The art of auction with Robert Manley, Deputy Chair at Phillips
A SINGLE OWNER SALE AT AUCTION OFTEN REPRESENTS A LIFETIME OF COLLECTING, A FIERCE COMMITMENT AND DEDICATION TO A PERIOD OF ART, A PASSIONATE UNENDING SEARCH, ATTENDING AUCTIONS, ART FAIRS, AND GALLERIES, VACUUMING UP KNOWLEDGE FROM EVERY DEALER, SPECIALIST AND CURATOR. EACH AUCTION HOUSE COMPETES AGGRESSIVELY FOR A SIGNIFICANT ESTATE OR COLLECTION OFFERING GUARANTEES, PREMIUM CATALOGUE PLACEMENT, SOMETIMES A SEPARATE PUBLICATION, AS WELL AS EVENTS PREVIEWING THE WORK, TRAVELING HIGHLIGHTS TO THEIR RESPECTIVE AUCTION HOUSES AROUND THE WORLD.
THE PASSION OF THE COLLECTOR RESONATES IN A SINGLE OWNER SALE, SUCH AS CHRISTIE’S ANDY WILLIAMS: AN AMERICAN LEGEND.
In addition to music, Williams’s other great passion was art. His collecting philosophy was based on exemplary connoisseurship – taking time to study an artist’s oeuvre and buying only the best examples… with special emphasis on artists working in New York and Los Angeles, some of whom he knew: de Kooning (a favorite), Hofmann, Diebenkorn, Kline, Noland, Ruscha, Motherwell, Oldenburg and Basquiat. ‘I could not imagine a life without paintings,’ he once admitted. ‘I look at my paintings every day… I could not imagine a room without art.’
THE ARTIST DAMIEN HIRST HAS BEEN AN IMPASSIONED COLLECTOR SINCE CHILDHOOD. IN THE BARBICAN EXHIBIT, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSIONS: THE ARTIST AS COLLECTOR, HIRST SPEAKS ABOUT HIS COLLECTION OF SKULLS, TAXIDERMY AND MEDICAL MODELS AS
…reminders of what life is, and what it might be or will end up being. A collection is deeply personal, and says so much about who the collector is, and what they believe in or are afraid of, but I think it also inevitably ends up speaking of many fundamental and universal truths.
DURING HIS 16-YEAR TENURE AT CHRISTIE’S, ROBERT MANLEY, FORMER DEPUTY CHAIR OF THEIR POST-WAR AND CONTEMPORARY DEPARTMENT, LED SEVERAL OF THE HIGHEST-GROSSING SALES IN AUCTION HISTORY. HE WORKED CLOSELY WITH MANY OF OUR MOST PRESTIGIOUS COLLECTORS AND BROUGHT THEIR WORK TO THE MARKET AS HE CONTINUES TO DO SO AS DEPUTY CHAIR OF PHILLIPS.
THE LRFA BLOG IS PLEASED TO CONTINUE ITS DIALOGUE WITH AUCTION EXPERT, ROBERT MANLEY, ON THE ART OF AUCTION.
YOU ARE KNOWN AS A “RAINMAKER”, AND JUSTIFIABLY SO. HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE THAT MONIKER?
I take that as a compliment, but I’m not comfortable with these kinds of descriptions, there is far too much ego in it. I know full well that a fair amount of the business that I’ve done has been a result of my being at the leading contemporary auction house. At the end of the day, the focus should be on the art, the artists, the collectors and the dealers (in that order)…auction house “rainmakers” should be near the bottom of the attention-getting food chain.
I think of myself as an advisor of sorts, someone who helps people with making smart decisions when it comes to building their collections. If you build trust and confidence with people, they will think of you when it comes time to sell. I also get a fair amount of referral business from people I’ve worked closely with. Most of the “rain” that I’ve made has come from people who I’ve worked with over the years.
I admire truly experienced art advisors, who understand the business, know the history behind things and the market. In some ways, people like you are how I model everything I do and that’s not a facile compliment.
IN AN INDUSTRY THAT IS HIGHLY COMPETITIVE, WHAT GUIDANCE DO YOU GIVE A COLLECTOR IN TERMS OF HIS OR HER EXPECTATIONS WHEN CONSIGNING A WORK? AT AUCTION, CATALOGUE PLACEMENT, SALE PLACEMENT, PRIVATE SALES VS. AUCTION, TO NAME A FEW CONSIDERATIONS THAT COME TO MIND.
