“Even cheese is curated today!” So Andrew Renton, a professor of curating at London’s Goldsmiths College, once said. Renton may have been joking, but the word “curated” is incredibly overused, having been “plucked out of museums and pasted onto everything from cosmetics, furniture and fashion lines, to recipes, music- and photo-sharing websites, and cat videos”, says National Public Radio’s Scott Simon.
While the trend has been building for a number of years, the latest place it has emerged is in the auction houses. “Sales are very carefully orchestrated today in the run-up to the event: the cataloguing, the preview… this is part of it,” says Renton, who is also the director of Marlborough Contemporary gallery in London. “Curating the session brings coherence and cohesion to the auction, and with new younger collectors, and those from emerging economies, it helps them sift through the offerings.”
Plus he says: “Our standards for presentation are a lot higher than they were, say, 20 years ago, when works coming to auction were presented on hessian walls, hanging on lengths of string. The curated sale brings credibility and authorship… and it’s a useful way of branding for the salerooms.”
But is all this just a spin on an old formula? Times were when the salerooms put together catalogues by going after choice lots and turning down others, including those with over-optimistic expectations from their vendors or when better examples were already sourced. It was called “editing”–the best lots went into the evening sales, the rest into Part II.
Then in 2014, Christie’s specialist Loic Gouzer put together If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday, a sale billed as offering “gritty” contemporary art, and held in addition to the Part I sale of contemporary art the following night. In a clear bid to appeal to younger buyers, the sale was promoted with a video featuring the skateboarder Chris Martin speeding through the firm’s gallery and warehouses. It made a punchy $134.6m.
Building on the back of this success, in May 2015 Christie’s asked Gouzer to put together another “curated” sale, again held ahead of the main evening session, this time mixing top pieces of post-war, contemporary and Modern art. Looking Forward to the Past, held on 11 May in New York, pulverised auction records by delivering an astounding $705.9m for 34 works, and setting the price record for any painting and for any sculpture, with $179.4m for a Picasso and $141.3m for a Giacometti.
In a market where getting the best material for a sale is essential, the formula has obvious attractions: it is a new story to tell clients, and the inclusion of some masterpieces in a sale can persuade other consignors to give up their treasures.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s are increasingly emphasising edited events; in the run-up to the June sales in London, both firms presented works from various categories as an exhibition and as a backdrop to a series of parties. In the case of Sotheby’s, the show was curated by Mario Tavella; Christie’s went further with Christie’s Curates: Past Perfect/Future Present, in which works by emerging artists (on loan) were juxtaposed with everything from a spitfire engine to an El Greco. Four of the firm’s young specialists had sel ected the display: “This is a way of bringing younger people in and starting to build longer-term relationships,” says Bianca Chu, while Milo Dickinson says: “It is also good for getting lots in for sale; it is a way to market our services.” At a smart breakfast to present the sales in June, Christie’s specialists used the word “curated”, to cover everything from Asian art to silver.
“The problem,” says dealer Hugh Gibson, “is that by making a cherry-picked curated ‘masterworks’ sale ahead of the main sale, you relegate the Part I sale to Part II, and so on. But the formula entices buyers, there’s no doubt, and appeals to the Chinese market. As long as they can find the tip-top works for curated sales, the salerooms will do it. I think it is the shape of things to come.”
• Andrew Renton’s opening quote comes from Georgina Adam’s book, Big Bucks: the Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century, published by Lund Humphries