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Getting Their House in Order: How a ‘Reloaded’ Christie’s Built a Near-$500 M. Sale

After a macher’s departure, a CEO switch, and a slip in its dominance, Christie’s contemporary seeks a new equilibrium

The Christie’s facade at Rockefeller Center in New York City. COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

The Christie’s facade at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

In May 2015, during a high-profile auction at the peak of the contemporary art market’s stratospheric rise, the bidding on Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) at Christie’s New York salesroom had slowed to a stop. Collectors including the casino magnate Steve Wynn had called in with bids, but after the work, painted in 1955, passed its $140 million estimate, the field of potential buyers had dwindled down to just two, each on the phone with one of Christie’s head reps: specialist Loic Gouzer and, as chairman and global head of the postwar and contemporary department, Brett Gorvy. With the room holding its collective breath, Gorvy offered a bid of $159 million, only to be quickly one-upped by Gouzer. The higher bid of $159.5 million seemed to be the knockout blow—the gavel was up, ready to thwock on the wood.

Perched on the far edge of the rostrum, Gorvy, still on the phone, suddenly jerked up his hand to bid again. A gasp went through the salesroom before a rising silence signaled a milestone in the making: Gorvy, two decades into his career at Christie’s, had reached the art world’s pinnacle with a winning bid, on behalf of a client, for $160 million—anointing the Picasso, priced at $179.4 million with the buyer’s premium, the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

Then, a little more than one year later, Gorvy walked away from the game.

“To have that kind of adrenaline rush, to be in the auction room and everyone’s bidding up these works of art—it’s a fantastic experience,” Gorvy told me later, thinking back from a different vantage in March 2017. “You can have it on the outside, but it’s not the same.”

“But I did my 23 years,” he added. “I have the flagellation marks to prove it.”

Gorvy was sitting in his office on the fourth floor of the landmarked Madison Avenue building that now houses Lévy Gorvy, the gallery he started with fellow ex-Christie’s fixture Dominique Lévy after shocking the art world by leaving the auction house this past December. He seemed relaxed. Leading me upstairs past handlers installing the Seung-taek Lee exhibition set to open that night, he tossed out the fact that all but one of the pieces were already sold. He was sipping a Perrier and dressed with a discerning but easy air.

“The big difference between Brett then and now,” Sara Friedlander, head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary department in New York, told me, “is ‘Brett before’ was wearing a tie and ‘Brett now’ is wearing a sweater.”

Gorvy left at a time of unease for Christie’s. Signs of distress in the market had been on the rise and, a week following the shake-up at the top of the ranks, Christie’s owner François Pinault announced a CEO swap, with Patricia Barbizet, a veteran executive of Pinault’s holding company Groupe Artémis, out in favor of Guillaume Cerutti, formerly the president of Christie’s Europe, Middle East, Russia, and India operations. A month into the job, Cerutti made a statement acknowledging that sales in 2016 had contracted 22 percent from the previous year, to a total gross of $4.1 billion. (Sales at Sotheby’s, the firm’s chief competitor, were similarly down, a sign of the market’s general trajectory; in March 2017, UBS Group AG and Art Basel released a report that indicates global auction sales declined 26 percent, to $22.1 billion, in 2016.) In line with that trend, Christie’s announced plans to take decisive action: closing its South Kensington salesroom, a hub for auctions of decorative art and furniture since it opened in 1975; ceasing regular sales in Amsterdam; and laying off up to 250 staffers. A few months later, Christie’s announced that it was calling off the annual June auction of postwar and contemporary art at its flagship King Street salesroom.

“The market has changed over the last decade,” Cerutti said in an interview this past March. “Some fields, like the decorative arts, have seen a decline, and we have to take into account that tastes have changed. There’s a shift toward more modern and contemporary, and we have to reflect and adapt. I thought it was better to do that very quickly and focus on the future—very quickly.”

The rise of contemporary art as the art market’s primary bellwether—and the sky-high prices it has achieved—has been the story of the past two decades. In May 2002, Christie’s seized upon the advent of a new crop of collectors and held its first postwar and contemporary evening auction in five years in New York. The result was a $46.9 million haul that bested Sotheby’s contemporary sale by $5 million. By 2006, a surging market aided Christie’s era-defining dominance, with sales that autumn nearly doubling those of Sotheby’s, and significant successes in years to come. In the spring of 2007, Christie’s notched $384 million—the highest-grossing auction in history at the time—compared to Sotheby’s $315.9 million. During that time, Christie’s is understood to have been well-capitalized, and the contemporary department was helmed by a hard-charging duo: Gorvy and his co-department head Amy Cappellazzo.

