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Late on Friday before a holiday week, ARTnews published the news that Christy MacLear, a high-profile hire at Art Agency, Partners, the advisory division of Sotheby’s, had left the company quietly. Normally in these situations, a Summer Friday news dump, the news is coming from a corporation looking to minimize the coverage and allow all parties to move forward with minimal embarrassment.
This particular new dump didn’t seem to come from Sotheby’s, though. The initial reports were instigated by ARTnews. Sotheby’s response suggested they were caught unawares on Friday afternoon which caused executives from the firm to provide on-the-record quotes Monday.
If the goal was to minimize MacLear’s departure, the strategy didn’t work. If the goal was to maximize the coverage or put MacLear into the best light, that didn’t seem to work either. Though a near real-time response came on Twitter from an art market gadfly engaged in a long-running quixotic battle with the auction houses.
This surprising graft from the Rauschenberg Foundation did not take. It may tell something important about Sotheby’s AAP strategy in the artist’s estate business https://t.co/VBnOikYpxg
— alain servais (@aservais1) June 29, 2018
Everyone is being frostily polite in the news reports. MacLear, who is the more likely party to have alerted ARTnews, finally provided the site with a quote:
It has always been my honor to work on planning legacies of artists—I took the leap to AAP/Sotheby’s to verify the need and then innovate in the field. We did that, and now it is time for me to work on behalf of artists independently after my non-compete period.
Sotheby’s countered with this from AAP’s Allan Schwartzmann:
The business is moving forward in several directions in a healthy way—we are just beginning a second phase consultancy for several prominent artists of different generations regarding major museum placements; gallery affiliations; funding programs; and long-term legacy planning. There is increasing demand for our artist advisory services.
In other words, Schwartzmann and MacLear are signaling a footrace to sign up more estates. Which brings us back to the gadfly’s question: Is Sotheby’s APP strategy succeeding? Servais’s critique isn’t very clear and it is unlikely that we’ll get a more articulate expression of that critique beyond the implicit argument that the auction houses are an expansionary threat to the art market eco-system.
Everyone agrees that artists’ estates need better practices. And there are organizations like Fine Art Partners and the Institute for Artists’ Estates in Europe that have pioneered the business of advising estates on how best to improve the structure, finances, management and other best practices.
Sotheby’s, AAP and MacLear were, in the short time she was there, able to sign up several estates. While none of the estates MacLear has signed are on the level of the Rauschenberg estate she once directed, the firm has been able to gain a foothold in a field that will require long-term investment to yield meaningful returns. By definition, an enterprise like Sotheby’s is better situated to make that kind of long-term investment.
Although most artists estates prefer to focus on their main objective, the enhancement of the artist’s legacy through scholarship and exhibitions, there is a market function to good estate management.
By that measure, MacLear’s legacy at the Rauschenberg estate has not been substantial. Certainly there are many reasons that Rauschenberg’s market lags behind some of his peers that have nothing to do with the estate’s management. But there have also been some questions among dealers about how gifts to museums and sales were conducted to provide the Rauschenberg market with some much needed momentum.
That isn’t to say that the Rauschenberg estate hasn’t had some real successes like Thaddaeus Ropac’s sale of Duchamp’s bottle rack to the Art Institute of Chicago. And Ropac was selling one of the Raushenberg’s rare combines at Art Basel last month.
Nonetheless, the clout MacLear had gained as the head of the Rauscheberg foundation did not translate easily and directly to clients for APP and Sotheby’s. Whether MacLear left because she could not reel in the big fish or got frustrated working in a large organization will be debated by her friends and rivals at the art world’s various Summer retreats.
The subsidiary question that Servais inadvertently raises is whether MacLear’s departure casts meaningful doubt upon Sotheby’s strategy of building a separate advisory business as a counter-weight to its sales and trading business.
To recap, in buying Art Agency, Partners, Sotheby’s sought two different things. First, it acquired talent in Amy Cappellazzo and Adam Chinn who respectively run the bulk of the auction business. Cappellazzo and Chinn seem to have applied market discipline, in the form of better management of the auction margin and an ability to get works sold, that has dropped directly to the bottom line. That main business has also benefitted greatly from its ability to transact for some of AAP’s biggest clients. In addition, Sotheby’s bought Allan Schwartmann’s advisory business which is meant to operate with some independence.
All auction specialists act as advisors. The ability to sell art is the ability to convey the value of a work to customers. The difference between the auction house specialist and APP is that the specialist is paid in the form of a commission on sales where the APP advise comes either as a flat fee or a commission on purchases. APP’s advisory business is meant to align the advisor with the buyer’s interest whereas the auction house is always and ever a fiduciary for the seller.
Here’s where the question about strategy gets murky. The line between AAP and Sotheby’s can be a blurry one. Schwartzmann himself can be seen during some of the marquee Evening sales migrating from one side of the room where he executes a telephone bid for a client, presumably as a representative of Sotheby’s, to the press pit of the auction where he presumably is observing in his neutral role as an advisor and publisher of independent market advice.
There is no doubt that Schwartzmann’s opinion about artists can move markets. His advice has built significant collections. Artists he has identified have been pulled from obscurity into major market forces.
On the other side of the ledger, AAP’s advisory business does not seem to have grown appreciably over the period under Sotheby’s ownership. (This is simply looking at the way that Sotheby’s reports AAP’s advisory revenue which is not very transparent.) If the strategy was to add a significant new line of revenue to the global firm, AAP is showing no growth. That appears to be less an issue of strategy than execution.
In that sense, MacLear’s stint at AAP may have been nothing more than a bad fit between personalities and institutions. It may also have been an example of AAP’s growing pains. Two and a half years into adding the advisory business to Sotheby’s, APP’s growth path remains as inscrutable as the day it was acquired. Nothing about the advisory business has been diminished; neither has it shown great progress towards growth.
The model for a diversified Sotheby’s is a multi-service bank for objects. Just as the large financial institutions have trading floors, do private placements, offer lending services and have private banking customers who receive financial advice and stewardship, Sotheby’s ought to be able to strive for the same diversified approach to tangible assets.