When news hit in early 2017 that a managing director at JPMorgan Chase & Co. would be taking over Sotheby’s private sales division, some in the art world raised their brows. A banker? Those who took it in stride might well have sold art to David Schrader, who has been collecting postwar and contemporary work for 20 years. But would his business acumen from almost 20 years in the investment world come together with his eye and art-world relationships to produce success?[See the full list of ARTnews’s “Deciders 2021.”]
The answer wasn’t long in coming. In 2018, Sotheby’s private sales reached a five-year high, totaling more than $1 billion, and the house made $1 billion again in 2019. “He knows a lot about the art world and a lot about business,” said Pace Gallery CEO Marc Glimcher. “When someone like that enters the art world, it can be a disaster. But for him it was not. He is great to work with.”
“It was sort of a vision,” Amy Cappellazzo, the head of Sotheby’s fine art department, told Artnet News regarding Schrader’s hire. “I was at a client’s house for dinner, and I remember being very ill with a cold, and I had taken some cold medicine, which I don’t do very often, and I got this kind of hallucination that I should hire David Schrader to run private sales.”
As Schrader told it to ARTnews, “I got a couple texts from her on a Sunday night at 10 p.m. I was lying in bed, and she’d been at a dinner party at a collector’s home and sitting next to another collector who recounted that I had helped him buy something and sell it for a big profit, and roll that into something else, and that we should really talk.”
By that time, Schrader had become very serious about collecting, beginning with an interest in the 1980s-era Pictures Generation, and would stay up at night thinking, “how do I trade these four things into a better Richard Prince, or a Christopher Wool, or a Cindy Sherman. That’s what got me thinking about pricing and the nuances of different works and knowing artists in great depth.”
The day after he heard from Cappellazzo, he canceled his meetings on Wall Street and went up to Sotheby’s. He recalls saying at the time, “you guys know what I bid on and you know what I own. No one ever calls me and says, ‘We have someone who is interested in something you have—would you be interested in selling?’ Or ‘we know you underbid this—you should look at this other example.’” As he saw it then, “the auction houses were selling art six days per year per category. Why weren’t [they] acting in a more advisory capacity?”
Schrader’s year-round approach has gotten only more effective. This past August, his numbers proved that with galleries closed, and fairs and auctions pivoting into new online territory, private sales were a solid option during the pandemic. Sales from January to July totaled $575 million—roughly the same as the same period the previous year. And the overall volume of private sales transactions was up about 10 percent from 2019.
It helped that under his direction, the department was able to innovate. In April, it launched a gallery network for digital sales of works under $150,000. Participating galleries included New York’s Andrew Kreps and Chicago’s Monique Meloche—exactly the kinds of mid-tier operation that could use a boost during lockdown.
Collaboration of that sort has earned Schrader points with the gallery community, which has historically been leery of auction houses’ private sales departments treading on their territory. Over the summer, Schrader brought that kind of networking into the brick-and-mortar world by opening a showroom in the Hamptons, where his neighbors included galleries like Pace, Skarstedt, Van de Weghe, Michael Werner, and Rental. Schrader and the dealers brought clients into each other’s spaces. “He is a master of collaboration,” said Glimcher. “A lot of galleries now feel that that collaboration can be beneficial. That is quite a trick, to change the relationship from adversarial to collegial.”
The pandemic brought a moment that has made Schrader “the most collaborative I’ve ever been with dealers,” he said. “And it’s working both ways. They are coming to us and saying, ‘We have a client looking for X, can you help us find it?’ There’s a camaraderie we haven’t seen before, and some of the boundaries and competitive ways have, for the moment, gone away.”
Opening a space in East Hampton was a response to the crisis, but it soon proved to be a whole new model. “We can bring art to people where they are,” Schrader said. “Major collectors could come in in their bathing suits and flip-flops and look at art and talk about markets and pricing in a way that we wouldn’t really experience at York Avenue.” And more than that, “volume begets volume,” Schrader continued. “September was better than August.”
In September Sotheby’s announced that Schrader would replicate the model with a seasonal showroom to service snowbirds in a shopping center in Palm Beach, Florida, alongside gallery outposts for Pace and Acquavella. The slapping sound of flip-flops is growing louder with time.