The trend continued through downtimes during the recession and then again on the upswing: by the market’s peak, in May 2015—even after Cappellazzo’s departure to start an art advisory firm—Christie’s pulled in $1.7 billion in five days of sales, while Sotheby’s managed $890 million.

But then Sotheby’s started catching up. Since that time, Christie’s has come up against increased competition from its rival—for whom Cappellazzo now works—which came close to matching Christie’s in the all-important evening sale face-off last November. Sotheby’s was off by just $410,000, a scant number in a billion-dollar auction week. And a robust day sale soon after managed to give Sotheby’s the overall edge. During the London auctions in March, the Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale topped the one at Christie’s by $26 million, a figure all the more formidable for a sale with two fewer lots.

All the roiling activity set up a showdown for this year’s New York contemporary sales in May, arguably the most important live auction bazaar of the year. In one corner: a resurgent operation at Sotheby’s; in the other: a rebooted Christie’s team made up of relatively young auction-world personalities angling to capture big lots during a time when many potential consignors have clammed up in a down market—and just months after their imposing leader’s departure.

“One of my colleagues at Christie’s has been saying, ‘You don’t want the May sales to be strong—you want to look good!’ ” Gorvy told me. “But it’s quite the opposite. You build your legacy, [and] the last thing you want is to leave and find that everything falls apart.”

Seung-taek Lee's Untitled (2016) was recently on view in an exhibition at Lévy Gorvy. COURTESY LÉVY GORVY

Seung-taek Lee’s Untitled (2016) was recently on view in an exhibition at Lévy Gorvy.

COURTESY LÉVY GORVY

The annual June sales in London tend to be indicators of the market’s status after the annual Art Basel fair in Switzerland, before the doldrums of late summer, and in June 2016 the signs were none too promising. Collectors seemed hesitant to put works on the auction block in an uncertain market. Then, over the summer, word began to spread of a major estate that was being shopped around during what were exceedingly trying times—catnip for consignment-deprived specialists. It was the collection of Steven and Anne Ames—assembled with the bounties of high-finance and lineage in the Annenberg family—and within it was a prime pair of abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter, both of which could be $20 million lots.

After appeals from both houses, the collection went to Sotheby’s. It was, according to sources, the first big estate Christie’s had lost in years, apart from that of the former Sotheby’s chairman, Alfred Taubman. But by putting up a $100 million guarantee—a show of muscle-flexing that came with considerable risk—Sotheby’s gained an edge in a weak sales season.

“This outstanding collection is exactly what the market is currently looking for,” Grégoire Billault, head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, told me at the time, “and as such we are very comfortable with the level of our guarantee.” The guarantee paid off a few months later, when “The Triumph of Painting: The Steven & Anne Ames Collection” brought in $131.3 million.

Given the state of the market during the summer of 2016, Sotheby’s beating Christie’s to such a collection marked a shift of balance. The warring houses had for years intensified their contentious duopoly—with another auction house, Phillips, traditionally a distant third-place finisher—and both spent increasing sums to beat their respective archrival on consignments. Eventually, the playground bullying pushed the realm of prices past what buyers were willing to pay. “From the outside, the auction houses were still being very aggressive with clients, and there were certain prices that were not real,” said Pilar Ordovas, a dealer with galleries in London and New York who worked at Christie’s from 1996 until 2009, most of that time as international director and deputy chairman in contemporary. “They were losing money and creating prices that were not reflective of reality.”

The downturn had started to have visible effects just months after Gorvy’s bidder paid the $179.4 million for Picasso’s Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), when Christie’s staged a themed auction under Gouzer’s direction in New York in November 2015. The second sale, titled “The Artist’s Muse,” couldn’t match the dazzle of the previous masterpiece-loaded event, itself also a themed sale with the title “Looking Forward to the Past.” The November auction barely squeaked past its low estimate, collecting $491.4 million, with nearly a third of the lots failing to find buyers. The casualties included Willem de Kooning’s Woman (circa 1952–53)—a work whose pre-promised guarantee forced Christie’s to buy the painting valued between $14 million and $18 million—and Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989–91).

