January 26, 2006:
[achtung! kunst] *market* - Christie's ...in France ...in the Middle East
PARIS It is happy New Year tidings for some in the French auction world, but not for all. This year, furious competition upset the precarious balance that at one point had the Tajan group running ahead of its French competitors, with the two international giants Christie's and Sotheby's kept at a safe distance; foreign companies were only allowed to hold auctions on French territory in 2001.
The victor that emerged like a shooting star in 2005 was Christie's. The sales of its French branch totaled E115 million, or $137 million, up by one-third over 2004. Sotheby's France, mysteriously running out of breath, took a plunge, with sales dipping from an already modest E52.83 million in 2004 to E43.7 million in 2005.
It is not difficult to work out the reasons why Christie's gained so much ground. The chairman of Christie's France, who presides over the entire European operation, is a Frenchman, François Curiel, born and bred in Paris. The son of a dealer in jewelry and antique silver, the late Maurice Curiel, who had a shop 45 meters, or 50 yards, from Drouot, François Curiel knows all the ropes and speaks the language, both literally and metaphorically, of those in this country who wish to sell or want to buy.
Christie's other major asset in Paris is a small but remarkable team of French professionals. In 2001, François de Ricqlès joined Christie's as second in command with his able assistant, Lionel Gosset. A very effective auctioneer, Ricqlès ran for years a small outfit that held some brilliant sales at Drouot before becoming convinced that shrinking art supplies and accelerating international competition would soon make the position of groups with limited capital untenable.
The Ricqlès-Gosset tandem gave Christie's an entry into the closed world of the most traditional sectors of the French bourgeoisie.
In the all-important field of Impressionism and Modern Art, Thomas Seydoux, recruited in 1998, has been building up the department, which plays a significant role in Christie's overall strategy.
Not least, Florence de Botton, who had been working at Sotheby's for 10 years, was hired in January to run the Contemporary Art show at Christie's France. Both Seydoux and Botton have become linchpins in Christie's French operation.
In 2005, Christie's France reaped the full benefits of Curiel's business skills and the talents of his small team of experts-cum-business getters.
On June 22, Christie's was dispersing at its premises at 9 Avenue Matignon the "collection d'un grand amateur européen," which could be seen at a glance to be French. Rather than breaking it up by category and bolstering the London and New York sales by creaming off the best pieces, Curiel took a gamble.
The drawings, the porcelain, the silver and the furniture, which perfectly reflected the tastes of the traditional French establishment, were offered together in a single session. Curiel's other inspiration was to have a sale without reserves, barring two lots. Given the high quality level, the risk was worth taking.
On D-Day, the strategy galvanized bidders into action, assured as they were that no one was trying to lead them by the nose, and the results exceeded all hopes. There was not a single failure to sell, which is unheard of at auction.
A world record was set for a drawing by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, "Punchinello arrives in Egypt riding a camel," which soared to a staggering E437,600, even though it was not as fresh as one might have wished. This was immediately followed by the artist's second most expensive drawing at auction, bought by a Chinese bidder for E292,000.
The most sensational score was the world auction record set for any piece of European porcelain when a pair of white herons from the Meissen manufacture, which were molded around 1732 by the famous Johann-Joachim Kandler, flew to an astonishing E5.6 million.
Five months later to the day, Christie's France indulged in a very different exercise, a sale of Chinese art from various owners. This was lunging into the unknown - the hubs of the Chinese market outside China are London and New York, not Paris. True, there was one lot that was sure to attract considerable attention from Chinese buyers.
An imperial scroll celebrated the victory of the Qianlong emperor (1735-1796) in Western Sichuan, an area with non-Chinese populations that vigorously resisted occupation. Preserved in its original carved lacquer casket, the scroll carried, in addition to the long scene, a portrait of the Qianlang emperor in the manner of the Jesuit court painter Giuseppe Castiglione.
Several historic inscriptions included Qianlong's seal mark calling it a "Treasure preserved in the Chonghua Palace." Offering the imperial scroll was the equivalent of having in an Old Master drawings sale a sketch by Michelangelo with an autograph inscription by a Medici prince.
Sure enough, on Nov. 22, the room was filled with buyers from mainland China, Taiwan and every overseas Chinese community, rubbing shoulders with the world's top dealers. The scroll zoomed to E6 million courtesy of James Hennessy of London and New York. At one point there were 12 telephones switched to bidders around the world. The sale put together by the Christie's expert Philippe Delalande, which ended with E10 million worth of Chinese art changing hands, was a huge success.
