In our continuing effort to de-mystify the art market and make the auction houses more accessible, we bring you this interview with Christie’s Guy Bennett (along with some video excerpts.)
First, a little background. Guy Bennett is Senior Vice President, International Co-Head of Impressionist and Modern Art. In addition to overseeing the day to day running of the department worldwide, he is responsible for the daily management, marketing and promotion of Christie’s sales of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York. And, of course, it’s his job to find the right properties to sell at the right time. He headed the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale in November 2006 which totaled $491.5 million, making it the most valuable auction ever. The next year, he organized the second most valuable sale totaling $396 million in November 2007.
In 2008, Bennett landed the Miller Collection, which included Monet’s spectacular “Le bassin aux nymphéas” which sold for $80.4 million in London in June, doubling the artist’s previous record set a month earlier when Bennett had orchestrated the sale of Monet’s “Le Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil” in New York which sold for $41.5 million. (The interview, with video, after the jump.)
In addition, Bennett organized a show of portraiture in May 2007, “Faces in Art,” composed from works on the block across various categories that Spring and Summer.
Art Market Monitor sat down with Bennett in a conference room at Christie’s to talk about the Impressionism, collectors and his view of the art market.
Q: If you look at the top five lots of the London sales of Impressionist and Modern Art in June of 2008, every lot sold well above the high estimate. There were some spectacular paintings–especially your record-setting Monet–but there seems to be something else going on in the Impressionist market right now. Just when you would have thought the market would catch a breather after a couple of years of acceleration, it jumps to a new level.
A: Fundamentally, you’re correct. But you have to be careful when you’re dealing with the top five because you’re dealing with the top objects offered. So the numbers can be slightly skewed. But I think there’s a genuine move, outside this curve or this acceleration you refer to, in the marketplace as a whole. I think there’s a confidence in the Impressionist and Modern market, outside any other market, because it’s a known quantity. People have been collecting it for decades. The backbone of it is a very secure, traditional collecting base.
Q: That would suggest there’s a flight to quality or a sense that collectors view Impressionist art as an undervalued asset.
A: I think there is money moving into this market; but its not coming in as a speculative move. Some people could see this market is as possibly undervalued. The Monet was a spectacular price at $80.4 million but when you set it beside recent numbers that you’ve seen in Post-War and Contemporary, its not that outrageous. When you’re buying something that you can never see again. There were only four of those works ever done and the rest are in museums. So I don’t find that mind-boggling.
“Le bassin aux nymphéas”
Q: It’s not the Monet’s price that is so remarkable but the fact that the top five lots sold for well above their high estimates. That suggests a bit of a mad rush to own Impressionist art, which is surprising given the excitement that gripped the market in 2006 and 2007. One explanation that’s been put forward is the presence of Russian buyers. The Financial Times recently claimed that Russian buyers account for 40% of the Impressionist market but I don’t know how they could have calculated that.
A: One can’t ignore the importance of Russians buyers but I think it’s slightly over-hyped. Whenever there is movement in a market and whenever an individual or a number of individuals come to light, that’s what people focus on.
Russian buyers are important to us. But this isn’t a necessarily new phenomenon. They’ve been important to us for the last five years. As far as the 40% figure, well, I would love it if any region represented 40%. But it’s just not true.
You have to be careful how you approach these numbers. The American involvement in our sales in June was just spectacular. Americans may not have bought a lot of pictures but they were the underbidders on many of them. I was bidding very aggressively on a number of those works for American collectors.
Q: Whether it is Russian buyers or American bidders, the real question is why Impressionism. I would have thought Expressionism would see the most impact from Russian buyers. Look at that Goncharova, “Les Fleurs,” that Christie’s just sold in London for $10.9 million.
A: There are those artists that a certain region will have an affinity toward and with Russians its Goncharova. But this is the area where I disagree with a lot of the things that I’ve read: that Impressionist pictures aren’t important to these new buyers.
I’ve always said that they are important to them; and I think that there are number of reasons. One, with new collectors it is an accessible entry point. These are the images that we all grew up with. I grew up with them whether I was reading a book or watching a movie. These are the images, like Monet, that we were all aware of. For some of the new collectors who need that confidence in the marketplace, it’s an easy entry point. That’s one reason you’re seeing enormous participation.
Second, I think some individuals see this market as undervalued when you look at other markets out there.
