In the art world, auctioneers play a very crucial role. The man holding the gavel in the auction room is the fabric the weaves the room together, and the difference between a good one and a great one can amount to millions of dollars.
Phillips de Pury is a leading auction house dealing in contemporary art and design. