Sotheby’s in contemporary art—is leaving the company after 23 years. But he has not defected for a rival house, as often happens in the hyper-competitive auction landscape. He is instead joining the dealer Dominique Lévy and creating a new gallery, Lévy Gorvy, that will operate spaces out of New York and London while also operating as a bespoke advisory firm, working closely with artist estates and foundations.
“To those who know me well, you will be fully aware of my profound love for Christie’s and the deep respect and pride that I have for the international team and the shared passion that we have for the extraordinary art that we are fortunate to work with,” Gorvy said in a statement. “You can only therefore imagine how difficult and considered the decision has been to take this next step after 23 years of incredible support and teamwork from every part of Christie’s.”
As the head of the contemporary department, Gorvy established his house’s edge over its arch rival Sotheby’s in that market, delivering evening sales and curated sales that became the highest grossing auctions of all time. When Elaine Wynn called in to bid on Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud (1969) in November 2013, Gorvy was the specialist on the other end of the phone, coaxing her to always go one higher until she got it for $142.4 million. When a phone bidder went up to $160 million on Picasso’s 1955 The Women of Algiers (Version ‘O’) in May 2015—making it, with the buyer’s premium, the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction—they were on the phone with Gorvy. Even in a tougher market, Gorvy was one of the few specialists who was able to convince collectors that now was the time to consign. He got Adam Lindemann to sell the massive Basquiat hanging in his living room, and it set a new record for the artist.
“Brett has amazing affinity for the art and his attention to detail is second to none; he is deeply respected,” said Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkanen in a statement.
Gorvy joined Christie’s in 1994, working out of its London office, and was transferred to New York in 2000. There, he ran the postwar and contemporary department with Amy Cappellazzo, and took full rein after she left to start an advisory firm in 2011. For the past year, Cappellazzo has been acting as Gorvy’s competitor after Art Agency, Partners was bought by Sotheby’s, and she was installed as the co-head of the fine art department there.
“Brett was a colleague and partner for much longer than he was a competitor and he is a formidable talent,” Cappellazzo said in an email to ARTnews. “I know he and Dominique will be immensely successful in their new venture.”
So, why leave? Sources indicated that he wasn’t pushed out, even if he was never the favorite son of Christie’s owner, Francois Pinault (the billionaire tends to be closest with French speakers). And while there has been a mini-exodus of Christie’s staffers since sales began to drop in earnest last May, a departure of someone this valuable (and, by most accounts, beloved) is probably not related to internal struggles at Rockefeller Center.
Rather, some said he was exhausted with the unending travel that comes with running a contemporary department at one of the world’s biggest auction houses, and saw an opportunity to work with Lévy, who was the head of private sales at Christie’s before leaving to start a private advisory firm in 2003, and then founding the gallery L&M Arts with fellow dealer Robert Mnuchin. (Gorvy’s wife, Amy Gold, was a senior director for L&M, and left to start her own advisory firm in 2011.)
Lévy Gorvy is primed to be a true powerhouse of the Upper East Side, especially now that it has taken over all three floors of the building at 909 Madison Avenue it once shared with Galerie Perrotin, which is moving to the Lower East Side. The inaugural show will be of work by Willem de Kooning and the Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki, and it marks the first time the two will be shown together (a source told me Gorvy has been working on getting loans for the show for some time).
Pace Gallery’s president, Marc Glimcher, called the new duo “formidable,” telling ARTnews that it’s “an exciting partnership that should make a powerful new gallery even stronger.”
There will also be a new focus on Asia, with a press release from the new partners saying that “the region is one of the areas that Brett so successfully developed while at Christie’s as one of the largest growth areas for the 20th century art market.”
And while Lévy has for some time worked in an advisory-based capacity with some collectors, that component will now be more formalized, and will “work very closely with artists’ families, foundations and estates, and estate attorneys to protect and advance the legacy of significant … artists internationally, engineering the embrace of new generations of curators, collectors, and audiences.”
Gorvy’s move away from the auction world comes at a time when sales figures are down from 2015’s peak by about half, and sources all admit that the era of $179-million pictures selling on the auction block is over. And gone are the days when Christie’s can confidently stomp over Sotheby’s on the contemporary warfront—this November, the two houses reaped near-identical totals. Sotheby’s has been countering its rival by emphasizing moneymakers like online auctions and selling exhibitions, and by acquiring an entire art advisory service to facilitate private sales and other transactions outside public bidding wars. Christie’s is also said to be focusing on its private sales division—perhaps tellingly, this fall was the first season in years to not feature a curated evening sale, a tactic that has been key to Christie’s success in contemporary. (The Women of Algiers (Version ‘O’) sold at a curated sale, Looking Forward to the Past.)
The transition within Gorvy’s department has already begun. Last month, Sara Friedlander was named head of the department, and Alex Rotter—who defected from Sotheby’s in February—will serve as the chairman of postwar and contemporary upon joining the team in March 2017 when his non-compete period ends. Loic Gouzer, the deputy chairman, has been out on leave after knee surgery but is expected to return by early next year.
“He is so loved and has been such an important player in this industry, and a real mentor, a real leader and a real specialist,” Friedlander told ARTnews on a phone call. “We’re all very supportive for him. It’s all love. It’s a loss but it’s a great thing for him.”
She also mentioned that, in the wake of his departure, a new crop of Christie’s staffers that he trained could step up.
“It feels like the beginning of something,” Friedlander said. “He’s raised a generation of specialists.”
Gorvy didn’t respond to an email. But from the looks of his Instagram—which he uses to post effusive commentary on works in upcoming sales, or just works that he likes, sharing them with his 52,700 followers—he is currently in Paris.
“I woke up this morning in an unfamiliar hotel room in Paris, jet-lagged at 4 a.m. with this song whirling around my brain,” he wrote on a post from yesterday after jotting down some lyrics from David Bowie’s “Wild Is the Wind.” The picture is of Basquiat’s Head of a Madmen, 1982. (Curiously, Gouzer—who was recruited to come to Christie’s after Gorvy took three trains to meet him for lunch while his was skiing in Verbier, Switzerland—posted the exact same image a few hours later, with no reference to Gorvy in the caption.)
The last post, which Gorvy put up around 9:30 a.m. Paris time, is of a Cy Twombly he found at the artist’s retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. Even though it doesn’t reference the news, it’s still attracted comments from well-wishers, one of whom said she was “happy, excited and relieved” for Gorvy and his family.