And finally, now that we are in the 21st Century, you look back at the previous century and understand it. Even though we were in the 20th Century not ten years ago, and we were surrounded by it and still trying to work it out. That’s the reason we categorize sales at Christie’s. That’s how we understand it and can work with it.
And now that we’ve left the 20th Century, I think a lot of our clients are looking back and going: I kind of get it now and I understand the motivations and the influences. Now they can explore those ideas to explain that fundamental core of their collecting ideas
Q: That makes sense for the water lilies which can be seen as harbinger of abstraction and other important ideas in 20th Century painting. But just a month before you sold a very different sort of Monet, an early work that depicts the railroad bridge at Argenteuil, for a record price.
You’ve mentioned that early Impressionism is big with collectors too. Is this a different trend?
A: Yes, I think they are. And I’m not suggesting that everyone collects from the 20th Century now. So there are reasons one person might choose one Monet over a different Monet. But I think when you’re dealing with an individual or a collector, it is a question of what is the core of their collection. Is it 1950? or 1915? And how far to you move the bookend back to explain that idea.
Now to address early Impressionism, those works from the 1870s, which are phenomenally rare and hard to find, and present different reasons for people to collect. You cannot find another picture like the painting of the bridge at Argenteuil. There are only four of them from that early, mid-1870s period.
We sold that for a world record at the time–flying in the face of skepticism.
“Le Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil”
Q: It’s interesting that you mention the skepticism. The painting of the railroad bridge was well-known among the trade. It wasn’t a secret which collector owned the picture. So what was it about this Spring that made it the right time to sell?
A: I went after that picture. You’re right. Everyone knew where that picture was. I made an approach to the collector and I said, I think this is the right time. When you looked through our catalogues and saw these heady numbers that have been achieved at Christie’s, you thought to yourself, when was the last time that a great early Impressionist work came up in this sort of market? And there are the buyers out there. There were four bidders on that painting, four bidders above $30 million.
We approached that picture with a world-record scenario in every aspect and I felt that this was the market to offer a truly great Impressionist picture. I’ve always believed that this is one of the strongest ends of our market. Maybe we don’t see the fireworks that are attached to the other end of the market with Léger, Miró or Giacometti, at the moment. But if you have broken down our numbers–and I haven’t done it–and looked at our sales season after season, that end of the market always performs incredibly well. And it’s been driven now–yes, by the traditional collecting base–but also by the new buyers.
Q: Are you saying that the “Le Pont du Chemin de Fer á Argenteuil,” which sold for $41.5 million, was bought by someone starting a collection?
A: That was bought by a new buyer–and it’s fantastic. But it’s not just the $40 million pictures. The $1 million and $5 million Monets are being bought by new clients coming into this market.
Q: If you buy an early Impressionist work as one of your first pictures. What do you buy next?
A: Where do you buy next? It would be interesting to see. I have no idea. But they [the buyers of Le Pont] are clearly making every effort to buy the best of the best.
We were very fortunate in June to be able to offer the Degas and Monet in London and a month earlier to have the Monet here in New York. You saw three phenomenal “Impressionist” works–albeit one from the 20th Century–but all of them fundamentally Impressionist works and all outperforming expectations.
Q: That’s the reason we’re having this conversation. Given this environment, how do you approach what’s out there or what you think is out there.
A: It’s not quite as easy as: “check” that and go on to the next one. But you’re always looking for the next great thing to offer these collectors who are looking for the best. We’re just starting the next season and are actively looking for that now.
Q: But are the owners of the great Impressionist works in private hands more or less interested in selling right now?
A: The buyers who own those great works, almost exist outside the marketplace. You talked about liquidity. There are enormous amounts of liquidity whether it is institutional liquidity or private liquidity. It exists. It’s huge. And it can move markets. We’ve seen it now season after season.
Those owners that have those pictures always have, to a certain extent, existed outside the market. It becomes an issue when they become estates. Then liquidity issues arise and then there’s a motivation to sell. But those collectors make the decision about when they want to sell–whether its a de-accessioning issue or change of life–for themselves, not because of the market.
We work with them over time and make recommendations. For the owner of the Monet [Le Pont] it was a recommendation. I went to them and said, “I know this is an important work in your collection but I think this is the time.”
Q: That was an issue of having an owner who is involved in the market and has a sense of the market. We seem to have different types of owners: those that are overly sensitive to the market and those that are not.
A: I find today that more and more of our clients are market savvy. There are differences in today’s market than there were 20 years ago. People were collecting for different reasons, especially Asian collectors, and that drove the market. I think today most collectors are genuinely interested in collecting and motivated by collecting and that demands an understanding of the market.