“The ability to bring to market top-value pieces—that type of buying wasn’t happening as much anymore,” Gorvy said. “We came out of the ‘Muse’ sale understanding that, while it was feasible with the May sale, by the time we got to the end of the year, it was difficult getting material. It was difficult getting it to the right price, and the buying pool was less. We needed time for it to grow back.”

One of the paintings in “The Artist’s Muse” sale was Roy Lichtenstein’s Nurse (1964), which had been consigned by Boston collector Barbara Lee, with a low estimate of $80 million. She had purchased the work over the phone at a Sotheby’s sale in May 1995 during a down period for contemporary art, at a price of $1.7 million. (The seller then was Peter Brant, chairman of the parent company of ARTnews.) Before the sale, Christie’s announced that Nurse had been guaranteed by a third-party backer, contrary to what was printed in the catalogue.

When Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen started the bidding, not a single hand in the room went up. There was a sole bidder on the phone with Laura Paulson, chairman and international director of the postwar and contemporary department for the Americas. After a few minutes of waiting in vain for a second bidder, the work went to that unknown voice on the phone for $95.4 million, well over the high estimate, setting a worldwide auction record for Lichtenstein. In the decades between its appearances at auction, the value of Nurse had increased by more than 5,500 percent.

But who actually bought it? After the sale, Gorvy posted to Instagram a photo of himself and collector Kemal Has Cingillioglu, who consigned Andy Warhol’s Four Marilyns (1962), the lot that led the postwar and contemporary evening sale the night after “The Artist’s Muse.”

“Congratulations to the new buyer of Roy Lichtenstein’s Nurse,” Gorvy wrote on Instagram, on which he has more than 68,000 followers. “I look forward to visiting her often.”

Seeing the post, some observers assumed Cingillioglu was the buyer, but Gorvy firmly denied that claim in a follow-up Instagram post. According to multiple sources—including former Christie’s employees and dealers who work closely with the auction house—the buyer on the other end of the phone was, in fact, Christie’s owner François Pinault, who had placed an irrevocable bid on the lot as a third-party guarantor, mitigating the risk of the in-house guarantee. And thus, when the lot failed to find a buyer, Pinault purchased the work in a sequence of events that caused those with knowledge of the transaction to surmise that it was an effort to help Christie’s save face on a high-profile lot for which no other bidders had stepped up.

“They got stuck with a $95 million painting on the books,” said a source familiar with the transaction. “They thought they would find a third party later.”

When I asked whether Pinault had purchased Nurse, Gorvy said, “Not that I’m aware of.” A Christie’s spokeswoman, asked the same, said, “Per policy, Christie’s does not comment on buyers or financial arrangements.” Attempts to solicit comment from Pinault through other means proved unsuccessful.

After the sales in November 2015, Christie’s, along with the other houses, tried to navigate a rocky market. Then deputy chairman Loic Gouzer—who had become known for putting together the curated sales—trolled market speculators in May 2016 with “Bound to Fail,” a disappointment-themed auction. After the sale, Gouzer told me he had wanted to comment on the state of the market by purposefully picking work by artists who don’t sell well at auction. “We had artists who weren’t market darlings,” he said. “When something was too easy, or a definite winner, we said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”

The sale proved a surprise success, with all but one of 39 lots sold—and only eleven guaranteed by a third party—for a net total of $78.1 million, well over a low estimate of $59.4 million. But it was not enough to stave off a shake-up in the months to come. Marc Porter, Christie’s chairman of the Americas, resigned and announced he would take a job at Sotheby’s. Robert Manley, a deputy chairman in the postwar department, left for Phillips, and Jonathan Laib, a specialist, left for David Zwirner gallery. In November, Sara Friedlander, a young and well-liked former head of the evening sale known for winning performances as an auctioneer at charity galas, was named head of the department. Christie’s did make a major hire, in June 2016, poaching Alex Rotter from Sotheby’s and making him chairman of the department—but, as per the noncompetition agreements that both houses have their employees sign, he could not start until March of this year.

