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Are fairs big enough for both galleries and auction houses?

Some galleries feel the major auction houses are encroaching on their rightful territory

Fundamentally, fairs are how the highly fragmented dealer community produces a significant counterweight to the auction houses, who have just shown in New York how much firepower they can muster.

Auction houses have the financial clout and international networks to organise swanky parties, glittering auctions and the buy-it-now-or-you’ll-lose-it experience. Dealers, mostly operating from a single base, few of them with international offshoots, have fought back by consolidating into art fairs. This gives them the missing international reach and offers the same buy-it-now experience—as well as a full programme of events and a lively party scene. But the very success of art fairs is attracting more and more attention from the auction houses, which are also constantly looking for new ways to expand at Miami this week. For the second time, Christie’s is holding an exhibition of highlights this year from its London sale in February 2012. And you can be sure the fair will be visited by auction house specialists with some of their top clients in tow, who will be treated to smart dinners and private visits to local collections as well as a trawl through the aisles of ABMB.

Does this matter? It’s natural that auction house staff should visit the fair, to see what’s on the market and at what price. Indeed, auction houses have a thoroughly symbiotic relationship with the trade. If an artist makes a big price at auction, a dealer won’t hesitate to flag it up to buyers. Alternatively, dealers can be a valuable source of material for the secondary market by helping the salerooms bulk up a slightly thin catalogue, for example.

Dealers, however, are increasingly wary of auction houses encroaching on their turf, particularly at fairs. A definite no-no is the inclusion of galleries owned by auction houses at fairs: the Christie’s-owned Haunch of Venison gallery, for example, is excluded from the Basel group of fairs.

Another issue is too much emphasis on auction results. The Art Dealers’ Association of America (ADAA) has not allowed the online data site Artnet, which publishes saleroom prices, to have a booth at its annual fair.

The problem overwhelmingly concerns works of art that are frequently at auction, where dealers and the auction houses are in direct competition both for the art and for buyers. But even in the primary market some dealers think auction houses are becoming increasingly aggressive in what they see as “interfering” in the fairs.

The gallerist Claes Nordenhake (H9) is not impressed by the behaviour of some auction houses. “The opening of Art Basel or ABMB is one of the prime moments in our activity, that’s when our major sales are made,” he says. “And that’s also when the major auction houses send all of their specialists with clients, and they steer people away from the booths. They also organise dinners around the fair and take the best tables at the best restaurants.”

Nordenhake was on the Art Basel committee for nine years, and says that this issue was regularly discussed without any solution being found.

Few are as extreme as Nordenhake, although the gallerist David Juda (B5) agrees that the auction houses are becoming more aggressive. “They are continually encroaching on dealers’ territory in other ways as well,” he says, citing their growing private treaty business.

Pilar Ordovas worked at Christie’s before joining Gagosian for two years, and then setting up her own gallery in London this year, so she has been on both sides of the fence. “The fairs are valuable for finding new clients and bringing in new blood, and I don’t see how you can prevent auction houses coming in,” she says. “But a couple of years ago at Basel there were too many VIP passes given out—they let too many auction house people in—that was problematic.”

Like Ordovas, Emmanuel di Donna left Sotheby’s to set up Blain Di Donna, a secondary market gallery in Manhattan, with London’s Harry Blain. “I took clients to fairs when I was with Sotheby’s, and I never saw it as a problem: at the end of the day the clients are not stupid, and they are led by the object,” he says. “Dealers also take their clients to auctions or advise them to buy or not to buy—it’s all the same market.”

Lucy Mitchell-Innes of Mitchell-Innes & Nash (C9), president of the ADAA, finds the presence of auction houses “a bit annoying, because they exhaust the clients with their dinners and exhibitions. An art fair is the gallerists’ time to shine. And I don’t think auction houses should be on the VIP lists at the opening, which is supposed to be a quiet looking and buying time for serious collectors.”

In response, Art Basel’s co-director Marc Spiegler says: “Art Basel does not promote VIP access to auction house staff in the way we do with museum directors, curators, private collectors and artists, although we do extend a certain level of professional courtesy towards directors of the main auction houses, just as we do with directors of other art fairs.” But, he admits: “A certain number of auction house staff attend our shows in their capacity as advisers to collectors, who bring them along as their personal guest.”

At the end of the day, the auction houses and the dealer community need each other, and it is a question of mutual respect. Art Basel committee member and gallerist Xavier Hufkens (C13) says: “All we expect is a little decency.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is this fair big enough for the both of us?'