Q: Collectors used to buy art for life and become associated with the piece. But today it seems that people have larger collections and they’re more likely to move things around and created a culture where there’s much more exchange.
A: I think there’s much more tolerance for exchange. It used to be: you buy, you own, you live, you die with it. But there’s more tolerance for exchange now. I think there’s more transparency in the mechanism to exchange with the internet, for example, our doors are open, we’re happy to advise, people are advising. Collectors are involved.
When you weren’t involved in the art world and didn’t understand it. There was a sort of shroud. You couldn’t sell because you couldn’t understand it. “I own it but what do I do with it now.”
And there is that issue that you discussed that collections are bigger, people have more houses, they move, lifestyles change and, I think there is so much more to collect out there. We’re all collectors at heart. I would challenge anyone that they haven’t collected something at some point in their life.
Q: With so much more to collect it would also seem that buyers are collecting in broader ways too.
A: It is refreshing to go into client’s homes and see those Old Master paintings next to Picassos in great heavy Spanish frames next to Monet water lilies next to Pollocks. That’s a fantastic exploration. We should demand ourselves to explore that way. It goes back to that idea of tolerance.
Q: There seems to be more interest in collectors in making their own connections rather than through scholarship. There seems to be an emphasis on the collector being able to tell a story. But the story also seems to change and that would suggest more exchange.
A: There has to be if you’re telling a story. I find it incredibly exciting. The portrait show that we did last year. [“Faces in Art”] That was about telling a story. That was about looking at things in a different way. That was about just coming in and saying, walk around and understand–or don’t understand. We had number of events around it: cocktail parties, a dinner in the room. It was fantastic.
Q: How did your clients react to your mixing periods and styles? You had a broad range of art in that show.
They loved it. This is how they live with their art. No one lives in the Annenberg galleries. I wish we could. It would be great to have a space and say this is my Old Masters collection. But no one lives that way. People live with their art. And they mix and match. Sometimes it’s incredibly crazy but it makes perfect sense at the same time.
Q: Did you get any reactions you didn’t expect from those events?
A: There was some reaction where people were saying, what’s going on here? We intentionally put a Rubens next to a Warhol Marilyn next to a Picasso. I think it did ruffle a few feathers; but when people came, it made sense.
Did it create a response that I wasn’t expecting? Absolutely. I had bidders who I never thought would bid who came to that show and thought, hmmm. And not just in my field. There were bidders who crossed over to the Rubens. It was interesting to watch, especially to see people make the connection beyond the 20th Century, especially with portraiture which is such an easy way of seeing.
I talked about accessibility. The portrait is the most accessible image to approach to begin with.
Q: The auction house seems to be thriving on its accessibility. People seem to come in to the market through you. The auction houses seem to be serving an educating function.
A: We demand transparency. It’s the one thing I want in the Impressionist and Modern department. We not all deeply academic with our noses in books looking to produce the next great volume on some very obscure artist.
We’re all very young; we’re all very accessible. It’s got to be transparent. We want clients to come in to talk to us–and they want to. That’s what’s different today. It’s no longer this venue for the dealers. This where the dealers used to come and buy and sell to privates. We now want to work with our private collectors and help to build collections and de-accession from collections.
When I took over running the department one of the things I was very conscious of was, how do I present the department in a manner that our collectors are used to? When these incredibly wealthy individuals send their money down to Wall Street for profit to be generated, they deal with very aggressive, dynamic, brilliant young men and women. Those are the relationships they are used to. So why not mimic that here at Christie’s?
You never know the value of something until the day that it is sold.
Q: How do you mix the two imperatives? How do you caution someone that they can’t buy art as a financial play?
A: For me, and I can’t speak for my colleagues, it’s the final hurdle you cross when you work with a collector. There’s a passion; there’s an interest. They’re already there and they want to buy it. You discuss why they’re buying it. How does it fit in whether you’re buying or selling. At which price point does it become that this is you buying it because you must have it? It is a real issue and a real concern that we have to deal with.
Q: Shouldn’t that be the first issue?
A: The primary reason to buy is because they want it. For whatever reason. The final issue is the financial side, finding the point at which I feel comfortable advising them. Beyond that, there has to be a very personal and private decision if they really push for it. It’s a conversation we have with every client that goes to finding that balance.