The competing houses also saw turnover. Uncertainty at Sotheby’s under the taboo-busting outsider stewardship of president and CEO Tad Smith led to voluntary layoffs and high-profile departures. Phillips—making a play for more prominence—went on a hiring spree.

“Some of the old ties of loyalty to management teams have been broken in many respects, and that has resulted in this huge turnover in staff,” said Ed Dolman, chairman and CEO of Phillips and, before a three-year stint at Qatar Museums Authority, formerly CEO, and then chairman, at Christie’s during a 27-year tenure. “Not long ago, it was rare for someone to leave one of the houses and go to the other, and now it’s become de rigueur. Everybody’s moving around. It’s quite difficult for me to remember where an old colleague of mine is now working, at Sotheby’s or Christie’s.”

All the while, Gorvy, the main face of Christie’s postwar and contemporary department and its amiable ambassador, had been mulling a move. For the previous five years, he had maintained a standing offer from Dominique Lévy to join her gallery as a partner. The deal-making began when she first went off on her own after splitting with her former partner, Robert Mnuchin. Gorvy had known Lévy for years: she worked as the head of private sales at Christie’s from 1999 to 2003, and, from 2010 to 2011, Gorvy’s wife, Amy Gold, worked as a senior director at L & M Arts, Lévy’s gallery with Mnuchin.

In the summer of 2016, Gorvy had a five-year contract up for renegotiation, but he had Christie’s table it until after the fall sales. During a visit with Lévy in Italy, they made a handshake deal. “It was about building something together,” Gorvy told me later, recalling the episode from his new position on the outside. “I didn’t want to leave at a time when the market was in a downward spin.”

After the November sales, on Thanksgiving Day, Gorvy told Christie’s he was leaving. The industry went apoplectic.

“The biggest issue is, when you have someone who has been there for a long time,” said Ordovas, who worked with Gorvy for more than a decade at Christie’s, “you’re losing a lot of history and a lot of connections.”

Brett Gorvy, former chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, exited last year to form Lévy Gorvy gallery with Swiss art dealer Dominique Lévy.

Brett Gorvy, former chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s, exited last year to form Lévy Gorvy gallery with Swiss art dealer Dominique Lévy.

After a year of down sales, Patricia Barbizet, who had served as the first-ever female CEO of Christie’s since her appointment in 2014, was out. She selected her own successor and was named vice chair of Christie’s board—and she continues to work for Pinault as CEO of Artémis—but in interviews after her departure was announced in December 2016, former and current Christie’s employees characterized her to me as removed and hard to communicate with. (Unlike the publicly held Sotheby’s, which must divulge information to shareholders, Christie’s is privately held and thus has no such obligation—making for a more secretive culture in which sources often request anonymity for fear of retribution.)

Other sources said her slow nature and indecisive manner lost business for the company, and that clients would simply move on if she took too long to figure out what to do. Even Gorvy acknowledged that those who worked directly with Barbizet would comment on the lack of decision making and go their own way.

To many on the outside, however, the speed of the revolving door suggested a lack of focus at the house. “Quite unusual, I would say,” was Dolman’s response to the fact that three CEOs have now succeeded him since he left Christie’s in 2011.

But Cerutti, Barbizet’s replacement, strikes most of the sources I spoke with as right for the job. He’s a people person, by all accounts. Of the nearly dozen current and former Christie’s staffers I talked to, almost all of them described him as “hands-on.” Many mentioned that he would fly from Christie’s global headquarters in London to New York at the drop of a hat to help secure a deal.

“He wants to be the front line, going back to the marching orders,” Rotter said of his new boss. “He’s not the colonel who will sit in his tent while he lets his other people die—he’ll be on the front line.”

An auction-house CEO is not typically involved in the workaday aspects of cherry picking artworks from collections and shoehorning them into other collections. During her reign, Barbizet always went through Gorvy and Pylkkänen, and Steven P. Murphy, her predecessor, was more focused on expanding into Asian markets than on inserting himself on the granular level.

Then there are others like Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith, who, upon being appointed, had no background in the art world and, sources say, does not involve himself directly in consignments or with specialists much at all.

For Cerutti, however, it would seem to be part of the job. Some of the consignments in the May 2017 sale were secured because Cerutti parachuted in to save the day in pitch meetings, impressing potential consignors with the presence of the boss in the room.

