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Interview with Christophe Van de Weghe

“At Gagosian, it was understood, ‘Sit there and make money’”

Belgian-born, New York-based dealer Christophe Van de Weghe specialises in secondary-market work by post-war European and American artists, focusing on figures including Warhol, Basquiat and Calder. Well-respected by his peers, the former professional tennis player is a regular exhibitor at international art fairs including Maastricht, Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach.

The Art Newspaper: Tell me more about your tennis career.

Christophe Van de Weghe: I won my first tournament when I was 11 years old. I was one of the best young players in Belgium in my early teens, and my parents decided to send me to a tennis school in Florida when I was 13. I played the professional tour, but when I was 18 I hurt my back, and the doctor said I’d never be able to play competitively again. I learned a lot through sports. Tennis taught me about fighting and discipline and never giving up.

TAN: What did you do next?

CVdW: I decided I wanted to be a dealer. My father had two Persian rug stores in Belgium, so I worked with him and learned how to deal with clients, make sales and buy.

TAN: How did you come to work for Gagosian?

CVdW: My big break came at Nell’s nightclub on 14th Street one night after a Sotheby’s auction. I was standing at the bar and next to me was Larry Gagosian. I knew he had bought the sale’s cover lot—a David Hockney portrait. I congratulated him, and he asked what I did, so I explained that I lived in Belgium and used to be a professional tennis player. It turns out that Larry loves tennis, so we had a little chat. I said I wanted to move to New York and needed a job. He said he didn’t really have anything, but told me to come in the next day with a resumé. I was very excited—I really wanted to work for Larry. I went to see him, and he asked what I could do. I said: “I think I can sell.” He said he’d give me a month to see what I could do. Larry’s staff basically sat me at a desk in front of a wall with a telephone and said: “Sit there and make money.” And that was it—no one ever told you what to do. I went to every single opening I could to meet people. On the last day I sold a Basquiat for $50,000 to [collector] Tiqui Atencio. I went to Larry and put the invoice on his desk. He said: “OK, Christophe. Very good. I’ll give you a job. You get $30,000 a year plus commission.” It was amazing. I couldn’t believe it—I was in my early 20s, and I had a job at Gagosian.

TAN: What did you learn?

CVdW: Gagosian is very different from every other gallery. You have to make your own business. Nobody holds your hand. So, I was very social, and learned a lot by going out all the time—I had dinner with clients every night. It’s as simple as that. After two years, I became one of the most successful salespeople there.

TAN: What was your focus?

CVdW: I was the contact person for Asia. I studied Japanese at university, and went to Japan a lot in the 1990s when that market was going down. I’d meet bankers who owned a lot of art, and basically get it to sell to America.

TAN Would you ever open in China?

CVdW: I’ve no interest. A friend of mine says there are more art buyers in Park Avenue than in all of China. And he’s probably right, for the kind of art that I sell.

TAN: Why did you decide to go solo?

CVdW: I was either going to make it or not, but working for someone else forever was not in my personality. I’m a risk-taker. One day [the dealer] Per Skarstedt told me he was moving to a new space and asked if I wanted to take his old one. The rent was about $5,000 a month, and I knew it was a great opportunity.

TAN: Was it difficult to leave Gagosian?

CVdW: I was very close with Larry, and still am—he taught me everything about this business. I knew he’d be upset, and I needed his blessing. I told Larry about the space, but would only do it if he gave me the green light. I said I’d never contact his five closest clients directly—I’d always do it through him. I looked him in the eyes and asked: “Larry, what would you do if you were my age?” He said: “OK, go for it—you’ll do great.”

TAN: Why did you focus on the secondary market?