Four days later, Christie's pulled off the year's most difficult coup. Furniture and sundry works of art that had belonged to Héli de Talleyrand-Périgord were up for sale. Stage One involved delicate negotiations with the duke's four heirs, which were deftly conducted by Ricqlès. Curiel then laid out the business proposition that allowed Christie's to win the beauty contest against Sotheby's and the French group Artcurial.
But the greater feat was the auction itself. The objects were not nearly as easy to sell as the historic name of the Prince de Talleyrand, Héli de Talleyrand-Périgord's ancestor, whose ghost hovered in the background, might have led one to believe.
A closer look at the catalogue revealed that there were virtually no family heirlooms. The late Héli, who did not have much money until he married an American heiress, as the catalogue preface candidly notes, made a living by buying and selling artifacts to his wide circle of well-heeled acquaintances.
In truth, the pieces on offer were an assemblage put together by a de facto dealer who frequently readjusted it as the needs of commerce required. To quote from the preface in its quaintly worded English version, "his collection matched the dynamic of his own life. According to the country where he was staying, the years or the occasions, his collection evolved and reflected the fascinating rhythm of his personality."
Compounding the problem, many pieces were of Italian make. Demand for 18th-century Italian furniture has traditionally been limited in France. It was Christie's marketing that made all the difference in the world.
As the sale proceeded, lots with such a limited appeal to a Parisian attendance as "a set of three late 18th-century chairs from the Piedmont" managed to bring E13,200.
Or, to take an even more chancy example, a pair of "athéniennes," i.e. "white marble vases mounted in ormolu (gilt-bronze) probably Baltic," went above the high estimate as they made E66,000 against all the odds.
Many of the better pieces went through the roof. A pair of Neo-Classical Italian consoles of the early 19th century made after designs by Giocondo Albertolli realized E381,600, more than six times the high estimate.
In a nutshell, with 97 percent of the lots finding takers for a total E7.1 million, the "ancienne collection du duc de Talleyrand" ended in an unparalleled commercial triumph, if not in artistic glory.
Never had salesmanship risen to such heights over so little of substance.
This will have given food for thought to the French auctioneers. Christie's here was running on their turf, and winning. Can they sustain such competition for much longer?
And will they be able to adjust their policies to meet the requirements of their survival?
IHT, JANUARY 13, 2006
LONDON In what looks like the beginning of an unstoppable advance, Christie's will formally announce on Monday that its worldwide sales totaled $3.2 billion in 2005, up 33 percent over 2004. This is the highest in the history of the international auction house owned by the French businessman François Pinault. In addition to generating the highest profit ever according to several insiders, the year places Christie's firmly ahead of the other auction giant, Sotheby's, whose sales added up to $2.7 billion. Fantastic world records were set at Christie's, from Brancusi's marble sculpture "L'Oiseau Dans l'Espace" ($27.5 million) to Canaletto's "Bucentauro" (£11.4 million, or $20 million).
The International Herald Tribune has learned that Christie's will also announce on Monday that its first auction in the Middle East will be held May 24. The sale of "International Modern and Contemporary Art" is to take place in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in the Emirates Tower Hotel following a three-day viewing. Edward Dolman, chief executive officer of Christie's, said in an exclusive telephone interview that the emphasis will be on Arab, Indian and Iranian contemporary paintings, alongside significant works by artists in international demand - Picasso and Andy Warhol are among the names mentioned.
Christie's has been moving fast - the Dubai office formally opened April 1. Yet this is not quite a leap into the unknown.
Several small events serving as "dry runs," as Dolman put it, led up to it. On May 29, 2004, a charity sale was held at the Rotary Club. The official idea was to raise money for worthy causes. The sale effectively helped to raise Christie's flag. This was an elegant way of advising the good and the great in the region of the importance that Christie's attaches to their wealth and of suggesting that the Western auction world might be brought to their doorstep.
As in so many Western campaigns aimed at the Middle East, there was an unmistakable if unintended touch of spoofery about the event. The items for sale were fiberglass casts of camels that had been diligently painted by artists whose names will not necessarily ring a bell with contemporary art fans. The inspiration for the painted camels, Dolman says, came from the quadrupeds on Park Avenue. The titles - "Cachet Camel," "Dubai Dream" - made you briefly wonder whether the organizers had put the sale together in a prankish mood. If so, the billionaires played the game without batting an eyelash. The "Camel Caravan Gala Auction" as Christie's dubbed it, in the finest P.G. Wodehouse spirit, raised over 4.8 million United Arab Emirates dirhams, or $1.4 million.