“I really like it,” Cerutti told me on the phone from his office in London. “This is about art and clients. My conception of my role is: I have to dedicate part of my time, most of my time, working with the core of our team and, of course, deal with clients myself.”

When he assumed his new position at the beginning of this year, he hit the ground running. A few weeks into the job, he announced the cutbacks, including the layoffs and the cancellation of sales, as well as the closing of Christie’s South Kensington salesroom. The layoffs would eliminate 12 percent of the global Christie’s workforce—they constitute the most widespread cutbacks for Christie’s since the art market collapsed in 2009, in the wake of a general financial meltdown.

 A photo of Loic Gouzer spearfishing from his Instagram account. VIA INSTAGRAM

A photo of Loic Gouzer spearfishing from his Instagram account.

VIA INSTAGRAM

Among the primary challenges for any auction house of late has been securing lots, and, as 2017 began, it was time for Christie’s to play tug-of-war with Sotheby’s and Phillips over consignments for the May sales. Members of Christie’s contemporary department in New York, in tandem with their colleagues in London, work together to get these consignments from collectors with varying levels of desire to sell. Laura Paulson, the team’s ranking member, has brought in several key estates over the years, including those of Victor and Sally Ganz in 1997, novelist Michael Crichton in 2010, and David Pincus in 2012. Barrett White and Andrew Massad work on new clients, and Koji Inoue focuses on getting Japanese collectors to sell and buy work in New York. Sara Friedlander, as head of the contemporary evening sale in New York, also ropes in collectors and gets them to agree to offer up works to be sold in the salesroom.

Then there is Loic Gouzer, who joined in 2011 and has become known for aggressively going after work even if a collector has no intention to sell. He has also been known to be notoriously hard to find. Gouzer’s Instagram bio reads “Christie’s Auction House (sometimes),” and from the looks of pictures in his feed, he has always appeared as likely to be in Rwanda as in Rockefeller Center.

“He turns up to work when he wants to work,” Gorvy told me, “and spends half his life basically surfing.”

For six months at the end of 2016, Gouzer had been sidelined by a knee injury incurred while playing soccer. Related surgeries and a heavily medicated recuperation period caused him to miss the fall 2016 sales in New York—and Gorvy’s departure. “When Brett announced he was leaving,” Gouzer told me, “I was high as a kite on 30 mg of oxycodone. You could tell me the world had come to an end, you could shoot a bullet in my other knee, and I would not feel it.”

Gouzer and I spoke in one of Christie’s skyboxes above the main salesroom in New York; he was back in his main station after several months away. He had just had surgery related to another injury, this one to his upper arm as a result of an old spearfishing mishap. “The gods of Sotheby’s are trying to keep me in the hospital,” Gouzer said, shrugging with his one working shoulder. He was wearing a sling, but still fidgeted with his e-cigarette, occasionally puffing as he spoke about his frustration with being gone for so long.

He was not the only one frustrated. Many members of the postwar team described Gouzer’s absence to me as a distraction, especially since, when not laid up with an injury, he tends to be off heli-skiing, sailing, or Instagramming his close friend Leonardo DiCaprio’s Oscar statuette.

“I was sidelined for a while, and I was hearing, ‘Yeah, Loic’s not going to be able to put sales together without daddy,’ ” Gouzer said—“daddy” being Gorvy. “That’s the type of thing that motivates me. I had time to think when I was on oxycodone, and it gave me lots of inspiration.”

Gouzer’s hardened competitive streak is no secret. In January, he posted on Instagram this blunt message to his followers, scribbled in Sharpie on a sheet of yellow paper:

You have a masterpiece?
We have cash $$!
CALL US (TOLL FREE)
212 636 2248

The caption read: “Christie’s reloaded May 2017 first come first served.”

Many auction specialists use Instagram to promote works that are coming up for sale, but Gouzer’s approach is quite different—and a marked break from activities suited to rules of old auction-house decorum. He has 15,000 followers, and it’s safe to presume that when he posts something, a healthy portion of the world’s collectors who buy and sell at auction will see it.

While fishing for consignments in the run-up to his “Bound to Fail” sale, Gouzer posted a picture of Martin Kippenberger’s Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself (1992) and said, “Would kill 🔫🔫 to have in #boundtofail auction and ready to offer significant 💰💰💰 for it any ideas?” In the comments section, art adviser Eleanor Cayre responded by promising that if the work were found, she would guarantee it. This kind of direct contact, with the quest for consignments played out in the open, is a drastic departure from the past sale-building protocol of hush-hush conversations and backroom handshake deals.