That is an excellent question, and one could write a book with the answer. I hate to generalize, but I know from experience that the most important thing is that the work must have a sensible and attractive estimate. The rest is essentially window dressing. If you are working with a knowledgeable auction specialist or advisor, put your trust in them and more often than not, you’ll be rewarded with a successful outcome. Don’t be seduced by aggressive estimates.
Regarding private sale versus auction for contemporary art, it really depends on the object, but in general, I think auction houses thrive best with classic examples by big name artists. In general, auction houses are not set up to handle private sales for works of art under $250,000 and they have little success with artworks that are atypical or by artists who don’t have a strong track record.
One increasingly smart option for collectors is to get both auction and private sale options from an auction house, what we call a “rollover” consignment … an object is consigned for a limited period of time for private sale, and if it doesn’t sell, it immediately goes to auction. In this scenario, consigning a lower priced artwork to an auction house makes sense for all parties concerned.
For a large percentage of the art that is in search of a home, an auction house is not the best place for it. A good auction specialist refers plenty of business to dealers who are better equipped and more knowledgeable about a particular artist. I would rather give clients the best advice, even if it means some business goes elsewhere.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SALES THAT YOU CONSIDER THE MOST SIGNIFICANT?
In 2004, Christie’s had the first Contemporary Auction that surpassed $100 million…we had a great Pollock work on paper from MoMA that sold for a world record price for the artist of around $10 million. We all thought there probably would never be another $100 million Contemporary sale, at least not for many years (anyone who tells you otherwise is lying). Little did we know that it would be the beginning of an incredible bull run in the contemporary market, in which every season would be more valuable than the next.
One important landmark was Christie’s May 2013 Post-War and Contemporary Evening sale auction. At $495 million, it which was the highest value sale of its kind, anywhere, in any category. Previously, all of the top value auctions were Impressionist and Modern sales. Now that the contemporary department had surpassed that, it was clear there would be no going back. The disparity between the Contemporary and Impressionist and Modern sales would increasingly grow with each passing season. This isn’t because one market was better or stronger, but simply there wasn’t enough supply of great Impressionist and Modern works.
One sale that was lower value, but as meaningful as any I was involved with, was the Outsider Art auction that I curated for Christie’s in 2003. Consisting mostly of works from the incomparable Robert Greenberg collection, it was the first standalone outsider auction at an international auction house. I somehow squeezed this project in, in-between my working 80 hours a week at Christie’s East on the 20th Art sales.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SPECIFIC WORKS AND/OR COLLECTIONS THAT WERE THE MOST OUTSTANDING DURING THE TIME YOU HEADED THE POST-WAR AND CONTEMPORARY SALES?
One of the most memorable experiences was a consignment of a painting by the Abstract Expressionist painter Clyfford Still. Dating from 1947, dramatically painted in red and black, and in the same collection for over 40 years, the painting had all of the fire and jagged energy that you could ask for. It was truly as good a painting as you would ever get on the market, and since the artist sold few works in his lifetime (with the rest locked up in a trust), it was extremely rare. The deal was still being done on July 30, 2006, and as my fiancée was walking down the aisle, I remember taking the call from the consignor (I kept the call brief!). I worked on the deal throughout my entire honeymoon. Estimated at $5-7 million, it sold for over $21 million, a world record at the time.
I will also never forget working with Andy Williams and Anita Kahn, and bringing their collections to market when they died. It was bittersweet selling the works of two good friends, but I knew that I honored their collection and their memory in a way that few people could have. The auction results were astonishingly good, both between $70-$100 million, which is a testament to their eye and their passion.
IN OUR NEXT LRFA POST, ROBERT WILL DESCRIBE THE ENORMOUS SCOPE AND SCALE OF FOCUS AND DEDICATION THAT A SIGNIFICANT POSITION IN THE AUCTION WORLD DEMANDS. ROBERT IS PASSIONATE ABOUT HIS WORK AND ABOUT ART AND HERE TO ANSWER YOUR QUESTIONS ABOUT THE ROLE OF AUCTION SPECIALIST!