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Interview with Simon de Pury: “Photography may slacken off; design has great potential”

Phillips’ international star talks about plans for the future, guarantees and what happens to those unsold pictures

Simon de Pury is one of the international stars of the art market. Formerly chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, he left the company to form the international art advisory business De Pury and Luxembourg with Daniella Luxembourg in 1997. In January this year the company was merged with Phillips, with Simon de Pury becoming chairman of Phillips de Pury and Luxembourg. Since then Phillips has shed its middle-market business, selling it to Bonhams and Brooks.

Mr de Pury now divides his time between Europe and New York and aims to project the new streamlined Phillips into a position at the top end of the market, to rival Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

TAN: What is the atmosphere like in New York at the moment and what do you think will happen to the art market?

SdP: We are experiencing something none of us have ever encountered before, so it is very difficult to make any predictions. Museum attendance on both sides of the Atlantic has risen since 11 September. There have been sales in various places which have done well but not in areas which compare in value with the main sales scheduled in November and December in New York. We are pleased with the feedback we have been getting from showing the Smooke and Hoener collections to be sold in November, but the first real indicator will be the London 10 and 11 October sales of German Expressionists [see report p.60] Obviously, the general mood is not the most encouraging.

TAN: There have been some dramatic changes since Phillips merged with de Pury and Luxembourg last January. What is the plan for the company’s future development?

SdP: We will focus on a few areas at the top end of the market. These are Impressionist and Modern art, Contemporary art, jewellery, watches, 20/21-century design, photography and European furniture. We have acquired experts from many of the leading auction houses and galleries including Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Villa Grisebach and Neumeister. We will continue to develop our team, taking on more experts. I think our sharp focus and limited size allows us to be particularly effective.

TAN: Which area of the market will be most affected by a global recession?

SdP: In the contemporary market, over the last few seasons, 90s art has been particularly strong whereas the 80s art has been more neglected. We may see a readjustment here. Interest in photography may slacken off, some of the editions have been so large they have reappeared in auction after auction, going up in value from month to month. Those artists who have restricted the output of their work and size of their editions will be more resistant to changes in the market. Twentieth- and 21st-century design is an area which has great potential. Our December sale has a particular focus on design of the 40s, 50s and 60s up to the present day. We know so much more than 10 years ago when it comes to designers, manufacturers and size of edition, so this makes buyers feel more comfortable.

TAN: Does jewellery do well in troubled times?

SdP: It has a totally different geographical base to the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary market, which in the last few years has been mainly carried by the American and European market. The jewellery market is far more global, with strong participation from the Gulf States, the Middle East and Asia. You don’t have a supply problem so there is far more potential for participation from both buyers and sellers.

TAN: Are you building any important collections that we can know about?

SdP: The biggest collection is the Pisces Trust, art of the 80s and 90s. The goal of the collection is to show it in a public gallery in Germany in summer next year, and we will be making an announcement later this year. It is a collection formed by one young collector with private money. He does not wish to be known. We have also been buying on behalf of a number of private individuals both in the classic Modern area and the contemporary.

EM: Is your multi-faceted approach, as a gallery owner and auctioneer as well as organising private treaty sales, the future of the market?

SdP: I do think people want the whole picture and what we are doing is not new at all. Sotheby’s and Christie’s organise private treaty sales and are actively involved in galleries either as backers or publicly, as in the case of Sotheby’s with André Emmerich and Jeffrey Deitch. What we are doing is not unusual or new in any way.

TAN: What did you think of the article in the last issue of The Art Newspaper (No. 118, p. 65) discussing how much capital LVMH have invested in Phillips? Do you feel the press have treated you unfairly by focusing so much on guarantees?

SdP: I did not like the article at all; it was pure speculation. The press are behaving as if we invented guarantees, when in fact our competitors have been giving them for nearly 20 years. In a business that has been dominated by a duopoly for centuries we have been very successful in a very short time. You have to take into account that prior to Bernard Arnault acquiring Phillips, its highest total for an Impressionist sale was $4 million; the first Impressionist sale that took place after that acquisition totalled $40 million, in May 2000. The first Impressionist sale that took place after the merger with De Pury and Luxembourg in May 2001 made $124 million. This is a pretty remarkable development in a very short time. As a result of this, potential vendors who historically have only gone to our two main competitors, now come to us as well. We’re very pleased with the quality of works consigned to us for the autumn sales. We are in the phase of building up the market share for this company. Once the Bonham’s transaction goes through, we will employ around 160 people, and our objective is to go up to 220 people, which is less than a tenth of the infrastructure of our main competitors. We feel this lean organisation with a light infrastructure will allow us to be more profitable and more flexible.

TAN: How long can you sustain losses at auction for?

SdP: Look at the Hoener Collection. Mrs Hoener was on her way to New York to finalise a deal with one of the two other auction companies. She arrived the day after we had conducted the Berggruen sale; she came to us and said, “I admire pioneers. I do not want a guarantee”, and she made a straight consignment. In our contemporary sale we have only five works where we have a financial involvement. This would never have happened if we had not been quite aggressive initially. Clients think this is a company that has momentum, that is totally focused. We are seeing a rapid increase in straightforward consignments so the investment into building and positioning the company at the level we want it to be is beginning to pay off. You have to take into account the period of time in which this has happened. We merged with Phillips in January of this year and we are now only 10 months into the new company.

TAN: But there is a large guarantee on the Smooke Collection; the rumour is that it is guaranteed for $180 million and the presale estimate is $85-115 million?

SdP: Whenever there is a financial involvement in a collection or an individual lot this is referred to in the catalogue. Any further financial information is strictly confidential between the consignor and the company.

TAN: What happens to all the pictures which do not get sold?

SdP: As with other companies who give guarantees, unsold works are then owned by the companies and are sold subsequently on a private basis.

TAN: Have you sold a substantial number?

SdP: From the moment they become a private transaction, one no longer comments on them. If you look at our May auction, the number of unsold paintings is totally consistent with those of our competitors.

TAN: How involved is Bernard Arnault in the business?

SdP: He gives each business in his group the impression that it is the only business that matters to him and at the same time he gives them total autonomy. He is very passionate about art and aesthetic issues in general and can be very helpful with marketing and every aspect of the business.