A frequent presence in the orbit of Loic Gouzer is Alex Rotter, who has known him since they were interns together at Sotheby’s; as of late April 2017, both are chairmen of the postwar and contemporary department. “For 16 years, I’ve walked into these galleries as the different alliance, so it was very strange to walk in here and be part of the team,” Rotter told me at Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters in March, days after starting the job.

The Austrian, still looking youthful in his early forties, had on a crisp three-piece suit and spoke in a Yankee-inflected Teutonic twang. “Everyone in this department, we have something to prove, and we’re excited about it,” he said. “We’re going to go like a front—as individuals, in one line, we march.” (“Without being too military about it,” he noted—“with an Austrian accent, that’s always a little tricky.”)

Rotter is especially close with Gouzer. When I mentioned his old friend, Rotter lit up and then futzed two-handedly at the inseams of his tailored suit jacket. He had two iPhones, one inside each of his pockets. He found the right phone and showed me a picture: a snapshot of the two old mates when Rotter was 23 and Gouzer, 19, with Rotter putting Gouzer into a playful headlock.

When Gouzer and I spoke a week later, he offered to show me the same picture, without prompting. “We’re bros, basically,” Gouzer said, before recalling how they met at Sotheby’s in London. “My internship consisted of cutting and pasting catalogues on cardboard files. That was supposed to be my job, but most of the time, I would just sniff the glue.”

When Rotter left England for New York, the Swiss-born Gouzer followed, only to get pushed out after clashing with Sotheby’s main macher, Tobias Meyer. Now, with years between, they have reunited. “I don’t know if you can find two people more different than us,” Gouzer said. “I can’t sit still for two minutes in my office—I’m not a master of focus—but he has a lot of structure. I use 95 percent gut and 5 percent brain. He uses more of his brain.”

Rotter left Sotheby’s during a contentious time. In early 2016, the decision to bring in Amy Cappellazzo through the purchase of her advisory firm Art Agency, Partners, caused many staffers to leave that rival house. To detractors, the notion of giving the keys to Sotheby’s to an art advisory firm was nothing less than a complete disavowal of sacred auction-house rules.

Rotter, a rainmaker in the contemporary department, took a deal to defect that had been on offer for years. “I was not happy with the direction that the company was going,” Rotter said. “It came to a point where nothing was what I wanted it to be.”

He was not the only one. At the time, Sotheby’s was experiencing a historic run of departures, essentially gutting the auction house of its storied history.

Roy Lichtenstein's Red and White Brushstrokes (1965) will be on auction May 17, 2017, at Christie’s. COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Roy Lichtenstein’s Red and White Brushstrokes (1965) will be on auction May 17, 2017, at Christie’s.

COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Though it might have displeased auction-world traditionalists, the current Sotheby’s model has shown signs of an upturn since the spate of defections in early 2016. During the fourth quarter of 2016, Sotheby’s posted a profit of $65.5 million, beating expectations.

Part of the turnaround owes to what can be characterized as a reboot of the concept of an auction house. In recent months, Sotheby’s has been turning itself into a microcosm of the art market at large, a one-stop-shop for all possible picture-buying needs guided by technocratic leanings at odds with the formerly genteel, mannered tenor of the auction circuit.

After confounding prognosticators by paying $50 million, with the addition of $35 million more if certain targets are met, for Art Agency, Partners, Sotheby’s made a series of notable hires and looked to grow its business with offerings such as an analytics index. A potential problem with expansion, though, is the price tag.

“Sotheby’s is throwing money at the problem in an attempt to improve their auction quality and market share,” said Todd Levin, director of the Levin Art Group. “Sotheby’s wants to become the equivalent of a Walmart in the art market. Christie’s wants to primarily focus on being a bespoke auction house.”

Levin suggested that, given the amount Sotheby’s has been paying for guarantees—$100 million for the Ames estate, for instance—and all its acquisitions, Sotheby’s may not be as successful as it seems. Money delegated for guarantees can entertain considerable risk, since, if a guaranteed work fails to sell, the house has to absorb the cost and try to sell it privately.

