CHRISTIE'S GOES FOR GALLERY GOLD
More than a decade ago, Sotheby's New York made some aggressive moves into the "primary market," buying the gallery of Color Field pioneer Andre Emmerich and teaming up with SoHo dealer Jeffrey Deitch to organize shows in the venerable Emmerich space in the Fuller Building at 41 West 57th Street. The logic seemed impeccable at the time. As Deitch explained, for every winning bidder for a high-priced lot at auction, there was an underbidder willing to pay almost as much. All an auction house needed was a sharp-eyed dealer who could make something happen with that frustrated shopper, thus doubling sales volume, or almost.
During the last art boom, art dealer Cassandras predicted that the auction houses would soon be selling works right out of artists' studios, stealing the contemporary market action out from under the galleries that had dominated it for so long. Indeed, back then, Sotheby's was rumored to be planning to obtain works for auction directly from hot market properties like Jeff Koons or Eric Fischl, an idea that was not so far-fetched, considering the competition among collectors for their works. But as strong as the contemporary market seemed in the mid-1990s, Sotheby's venture into the gallery business bore little fruit, and the firm turned its attention to selling art on the internet and a little price-fixing scandal.
Today, however, the market for contemporary art is in the middle of a huge expansion. Auctioneers are more than willing to obtain property directly from artist's studios, notably with Chinese artists, who historically have been disinclined to enter into exclusive contracts with art dealers. "Why shouldn't an auction house go straight to an artist for material?" said one Chelsea dealer. "It makes perfect sense. In falconry, they call it 'making in' -- it's about getting closer and closer to your prey."
This time around, the auctioneer that is inching up on its quarry is Christie's, perhaps in part because it is privately owned by the collector François Pinault, who has already caught the contemporary art bug. Earlier this week, ace art-market reporter Judd Tully revealed that Christie's had purchased the London-and-Zurich gallery Haunch of Venison, established in 2002 by dealers Harry Blain and Graham Southern and representing a stable of hot contemporary artists, including Keith Tyson, Jorge Pardo and Bill Viola.
Haunch of Venison is thought to have connections to the inventory of retired superdealer Anthony d'Offay, though the best of his holdings are reportedly slated for a Scottish museum. The terms of the Christie's-Haunch of Venison deal have not been disclosed, but the London rumor mill speedily had Pinault paying £100,000,000 for the gallery -- or "zero," depending on the source.
After a Christie's spokesman officially declined to comment on the story, further details quickly appeared two days later in Carol Vogel's column in the New York Times. Haunch of Venison is to be run as a wholly owned subsidiary of Christie's, according to the firm's CEO Edward Dolman, and is opening a New York branch in the 20th-floor Rockefeller Center space that Christie's had previously used to exhibit works from the Judd Foundation [see Art Market Watch, Apr. 4, 2006]. Barrett White, a seven-year veteran of the auction house, is to be in charge of the New York gallery.
In the meantime, the space -- located in the Simon & Schuster Building at 1230 Avenue of the Americas, around the corner from Christie's headquarters -- is filled with selections from the collection of Swiss megadealer Pierre Huber, slated to hit the block on the evening of Monday, Feb. 26. The sale numbers 78 lots, and carries a presale estimate of $11 million-$15 million. Clearly, Christie's doesn't have to buy an art gallery to have access to its inventory -- though it remains to be seen whether collectors will have any money left with which to bid on Huber's offerings, after the close of the eight art fairs currently on view in New York.
At any rate, the Huber collection is open for public viewing this weekend, and it's worth a look. The irrepressible dealer, who founded Art + Public in Geneva in 1984 and who said that his personal collection numbered several thousand works, noted that he had selected the lots for the sale much like a curator would organize an exhibition. Ranging from a 1938 Francis Picabia portrait of a woman (purchased from Jack Shainman Gallery in 2003) to an immense 2005 Kader Attia installation of 150 pigeons in a cage with manikins of children made of bird seed, the selection is strong on art embodying what might be called "the avant-garde gesture" -- witty anti-paintings by Chris Wool and Rudolf Stingel, for instance, and a dying bouquet of 100 roses by Francesco Vezzoli. Also included in the sale: Merda d'artista no. 19 (1961) by Piero Manzoni, which carries a presale estimate of $50,000-$70,000.
The sale also features "white elephant" installations by several California bad-boy artists, works that were commissioned by European museums and then bought by Huber from the artists. Among these are Jim Shaw's The Donner Party (2003), a suite of 12 quarter-scale covered wagons arranged in a circle whose table-like tops hold 29 small Pop assemblages, all placed on front of a theatrical backdrop painted with portraits of 50 American pioneers against a prairie sunset (est. $400,000-$600,000), and Mike Kelley's Test Room Containing Multiple Stimuli Known to Elicit Curiosity and Manipulatory Responses (1999), a room-sized cage containing an assortment of objects, many derived from rhesus monkey lab experiments of the 1950s, which was also the set for a Martha Graham-like dance performance (est. $800,000-$1,200,000).
For a complete illustrated listing of the lots in the "Beyond: Selections from the Pierre Huber Collection," see Artnet's signature guide to upcoming auctions, here.