Phillips de Pury to represent Annie Leibovitz

For the first time the auction house will act as dealer for a living artist

LONDON. Phillips de Pury is to represent the photographer Annie Leibovitz in a move which further blurs the boundaries between auction houses and dealers. According to Simon de Pury, Phillips’s energetic chairman, Leibovitz approached the auction house through Charlie Scheips, its worldwide director of photographs, who joined in 2007 and has known the photographer since 1987.

Leibovitz previously worked with New York dealer Edwynn Houk for seven years. (Mr Houk declined to comment.) Phillips will take responsibility for Leib­ovitz’s Master Set—the artist’s own selection of 200 representative works—and her archives, while New York agency Art + Com­merce will continue to represent her commercial work.

The auction house will hold its first Leibovitz exhibition on 23 October (until 22 November) in its London headquarters on Howick Place. This will coincide with the National Portrait Gallery exhibition Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990-2005 (16 October-1 February 2009).

Each large-format print at Phillips will be stamped and signed, and priced at £20,000 ($37,000). The auction house would not disclose what commission it will take from these sales, although it is unlikely to vary dramatically from the usual contemporary gallery level of around 50%. Phillips says no Leibovitz works from its selling exhibitions will be offered at auction. The two strands of the business are completely separate, says Mr de Pury.

Phillips already represents the estates of photographers Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin. However, the Leibovitz partnership is the first time Phillips has represented a living artist and comes at a time when the firm has been investing heavily in initiatives that embrace what Mr de Pury calls “contemporary culture”. These include the auction house’s swanky new London premises; its free-entry sponsorship of Charles Saatchi’s new gallery (opening in London this month and rumoured to have cost the firm an initial £2m); and the launch of several sale categories (including “toy art”). The firm has also been the first to promote artists such as Terence Koh and Ugo Rondinone by putting them into major sales before they were known to the auction market.

Larry Warsh, the former publisher of Museums Magazine and collector who has both bought and sold at Phillips, praises the firm for “getting people involved through some of their new categories. They are very creative, although,” he adds “they could market some of their bigger sales more successfully.”

Some believe the risks Phillips takes are potentially damaging to the market. One collector who asked not to be named said: “Phillips can be careless at auction as they are prepared to let things die which then damages a market. It’s a place to buy, not to sell.” Mr de Pury admits that “we don’t know how some of our initiatives will turn out, and we know we are taking a risk, but we also know that innovation is best for contemporary culture as a whole.”

What is also unknown is what these initiatives are costing Phillips which is a private company majority owned by Simon de Pury and ten partners. After a lacklustre contemporary art sale in London in June, there were rumours that a new investor from Russia had placed substantial funds at Phillips’s disposal (The Art Newspaper, September 2008, p53). Mr de Pury declines to comment on Phillips’s business structure but says that the firm would be “able to sustain itself on the revenue we make from all activities”, regardless of any outside investment.

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