Friedlander, head of the contemporary department at Christie’s, is skeptical of the Sotheby’s one-stop-shop approach, which now includes a position under the Art Agency, Partners umbrella for former Robert Rauschenberg Foundation CEO Christy MacLear as an expert on artist estates and foundations. “Do we talk to artists’ estates and foundations and experts and conservators? Yes,” Friedlander said. “But we don’t do it in-house, because the truth of the matter is, our clients like to have a very neutral, unbiased approach to things. We’re able to get all those different viewpoints—we’re just not hiring them to work here.”

Between the May 2017 sales and the ones in November, a clearer picture should emerge of a post-Gorvy contemporary department at Christie’s. While some may see a certain amount of disarray, the newly assembled Christie’s team at Rockefeller Center—Friedlander, Rotter, Paulson, Gouzer, Inoue, White, Massad, Martha Baer, and the specialists—has been earning high marks for working together to build sales under trying circumstances. “There has been big turnover,” said David Nash, a powerhouse at Sotheby’s for decades who still attends sales in his capacity as owner of the Mitchell-Innes & Nash gallery in New York, “but the power and reputation of [an] auction house is more important than the individual expert or department over the long term. Christie’s lost Brett Gorvy but still has Alex Rotter, Loic Gouzer, and Laura Paulson, all very successful and experienced experts, to gather works for the next sales.”

Gorvy’s former minions, who once clashed with colleagues to earn his affection, are confident they will thrive without their former leader.

“We were lucky to have Brett as long as we did,” Inoue told me. “He was a great coach and mentor to all of us—but that’s exactly it, he taught us a lot. There are new ways to approach things, too. It’s a younger generation.”

Asked later for elaboration, Inoue fixed on the makeup of the team and how the lineup works together. “To me, this group feels like a new generation,” he said. “Although few of us are actually new, it is a fresh configuration. We all have different strengths, which makes for an efficient team dynamic. Working together, we operate as a unit.”

Christie’s London sales this past March were a somewhat unexpected hit, especially its postwar and contemporary evening sale, with a $117.8 million total nearly eclipsing the high estimate and rising 37 percent above the take from a year ago. Potential clients who had been holding back suddenly seemed to think it might be a good time to sell—good news for the May auctions. The economy remained strong despite political uncertainty. And, perhaps most important by certain art-world measures, the market was ripe for an upswing. As many advisers and auction specialists noted, the market tends to work in cycles, with down markets lasting a year and a half to two years—meaning better fortune should come around the time of the May sales. Speaking with me in her office in March, holding up a ringing phone—one of her multiple phones—Friedlander told me, “Literally, right now, as I’m sitting here with you, I’m closing.”

January had already seen a couple major consignments for Christie’s May evening sale: Andy Warhol’s Big Campbell’s Soup Can with Can Opener (Vegetable), from 1962, was consigned by the Cingillioglu Family Collection and estimated to go for between $25 million and $35 million, and Roy Lichtenstein’s gigantic Red and White Brushstroke (1965), with an estimate of $25 million to $35 million.

But there were bigger lots to come for what would become a sale whose high estimate approached half a billion dollars. In February, after careful prodding on the part of a team initially led by Gorvy and Gouzer, Christie’s secured Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for George Dyer (1963), beating out competition from Sotheby’s. The consignor, Francis Lombrail, is a Frenchman who just bought a theater and thought the Bacon—which he bought 25 years ago at a Paris art fair and once belonged to the author Roald Dahl—could help pay off the purchase. It is estimated to sell for $50 million to $70 million.

“Of the small triptychs, it’s always been known as the best,” Gouzer said. “We all have our own imaginary museum in the brain when you start being an auction specialist, and I’ve known about the painting as long as I’ve done this job. I learned later who the guy was, and over time I got to know him. I built a relationship with him—we speak the same language, you know?”

It was also a lot for which Cerutti airdropped in to join the meetings. Friedlander called Cerutti “a CEO who really understands what I call ‘The Specialist Struggle.’ ” About the Bacon get, she said, “It’s a conversation that started with Loic and Brett, and then Brett left.” Luckily, she said, “our CEO came in and had a relationship with the client.”

