There was a great deal written last week about Brett Gorvy’s departure from Christie’s. Many tried to cast the move as an indication of shifting power from from one portion of the art market (auction houses) to another (dealers.) Others saw it as a mark of the new synergy between dealers and auction houses as more sales are arranged with guarantees provided by dealers.
A few imagined Christie’s was suffering from the loss of its rainmaking department head; others poke around for evidence that Gorvy was pushed. After considering many of these accounts, it would appear that Gorvy is best reporter of what motivates him.
Here’s what he told the New York Times in their pre-arranged announcement:
“Everyone thinks I’m about market share,” he said. “In fact, I’m much more interested in, did I have the best paintings?”
To fully understand the meaning of that statement, we need to put Gorvy’s tenure into context.
But, first, let’s not bury the one bit of news we have before launching into the analysis. As pointed out by one interested party, the most significant fact within Gorvy’s departure has gone universally unmentioned.
Gorvy is transitioning from Christie’s to Lévy Gorvy without having to take even token gardening leave. All of today’s auction house personnel—and certainly one as senior as Gorvy—have detailed non-compete clauses that would normally require Gorvy to sit out year of market action.
Instead, Gorvy and Christie’s struck a deal that allows him to launch Lévy Gorvy in January. In return, Christie’s says, he will “act as a consultant on some specific consignments and projects in 2017 working with the client and Christie’s – predominantly the ones he/we have already secured.”
That tells you a) Gorvy has consignments valuable enough for Christie’s to make a deal; and, b), that Christie’s was eager to let Gorvy move on with his career.
The Great Gamble
Getting back to the context, the timing of Gorvy’s departure and the market state around it suggest that his leaving Christie’s is the final note in a heroic ballad of Christie’s great gamble.
For a period of four to five years, Christie’s pushed the top end of the art market as far as it would go in what seems to have been a strategy to expand the company’s transactions across the board.
In other words, Brett Gorvy took sole leadership of the Contemporary art department in the wake of Steven Murphy’s arrival as CEO. Murphy pursued a strategy of expanding the company’s other sales—Asia, online, jewels, luxury goods, watches, etc.—by spear-heading the most prominent sales to higher peaks.
Over the course of of Murphy’s leadership, the strategy worked successfully against the firm’s main rival—Sotheby’s became mired in a leadership struggle that used the disparity of the Contemporary art market as a pretext—but poorly in realizing Murphy’s strategic ambitions. The other categories—where profit margins would be fatter—never grew at the same rate.
Here’s what Gorvy told the New York Times, though it is not clear whether he was simply referring to the period before 2016 or all the way back to the Murphy regime:
“It was a crazy world, the market was ugly, it was all deal, deal, deal,” he said. “Huge risk was taken on board to maximize the market. You were pushing things to the highest level, and it was incredibly stressful. It was a very tough period from the personal side when you love art and you love exhibitions and the main driver is your passion and your pursuit of excellence.”
Re-shaping Christie’s after Murphy’s departure has been a slow process. As auction volume fell sharply in 2016, Christie’s has substantially pared back Christie’s work force. The cuts have been fairly quiet or based upon attrition.
It is no secret in the art world that Christie’s Contemporary art department is prone to divisive personality conflicts. Add the pressure of having pushed the art market as far as it would go in the period from 2011 to 2015 and it is not a surprise that so many people who worked in the department went in search of other positions.
There also seems to have been a problem with Gorvy’s team still working under a set of rules and priorities established by Murphy while a new group of managers came in to oversee operations. We might have seen that play itself out in the events of late February and early March this year when Gorvy found himself caught between his company and his clients, the Mugrabi family, when Christie’s sued the frequent art dealers for failing to pay for a work of art they had bought at auction.
Reading the documents from that suit, one can interpolate the fact that management at Christie’s had changed its attitude toward some of its customers—or had changed the way it wanted to do business—without necessarily getting everyone on board to the new strategy.
In the NYTimes interview, Gorvy says he decided to leave Christie’s a year before—at the end of 2015 or just after the firm’s greatest success—and that may be so. Four month later, when the Mugrabi suit blew up in public, he surely had even more reason to seek a new position.
Before we move on to Lévy Gorvy, let’s not overlook that telling quote at the beginning. The one other issue involving Gorvy’s tenure was the specialists’s competitive instincts. These served Christie’s well when the entire firm was charging up a mountain together.
Call off the charge, and that same fixation on having the best paintings and getting them recognized as such led to a few public failures which were followed by odd behavior on Instagram.
Indeed, it is hard not to see the evolution of Gorvy’s Instagram account as a measure of his growing need for independence from the corporation. On Instagram, Gorvy has found a way to focus on “the best paintings” without having to worry about the busy-work of running the Contemporary art department at one of the world’s leading auction houses.
The New, New Thing
Whatever the cause of his decision to separate from Christie’s, there’s universal agreement that Gorvy is one of the Contemporary art world’s very best salesmen. How those selling skills will fit into, and expand, Lévy Gorvy is the interesting question going forward.
Dominique Lévy has a strong secondary market gallery. Gorvy brings what all senior auction house figures have, a state-of-the-art overview of the current market (and his famous list of those able to buy a work of $50m or more.) He also brings the desire to show he can create the kind of market moving shows that other, rival galleries have been able to pull off in recent years.
But Lévy Gorvy seems to have gotten itself caught up in making bigger promises. The launch memo sent around the art world suggests less of a business plan a year in the making and refining, more of a wish list.
The central assertions in the letter are these:
Among our priorities will be a focus upon Asia. [emphasis added] Through her representation of Korea’s most celebrated modern artists, and her gallery’s presentations in Hong Kong, Dominique has been building important new bridges to private and institutional collectors. And the region is one of the areas that Brett so successfully developed while at Christie’s as one of the largest growth areas for the 20th century art market.
A focus on Asia makes a fair bit of sense but without a foothold in Asia—an office or gallery of some kind—the idea of the gallery’s two principals pursuing this focus from New York seems at best very tiring for them both and, at worst, like an initiative launched without sufficient resources.
Launching in January 2017 in conjunction with the inauguration of our expanded New York space at 909 Madison Avenue, Lévy Gorvy will also debut a new bespoke advisory and collections management service inspired by the vision, profoundly personal engagement, and tireless advocacy of the 20th century connoisseur dealers who are our heroes—Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, Pierre Matisse, Leo Castelli, and Peggy Guggenheim. [emphasis added] The two of us share a unique experience as Europeans based in America, as professionals whose ‘eye’ for art has been trained upon the intersection of the Old and New Worlds. Our goal is to put that perspective—and our complementary skills and passions, our talent in sourcing the rarest works of art—at the service of collectors of true masterpieces.
What’s remarkable about this passage is not their desire to branch out into advisory and collection management—though, like the Asia initiative, there would seem to be a complete lack of infrastructure for providing those services—Gorvy, after all, can lay claim to being a peerless hunter of masterpieces, but that two sophisticated and very knowledgeable persons should present a list of very different art dealers from very different times, places and cultural milieus, as if they had anything truly in common in their approach to art dealing than, perhaps, strong personalities.
That tells us the thinking and planning on Lévy Gorvy has only been relatively recent. There were rumors around the art world as early as August that Gorvy might not be staying at Christie’s. So figure that Gorvy and Lévy have been moving ahead on this project in earnest for four months while both working their day jobs. Making this kind of leap should be relatively easy for both. At a bare minimum, Gorvy makes the most of his selling skills and contacts on the secondary market. For Lévy, the cost of the launch really isn’t much more than new stationery.
Those more ambitious plans will probably grow slowly and be driven organically upon successes instead of upon the force of publicity.
Christie’s Contemporary Art Chief Departs to Become Dealer (The New York Times)