CVdW: I deal with very few artists, and I really study their markets inside-out. The ones I deal with are mostly those who attract both new buyers and people who have been collecting for 40 years. Basquiat is one of these artists that someone who makes a lot of money on Wall Street is going to want to buy—it’s easy to live with, easy to understand and very flashy—new buyers love that. But people who have been buying art for decades understand that he’s one of the most important artists of the 1980s. So if they have a complete collection of the last 50 years, they’re going to need Basquiat. That’s why I like dealing with these artists. Calder as well—he is very undervalued. At the auctions a red hanging mobile sold for $2.5m against a $1.2m low estimate and people said it was expensive—it isn’t, it’s very cheap! Calder is one of the five most important sculptors of the 20th century. Look at some of the younger artists who sell at that range, and instead you could buy Calder, who’s in every big museum collection in the world.

TAN: Are there a lot of new buyers in your field?

CVdW: Yes, especially at the high numbers. Look at museum attendance around the world—it goes up by 10% each year. There are more and more people interested in art every day. All it takes is for one person who has just sold his business to go to the Basquiat retrospective in Paris [until 30 January at the Musee d’Art Moderne] and think “Geez, Basquiat is a great artist. I’d love to own one.” That’s how these new buyers come into play.

TAN: Why was there so much Warhol in the recent sales?

CVdW: Before the auctions, people were worried whether the market would absorb all the material. But sometimes it’s a good thing to have so many paintings by one artist because it brings more information and excitement into the market. Collectors can forget about artists who don’t supply enough work. The dollar sign that sold for $5.1m—it’s a very big price. But they’re icons, they’re dollar signs, people love them. The Warhol gun painting, a medium size work, sold for $4.4m—another big price. We’ve never seen these levels for late Warhols, and for a long time, the gun paintings weren’t popular. But today people realise it’s a striking image—and that’s what they want with Warhol.

TAN: What do you think of the state of the market?

CVdW: The market surprised a lot of people. It’s fascinating—in 2008 and 2009, we had the worst recession since the depression. But two years later the machine is rolling at full speed. People understand that if you have cash, you don’t want to put it in the bank—it brings very little interest. The stock market is tricky because it’s gone up and is a gamble. Art and real estate are very good hedges. And if you buy the right artists, not only is it a good investment, but you have a painting on your wall which you can look at every day and which brings amazing pleasure.

TAN: You are also associated with the Richard Prince and Damien Hirst markets, which suffered in the downturn. How are those markets now?

CVdW: I like Prince and Damien because they created something. Prince was one of the most important artists to emerge from the 1980s and, for the right piece, the market is strong. The Hirst market obviously suffered—if you put all your work into auction in September 2008, obviously the market will be hit. Hirst’s market went down at least 30-40%.

TAN: Will it recover?

CVdW: It’s all in Damien’s hands now. He needs to control his market, make quality works and not do another sale bombarding the market. He’s a fantastic artist—one of the most important of the last 20 years.

TAN: What are your future plans?

CVdW: I would like to open a second gallery in New York. I still own the Chelsea space—I’m renting it to [the dealer] Steven Kasher, so maybe in two years I will operate it again, I haven’t decided yet. I also bought a townhouse near my gallery uptown, and I will show art there—it’s convenient for people to look at art in a home setting. I’m going to live there with my family, but sometimes I will bring people over to have tea—it will be a nice experience.

Interview by Charlotte Burns

Gallery history

1981 Christophe Van de Weghe moves to Florida to study tennis

1986-89 Professional tennis player (ATP Top 500 World Ranking)

1987-91 Attends Pepperdine University, Malibu, CA

1991 Returns to Belgium, where he works with his father, a dealer in Persian carpets

1993 Joins Gagosian gallery New York

2000 Leaves Gagosian and opens Van de Weghe Fine Art in a townhouse space on East 76th Street

2001 The gallery expands to a 3,500 sq. ft Chelsea space, opening with an exhibition of monumental sculpture by Frank Stella, Richard Serra and Alexander Calder

2005 The gallery takes on the representation of the estate of Duane Hanson

2008 Van de Weghe moves to 1018 Madison Avenue

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as '“At Gagosian, it was understood, ‘Sit there and make money’”