Bright, natural light illuminated the room at one of the world’s mighty auction houses. We barely noticed the rare appearance of sunshine over London though, because our gaze was captured by the great art on display. Gazing back at us, it seemed, was Amedeo Modigliani’s Madame Hanka Zborowska, hanging centre-wall in front of us. This typical, mature Modigliani was in this season’s set of sales and a few days later fetched $12,115,220; in the Impressionist and Modern Art evening auction.
Christie’s 250th anniversary is being celebrated with special fairs. One of them, Defining British Art at Christie’s, spans four centuries, right up to contemporary icons Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
We spoke to Christie’s Global President, Jussi Pylkkänen; David Linley, Chairman of Christie’s Europe, Middle East, Russia and India; and Orlando Rock, Chairman of Christie’s UK.
As if the glories of the sale items were not enough, Christie’s has put on a special loan exhibition, which was formally opened by Linley on June 17th. His enthusiasm for the way Christie’s presents magnificent art was clear as he extolled the design of the entrance to the exhibition to us. “It’s exciting that the door to the exhibition changes from opaque to clear. Christie’s has the ability to create informed spaces,” he told us.
Out of the items in the various sales, Linley’s personal favourites are works by Constable, Auerbach, and Freud. He says that you don’t have to be a connoisseur to enjoy what Christie’s has to offer, as “young collectors can dip into the free exhibitions at South Kensington, talk to experts and have a free coffee.” He advocates studying the online sales for familiarisation and cites a Vampire Killing Kit, a watch and a bottle of wine as examples of the variety on sale.
Orlando Rock told us that over the 250 years since founder James Christie started selling to his English-based market, the biggest change is that buyers are now of thoroughly international origin. So how does Christie’s adapt to new ways of marketing and to economic swings? “Digital life becomes important as many collectors don’t see the work until it’s in their homes. You look after them by giving the best advice you can, being certain about attributions, the history of an object. You try to educate people about works of art,” says Rock.
Linley, who travels for Christie’s, describes the division of labour. “People on the business side carry out commercial analysis,” he told us, “while client strategists work out where the markets are, and who is in the markets.”
Pylkkänen, who is lead auctioneer, recalls that the house’s most successful auction was May 2015 when Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) was bought “in a sale that made over 150 million dollars.” He is confident of the resilience of the art market: “Last year, I personally sold three billion dollars’ worth of art.” Pylkkänen says the most popular artists include “Peter Doig – he has amongst the broadest possible audience in the world; German artist Gerhard Richter, Francis Bacon, the great China’s Zhang Fang Zhi, Modigliani, and Picasso.”
From this season’s sales, the affable Finnish-born Pylkkänen expects to be surprised by the eventual price of Constable’s View On The Stour Near Dedham; “the greatest work by an artist in private hands.” He recalls that Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude) from a previous sale “made a hundred million dollars more than any work by the painter had made before.”
When the raging question of “what is art?” is raised, Pylkkänen leans back and looks thoughtfully at the central plinth showpiece, sitting proudly at the top of the staircase as you enter by the front door. “When Tracey Emin’s My Bed was sitting there, people came upstairs and said ‘Isn’t that absurd!’ It’s now in the Tate.”
Currently, the plinth is occupied by Henry Moore’s 1951 Reclining Nude: Festival. “There’s no greater work by any British artist. Any art work has its own personality, its own voice. There is no absurd. Everything is art.”