Another event followed a year later. On May 18, "The Arabian Horse Parade," not quite in the same burlesque vein despite its equally Wodehousian title, ended on a 2.5 million dirham score. Clearly, the local billionaires were willing to play the Western auction game with perfectly good grace.
Prudent as ever, Christie's was eager to hone its skills on the local terrain a bit longer. The auction house conducted another three charity sales on behalf of "Nokia/Mixed Media," a Dubai-based company that publishes an English language monthly, "Canvas," dealing with contemporary art. The three sessions, held in rapid succession in Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, bore out the interest aroused in the gulf area by auctions. The system evidently worked when operated for fun. So why not for business?
The thought had already crossed Dolman's mind in 2002 while he traveled through the Middle East. He went to Iran. In the long term, this nation with the longest continuous past in the Middle East has a serious potential. There, collecting is as old as the culture. Chinese porcelain was already being sought after in the ninth century, long before Europe knew about it.
In the post-World War II era, a school of contemporary art held in high regard by Dolman blossomed in Iran. The Museum of Contemporary Art founded by the former empress, Farah Pahlavi in Tehran, has one of the most important collections of French avant-garde painting of the late 19th and 20th century outside the West. Unbeknownst to the outside world, the museum has continued to thrive under the Islamic Republic and to hold exhibitions of contemporary art from the area.
But it was his visit to Dubai on April 2, 2005, that was an eye-opener for Dolman. Christie's gave a dinner to celebrate the viewing of Impressionist and modern art due to be sold in New York in May. The chief executive discovered a world unlike anything popular imagination associates with the deserts of Arabia. The Englishman learned to his amazement that oil accounts for a small proportion of Dubai's gross domestic product - little more than 10 percent in 2005. Even more surprisingly, he quickly became convinced that the legal system was essentially business-friendly.
The latest developments have borne out his initial impressions. A new finance center recently opened, and a diamond trading center is just beginning to function.
Most importantly, the experience of Christie's leading departments tallies with what this promising environment suggests. Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie's Europe, who first traveled to Dubai in October 2003 to meet some buyers, says that interest in 20th-century Western art is steadily rising in the region.
On Feb. 7 last year an "Abstract Head" painted by Alexej von Jawlensky was bought at Christie's London by a collector from the area who ran it up to £814,400. On May 5 in New York, another collector, from the United Arab Emirates, bought Fernand Léger's 1929 Cubist still life with cards for $1.24 million.
Not least, the huge Indian market lies next door, so to speak. Mumbai, still known to many as Bombay, is only two hours away by air. Indian contemporary art has taken off like a rocket in New York. Pylkkänen eagerly pointed out to me that a Tyeb Mehta ("Mahisasura," done in 1997) sold for a world record $1.58 million in their Sept. 21, 2005, sale. Why not tempt Indian bidders closer to home? The active Indian expat community in Dubai would undoubtedly provide a natural link with the subcontinent.
It is Christie's jewelry department that is however the most closely involved in the Middle East. François Curiel, the chairman of Christie's Europe who built up its fortunes over the last three decades, told the IHT that Saudi Arabia alone, mostly buying through dealers - my information is that Ahmad Jahan of Geneva is a major conduit - accounts for 6 percent to 8 percent of Christie's worldwide sales of jewelry. In 2005, an important dealer based in Dubai is believed in the profession to have bought 10 percent in value of all the jewels sold by Christie's worldwide. Add the intense activity displayed by jewelry buyers of gems and jewels directly from India, and everything would seem to plead in favor of setting up an auction center in Dubai.
As he reviewed the advantages offered by the Dubai business environment and analyzed the growing importance of the role played by the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent in Christie's auction rooms across the world, Dolman remarked that similar conditions led to the opening of Christie's Hong Kong auction center two decades ago.
In those days, there was the still largely uncertain promise of the People's Republic of China, plus the very real booming economy of Japan, whose citizens were heavily buying across the board, from Impressionist painting to Chinese porcelain.
True, the two situations also present some differences. Potential destabilization is a threat in the Middle East. But so it was in China - remember Tiananmen Square? Japan's economy crashed and remained in the dumps until the last two years. Yet despite all, Christie's Hong Kong has now attained an importance undreamed of in the past. Such is the growth of China that Christie's is currently testing the waters in Beijing.
Nobody can begin to guess whether Dubai will turn out to be Christie's next success story, an updated version of the proverbial Arabian desert mirage, or, perhaps, linger somewhere in between.
What is not much in doubt, though, is that Dubai is a pawn in a new strategic position in Christie's world power game. On the auction international chessboard, Christie's is becoming quietly dominant.
more articles by souren melikian on christie's at iht:
with kind regards,
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