When Gouzer triumphantly posted to Instagram an image of the work’s abstracted heads installed at Christie’s New York headquarters, Dan Loeb, a forceful Sotheby’s shareholder who wields considerable influence on its board, took once again to the comments section. “Aka Three Faces of [Loic] After a Hard Night Out With Leo,” Loeb wrote, landing a gibe about Gouzer’s dalliances with DiCaprio.

Gouzer responded, turning his aim on Sotheby’s peers who had been beaten: “Each panel is the face of Amy / Adam / and Alan [sic] when they woke up to the news they lost the painting,” he wrote, referring to Sotheby’s two fine-art division heads and its chief operating officer.

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for George Dyer (1963), will be on auction May 17, 2017, at Christie’s. COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for George Dyer (1963), will be on auction May 17, 2017, at Christie’s.

COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

The eight-figure consignments kept on coming. Gouzer persuaded French dealer Patrick Seguin to part with Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14), 2011, which was hanging in his living room in Paris before garnering an estimate to sell for $16 million. Christie’s also secured the estate of Emily and Jerry Spiegel, a collection the house guaranteed for $100 million. The May sale will include 26 works from that collection, including two estimated at $20 million: Sigmar Polke’s Frau mit Butterbrot (1964) and Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1988), an iconic work that screams in black-on-white text “PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE.” In mid-April, Christie’s announced that it would also offer Rudolf Stingel’s large photorealist self-portrait Untitled (After Sam), 2006, that is the only one of four editions not already snapped up by an institution. A dealer at a gallery that has staged Stingel shows told me the rarity of the work could push its price well above $30 million.

But it was a work locked up in late February that could be the evening’s biggest hit. It had never before been offered to the market—and had gone mostly unseen for decades in a collection in Osaka, Japan.

Christie’s had been after it for years, and now, even without Brett Gorvy, they had a team that could pull off a complicated drop-in mission and extract the work: Cy Twombly’s Leda and the Swan (1962), a sister painting to one in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. To make a play for it, Gouzer, Inoue, and Rotter suited up and hopped flights to the other side of the world.

“There’s a collector in Japan, and Koji got the call,” Loic said.

“We’ve been working on that painting for a number of years,” Inoue said.

Rotter joined when brand-new to the job, on his first day after his garden leave. “I was flying, not employed,” he said, “but touched down employed.”
“We did a ninja mission in Japan to get the painting,” Gouzer said.

After a trip to the Osaka Aquarium Kaiyukan—Gouzer, like his pal DiCaprio, is passionate about marine conservation—the squad settled in for a four-hour dinner with the potential consignor (whose name was tactfully withheld from me) to once again go over the entreaty for their business in detail. The menu featured several local delicacies, including the elusive and potentially poisonous puffer fish, fugu.

The specialists had navigated intricate Japanese ceremonies before and, as they got closer to the end of an endurance test, moved into a carefully calibrated dance to convince the collector that Christie’s would be the house that handled the work best.

“I’m not the biggest master of zen,” Gouzer said. “If you put me in a meeting in four hours, I like to say, ‘Take the check, gimme the painting!’ According to Koji, during those four hours I broke 19 rules of Japanese etiquette in one go.”

By the time they left Japan, the Christie’s trio had secured the Twombly to go to auction on May 17, with a high estimate of $55 million.

“We knew this was a painting we had to have, especially as a young, new department,” Gouzer told me in the Christie’s skybox. Leda and the Swan had already arrived in town, and was behind lock and key in a private viewing room. He led me downstairs, moving with his busted shoulder through the corridors, and then opened a door. There it was, just installed, on display outside Japan for the first time in decades.

Gouzer threw his custom-tailored jacket on a chair, handed his phone to a colleague, and asked her to take a picture for his Instagram. She suggested that he take off his sling, but Gouzer shook his head. He already had a caption in mind, and he needed to look beat-up.

“I want it to say, ‘A Twombly worth fighting for,’ ” he said.

Update, 5:35 p.m.: Details about Patricia Barbizet’s continuing relationship with Christie’s after her departure as CEO have been clarified.

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962, will be on auction May 17, 2017, at Christie’s. COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

Cy Twombly, Leda and the Swan, 1962, will be on auction May 17, 2017, at Christie’s.

COURTESY CHRISTIE’S

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 106 under the title “Christie’s Reloads.”

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