You have been active as an artist and curator; you had a theoretical and art historical background. Was going to an auction house not problematic? A lot of artists, art historians, art critics don’t like auction houses because the valuation there happens through money. There’s been this old conflict between art and money, already Pliny in the 1st century was complaining about degradation of art because of its connection to money. Didn’t you have a problem with exchanging the symbolic value for the financial value?
Obviously that was always an issue; it was even more so in my time; people really didn’t cross that divide at all. For a lot of people, I was like Judas; they felt I’d almost turned my back on the artists. But my position was a relatively creative one because I felt I could make a difference. I never had an issue with the connection between art and money at all. From my perspective, it seemed crazy that great art was being made which was not being appreciated in the artist’s own lifetime and allowing them to continue their careers. I never wanted to go for just a “job” in my life. I looked at it as a kind of mission to try to change the perception of the auction house within various parts of the art world. When I came there, as an artist and curator, I thought that we could show these artworks better than they were being shown at that time. At that point there was absolutely zero interaction between auction houses and artists; I wanted to get the artists who were upset with the auction houses to be more in discussion with them.
Who was the first artist you managed to engage with Sotheby’s?
Damien Hirst in my first evening auction. It was a heart-shaped butterfly painting that Marco Pierre White was selling. Marco and Damien had had a partnership on the Quo Vadis restaurant in London, but they had had a public falling out, and Marco was selling this painting. I didn’t want Damien to feel like he was being ostracized, so I suggested we build enough time to include him in the process. I felt it was an opportunity to get the artist’s viewpoint and input on the presentation of his work which would encourage him to feel involved and therefore supportive of the process. For me, it was a win-win situation and it worked really well. He helped us with the spreads. He gave us different viewpoints and the piece ended up selling to Charles Saatchi. It became one of the big pieces that he promoted as part of his Young British Art group in the second wave.
Then we began to approach more and more artists. If you look at it today, the auction houses approach virtually every single art studio or their gallery to get their consensus on the presentation, because if you get the information wrong, it’s not good for you. That is a part of the legacy I’d like to think I left behind.
How do you explain that the majority of collectors now are collecting post-war and contemporary art? This wasn’t the case even 30 years ago.
It’s interesting. My father is an antique dealer; he began his own antique enterprise in the 1970s. That was a time when European and English furniture was very popular; the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s were, in a way, the golden period for setting that market. While you can still sell the very special pieces very well, the general market for antique furniture has virtually disappeared. The unsigned works are nowhere and probably worth half or a third of what they were back then. I’ve seen with my own eyes how markets can alter and fluctuate. Part of the reason why contemporary art has become so popular, I would say, is that artworks are relatively portable mirrors to your own life. As people have begun to question the role and meaning of religion in their lives, art provides a different kind of philosophical background. Maybe I’m being too romantic here, but I think art allows the viewer to find other forms of guidance and esprit. Obviously, there are all different kinds of consumers of art in the world, from the investor to the passionate collector, and being one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other. For me, the biggest concern I would have about the future of art is that it continues to remain relevant to us.