Preparing Christie’s for a quantum leap
Steven Murphy looks back on his first year as the auction house’s chief executive
By Melanie Gerlis. Market, Issue 230, December 2011
Published online: 13 December 2011
Christie’s hired Steven Murphy as its first American chief executive in September 2010, when he replaced Ed Dolman (who was made chairman but has since joined the Qatar Museums Authority). Murphy’s appointment surprised the market given his music and publishing—rather than art or auction—background. “Veteran auction watchers are scratching their heads,” said New York’s CultureGrrl column at the time. Since then, say staff, he has worked hard to win respect throughout the business, exerting a subtle but positive influence on the world’s largest auction house. Murphy, who is based in Christie’s London headquarters, talks to The Art Newspaper about his work over the past year, his plans to introduce “quantum changes” to the business in the internet age and how he will never shake off those rumours about Qatar.
The Art Newspaper: You started just over a year ago—what have been your priorities?
Steven Murphy: I arrived with the assignment from the owners [the French holding company Artemis, which belongs to François Pinault] to come up with a plan for Christie’s future and how to expand it into the new environment that we are living in. But in the beginning, the first important thing was to meet the people. When I was offered this job, I took some time to think about it and wrote a list of the things I wanted to do better. One of them was to meet everybody one on one. So I must have had around 180 meetings in the first few months, all round the world. It was beneficial to learn about Christie’s that way.
What do you mean by the “new environment” we are in?
Christie’s was doing well when I started, but it was at a time when the world around it was changing dramatically. There is no way that this industry will be the only industry—alongside movies, books, magazines, real estate, car rental—that will be inured from the internet age and the disintermediation that goes with it. How do you get the integrity of 1766 [when Christie’s was founded] and 2016 right?
Can it be the same in the art world as for other industries?
As Audrey Hepburn said at the end of [the film] “Roman Holiday”, “each, in its own way”—it is different, but the challenge is the same. I’ll give you an example. My wife and I recently rented a car for the day. She signed up for a service where you book a car, walk two blocks, swipe your card on the windscreen to unlock it and the keys are inside. We used it for ten hours and then returned it to the parking spot, put the key back in the glove compartment, swiped it again and went. It cost us [only] £80 because there’s no garage, there’s no paperwork, there’s no clerks.
How can you relate that to a business like Christie’s?
The elements are the same for us. There is an increase in potential new buyers in the market because of the ubiquity of imagery available on your iPhone, on your laptop, in high definition. If you hear about something at a cocktail party, you can look at it on the way home.
Does that diminish the importance of the object?
No. It increases the drive towards art and, concomitantly, makes it more significant to be in front of the picture. The collector’s microchip means that having the one becomes more important the more people see it. How many more people saw the Richter candle than would have five years ago? [On 14 October, Christie’s London sold Richter’s Kerze (Candle), 1982, for £10.5m, a record for the artist.] The answer is an exponential number. I find that very exciting.
But how does that work in practice?
One department that is profitable, successful and has enormous market share is watches. A Patek Philippe or a Longines has a number on it, the provenance is clear [making it easier to sell online]. At one of our sales in Geneva [May 2011] there were 203 people in the room for a watch sale and 800 bidding online live from around the world, including for over $1m on one or two pieces.
Did you find it frustrating to come in and immediately be labelled the outsider?
Of course there was some of that and some scepticism, there’s always the “new guy” syndrome. But it’s not my job to do their job, I’m not qualified to be a specialist. It’s my job to create the environment for the specialists to succeed. I felt welcomed fairly soon.
Ed Dolman left to join the Qatar Museums Authority and chief operating officer Lisa King left in March—did they not like what you were doing?
People have left here before, so in my view there haven’t been that many high-profile departures. Ed, with whom I have a great relationship today, moved on to a great opportunity and that’s true for many people here. We’ve put through some real shifts—although the quantum changes will come next year—and still have a very coherent team.
What is your relationship with François Pinault?
I have a strong relationship with him. I feel very lucky to be part of a company that is owned by someone with such a passionate interest in what we do. It’s important. There is a constant dedication to what we do each day that lives and breathes in the ownership structure and that is felt throughout the organisation.
Sotheby’s talks about margin erosion and an increasingly competitive environment—are you suffering from this too, or are you creating it?
We like to think of the old adage that at Christie’s we are gentlemen (and women). But we are competitive and I believe that Christie’s is already and increasingly serving a much larger constituency than Sotheby’s.
Is competition coming from the auction houses in China?
The art world is a big world, it’s not defined by the two auction houses. It’s broad, and the opportunities are big for Christie’s.
What percentage of your business do private sales account for, and where do you see this going?
I expect it will double and then double again. The reason it’s growing and why we’re investing in it is because it’s what our clients (as buyers and sellers) want.
What about guarantees? These fell considerably after the crisis, but third-party guarantees have risen this season.
It’s a healthier environment now. But at the right time, there’s nothing wrong with a guarantee, no apologies.
The Emir of Qatar has said he would be interested in acquiring Christie’s and I heard that, just before you arrived, they made an offer that was deemed too low. Is there still interest from that direction?
I’ve never worked in a company that didn’t have this sort of question asked about it. All I can say is, everybody is always still there. But everything I’ve talked about, everything we are doing, is about investing in the long term future of Christie’s.
Do you think volumes in the market are down? If so, is it risky to invest if the market is shrinking?
I don’t believe the market is shrinking, I think that the true market is quite broad. Our performance so far this year in [major] categories shows that the appetite for these works is unabated. There’s additional Chinese and Asian buyers, but also 47% of our 28% new buyers’ pool last year was from the US and Europe.
What have been your auction highlights since joining?
There have been so many… That Roman helmet [in October 2010 a helmet found with a metal detector in Crosby Garrett sold for £2.3m against an estimate of £200,000-£300,000]. Or the Stubbs painting [Gimcrack on Newmarket Heath, with a Trainer, Stable-Lad, and a Jockey, 1765, sold for £22.4m in July], which has only been sold four times since the late 18th century, all four times at Christie’s.
How did you secure the Elizabeth Taylor consignments (beginning with the jewellery sales on 13-14 December)?
We are completely honoured to have this consignment, and it’s because the team has been close to the family for so many years that we’ve earned their trust. Soon after I started at Christie’s, we secured a major renaissance drawing for sale and I wanted to thank the specialist in charge. I said: “It’s a triumph, and some day you can explain to me how you do it.” His reply: “I’ll tell you right now. You just meet someone, and then honour them with your friendship and advice for 25 years.”
2010 Appointed chief executive of Christie’s International
2002-10 Chief executive of Rodale Inc, US-based publisher of Men’s Health and Runner’s World, among others. Murphy joined the company in 2000
1998-2000 Managing director for Disney Publishing Worldwide
1991-98 President of EMI Music/Angel Records
1985-91 Division president at publishing group Simon & Schuster
1971-75 Bachelor’s degree in English literature from Georgetown University, Washington DC
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