It’s interesting when you put a sale together. You think you’re going to have the same conversations with the same clients about the same pictures. It’s actually not the case. It’s remarkable how different people’s tastes are. It’s remarkable how people find their place in the market in terms of visually, price point, decade, which century they’re in.
Q: I don’t think that’s obvious to most people. They see the market and they think there’s an independent value machine out there. But value doesn’t get established from one sale.
A: I would argue that value never gets set. You never know the value of something until the day that it is sold. It’s very different in this market as opposed to other markets. You never know because it all depends if one person shows up who will drive the price because the picture is more important to them than having the cash sitting in the bank account.
It is this fantastically fluctuating entity that exists out there. That’s what makes it sexy. That makes the auction room the greatest theater in town. That’s what I believe. You can stand in that room. It can be electric or it can be mortifying. Either way to be fun to watch.
Q: Speaking of ‘fun to watch,’ I’ve noticed that there were several other artists, like Kandinsky with strong sales in this last cycle. There were strong prices for early and late Kandinskys. Are you looking at those price movements for information on what to bring to auction next?
A: People think the sale is about one picture. There’s a reason that we sell 70 pictures in one sale. The market doesn’t want just one picture. Or it doesn’t want 70 pictures of one value.
Only today I took in what I think will be lot 1 of the Evening sale. It’s only $500,000-$700,000 because the market is that broad, that deep, that different. We don’t talk about the same picture over and over again. I’ll talk about that one lot equally as much–to a different type of collector–as to the person who is going to spend $80 million.
The one thing I take away, season after season, is the depth of the market–at both ends. That’s where you see something like Kandinsky with the early ones doing well and the later ones doing well. You look at the Monet water lillies: five people bidding above £25 million.
Then you look at a Bonnard or a Kandinsky in the early part of that sale; you see five people bidding on it. Those sort of numbers. That’s the real market value. That’s the lesson I take, the number of bidders.
Because if you do really well with one artist, its great to try and go and find something similar but that’s a luxury what we don’t sometimes have. The real luxury that we have is that piece of information, the number of bidders and the depth of the market.
And that fundamentally is the reason why you see Kandinsky perform so well. Another artist I find is Miró. Look at the Miró market. The great early ones do well: we set a record here at Christie’s in May for a work that had been up only four years prior. You saw fantastic bidding. But then you look at the late Mirós, which for a long time were ignored by the marketplace, and you see the confidence in that market.
That’s the real lesson that you learn. For me, someone should tap me on the shoulder when we start to see strong numbers in only one sector of our field. But that’s not what we’re seeing at the moment.
Q: Is that the lesson of the late 80s, too much concentration on one area?
A: Yes. And driven by one group. That is a recipe for failure at some point. A market cannot sustain itself . . . and it didn’t. What’s very different today, the cornerstone of this marketplace is fundamentally different because its not one group driving the market and they’re not focused on one area. It’s really across the board.
Everybody has written about the 20th Century and I’ve been sitting here saying “look at this other end of the market.” Look how well we’re doing. We’re selling good Impressionist collections and doing well. It started about four years ago when we sold that great Monet Houses of Parliament for, whatever it was, $17, $18, $19, $20 million. For me that was a real wake up. People want to spend this sort of money.
Q: And they’re not necessarily Europeans?
A: Absolutely, they’re not.
Q: You can see evidence of Asians in a different end of this market.
A: Major influence on this market. But you know what I find more exciting than that is the American interest in the Impressionist market.
Q: It doesn’t go away?
A: It doesn’t go away–and the new American buyers are coming in. That is one of the genuinely most exciting things about this market. New, next generation American buyers. Everybody talks about the hedge funds and the new buyers and they’re buying the 20th Century. They are. Of course, they are.
But it’s actually the younger Americans that are joining this marketplace that I find exciting. Yes we have Asian buyers, former Soviet state buyers and Middle Eastern buyers. Those are all new and they’re energizing the market. But people haven’t told the story of the American buyers.
Q: I’ve thought that this group of people, who are all inter-connected through the global economy, are assembling a new global culture through the art market. You’re saying that 19th Century art is part of this shared global culture.
A: It’s not as obvious or as public as some of the Post-War and Contemporary movements; but, of course, there’s a culture that exists. And it has a language and a dialogue that is shared.
You just look at the numbers. It is global. And it is here as well. It’s here in New York. It’s here on the East Coast; It’s here on the West Coast. It is a reference point, a departure point, a language they all understand, they all want to share, they all want to discuss. And the proof in the pudding at the end of the day is the results we see in the auction room for that end of the market.