Saturday, March 10, 2012

Inside Sotheby's

From n+1:

  • Sotheby’s, Inc. New York. 2009–present.
I spent the summer after graduation reading novels in McCarren Park. I had been warned that nobody was hiring and was secretly relieved because this meant it wasn’t entirely on me to have a legitimate job. I could copy-edit and babysit and transfer money from my savings account to my checking account in prudent but relentless $50 installments. It was fun so long as it was warm out, but by late September it was too chilly to read outside, and I was running out of money.

A classmate from college set me up at Sotheby’s, a company I knew little about. In my interview, I told my future boss that I had never been able to imagine an idea that could be best expressed by painting it. “But,” I added, making exaggerated eye contact, “appreciating art doesn’t mean you can send effective emails. I can write. I can make your job easier for you.” This is the best thing to say in an interview if you are young and unqualified to do anything other than maintain a personal blog. I started three weeks later.

This was October 2009, one year after “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” the most garish triumph by an auction house ever. For that sale, Damien Hirst consigned 223 new pieces to Sotheby’s in London, cutting out his dealers Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian. “I was indoctrinated by the gallery system—that you don’t do auctions,” Hirst told the Sunday Times. “If you don’t like the rules, change the rules.” The presale estimate was $122–176 million; the sale would bring in an outrageous $201 million, upwards of six times the previous record for a Sotheby’s single-artist sale (set in 1993 by the Estate of Pablo Picasso). But even more outrageous, in retrospect, was the date: September 15, 2008, the very day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.

What followed was a down year for the art world. In 2009, worldwide auction revenues were barely half what they had been in 2007. Ad pages in the September 2009 Artforum, the one with the depressing gray Sherrie Levine cover (the one still lying around the office when I started) were down more than 40 percent. But my October arrival coincided with a new and cautious optimism. Everything was taken as a talisman. High estimates intimated a return to glory, and retracted items signaled despair.
Glory won out, decisively: in 2010, sales increased by 60 percent to $774 million. William F. Ruprecht, Sotheby’s CEO, earned $5.97 million, up from $2.4 million in 2009. The average pay increase during this time for top executives at major US companies was 12 percent; at Sotheby’s, it was over 90 percent. This past August, as the double-dip recession strode firmly into view, Sotheby’s proudly reported the most profitable quarter in its 267-year history.

It was obvious from my very first day that Sotheby’s would be exactly as I had come to imagine it. As the elevator reached each floor, archetypes spilled forth. Tweedy men got off at Rare Books, preppies at Impressionism, former sorority pledges at HR. The cool girls got off at Contemporary. In their jewel-tone flats and blended eye makeup, they were the ones who most resembled works of art.
These girls seemed immune to New York’s damning seasons, which always threaten to expose one’s tax bracket, especially if it is low. The summer sun didn’t melt their makeup, and the winter wind didn’t mar their manes. They were driven in cars and cabs that were kept at a constant 68 degrees. At night and on weekends, they attended galas, museum openings, and brunches in East Hampton. But during business hours, they went on client visits, consulted on prices, and tirelessly secured property. They were friendly on the phone, enthusiastic about the art, and harder working than people who look and talk like that usually need to be.

Hired as a researcher, I was assigned the task of going through the catalogues raisonnés of the Contemporary Art department’s top-grossing artists—Warhol, Koons, Prince, Richter, Rothko—and determining the whereabouts of every piece that had ever come onto the global market. The Excel spreadsheets I worked on each day (column 1: image, column 2: title, column 3: year, column 4: cataloguing, column 5: present owner) would serve to expedite the future searches of collectors, who might want, say, a big, mostly purple Richter from the mid-’80s. Sometimes a painting was in a museum (the auction houses hate this because it makes the work more or less permanently priceless). Other times, a prominent collector was listed as the work’s owner. Usually, though, I was trying to track down pieces in anonymous private collections. Sometimes a city or country was provided, unhelpfully. Private Collection, France. Or more often than not: Private Collection, Liechtenstein.

There were many ways to gather this information: hand-annotated auction catalogues, holograph index cards, old issues of the New York Times, cunning questions asked in the right way to foundation archivists in good moods. The method was cobbled together, and success depended on both a high tolerance for monotony and a willingness to flirt. I laughed sparkling laughs and framed my inquiries as either massive or negligible impositions. Sometimes I apologized: “I’m sorry, but I have a huge favor to ask, do you know where . . .” Other times I used a postscript: “Oh, and just one tiny, last thing: I’ve been told that . . .”

Founded in London in 1744, Sotheby’s is the world’s fourth-oldest continuously operating auction house. In 1955, a New York office opened, and in 1967, Sotheby’s acquired Parke-Bernet, then the largest auction house in the US. Once a Kodak warehouse, the present New York location—on 72nd and York, a block from the FDR—is a modern, 22,000-square-foot building. In an attempt to preserve some old-world charm, the Sotheby’s website adheres to a European floor-numbering scheme: The About Us page describes the New York headquarters as “a soaring nine-story glass atrium.” (By an American’s estimation, there are ten floors.) The bookstore in the lobby has been colonized by Assouline, the French publisher of luxury monographs (In the Spirit of Aspen, The Well-Lived Life, Veuve Clicquot Yellow). Upstairs are six floors of collecting departments and five salesrooms; the main auction room (on the seventh floor) can seat 1,200. The tenth floor has a museum-caliber exhibition space and a café—both surrounded by a wraparound terrace that yields panoramic views of Manhattan. The lower floors are marble, and the bathroom walls are striped buttery shades of yellow. You would never guess that the building has bowels at all, but it does: they are concrete and buzz with blue-suited art handlers who all wear name tags....MORE