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If you can’t beat them...

Auction houses and some dealers are setting their traditional rivalries aside

Sigmar Polke’s Laterna Magica, 1988-96, at Christie’s Mayfair

Auction houses are increasingly asking their traditional rivals, independent art dealers, to organise selling exhibitions in their spaces. As firms such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s continue to encroach on the territory of commercial galleries, these selling shows are the latest example of the auction houses’ efforts to turn themselves into one-stop, all-purpose art service centres offering everything to everyone. And while dealers may grumble about the auction houses running spaces, which host the sort of shows you would expect to see in a traditional gallery, for several the lure of the firms’ global reach and international brand recognition is proving hard to resist.

In London, Christie’s Mayfair is currently hosting “Polke/Richter Richter/ Polke” (until 7 July), co-curated by Darren Leak, one of the firm’s specialists in post-war and contemporary art, and Kenny Schachter, who runs London’s Rove gallery. Across the Atlantic, Sotheby’s S2 selling space in New York appealed to a different audience last month with a dedicated show of artists’ jewellery, in collaboration with the London dealer Louisa Guinness. Meanwhile, Sotheby’s in London is this month opening a show devoted to the work of Banksy at S2 (12 June-25 July). It has been organised by the dealer Steve Lazarides, who was the artist’s agent until 2009.

Other collaborations include a show devoted to the French artistic duo Les Lalanne at S2 in New York last autumn, which was co-organised by the New York dealer Paul Kasmin and the collector Michael Shvo.

Both Leak and Schachter acknowledge that there is an element of experimentation in their partnership. “We’re still finding our feet; this is just the third show [at Christie’s Mayfair],” says Leak. “This is a hybrid: a gallery run by an auction house,” Schachter says. “We are doing what a gallery would do and what a museum would do.”

There are clear benefits to both parties. For Schachter, the link-up allows him to focus on putting shows together while the auction house deals with the practicalities. “Christie’s has the resources to talk to people on the ground, to deal with copyright issues… it frees me up.”

The arrangements also give dealers, who mostly operate out of one venue, access to an auction house’s global spaces and collector base while the auction houses are able to present the more in-depth look at artists that dealers can provide. Indeed Christie’s Mayfair follows on from the firm’s own short-lived attempt at primary market sales through the Haunch of Venison gallery (whose former London space now serves as its gallery).

Terms of business are not disclosed, though these are understood to vary for each exhibition and range from offering dealers a curating fee to an undisclosed share of sales.

In terms of revenue for the auction houses, private sales (including through gallery spaces) are growing fast. Last year private sales at Christie’s grew by 18% to $1.2bn, while its global auction sales were up 12% year-on-year to $5.9bn. At Sotheby’s, worldwide private sales in 2013 grew 30% to achieve $1.2bn; its aggregate auction sales were $5.1bn, up 15% from the previous year.

The partnerships are also one way that the auction houses can keep dealers—who have historically supported their sales and on whose turf they are now treading—onside. However, some remain to be convinced of the value of such collaborations. Javier Peres of the Berlin-based Peres Projects says: “I have been asked repeatedly, but I am really a primary gallery, so to curate a show in an auction house would be a little bit cheeky.”

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Comments

13 Jun 14
18:55 CET

JACK WAKEFIELD, LONDON

Darren Leak is a rare bird almost never found or recognised in an auction house: a genuinely passionate contemporary art lover. After all, wouldn't most want to work in the primary market? It was masterful to recognise his talents and to harness them in this exciting way. Sotheby's, in London at least, have no one line him.

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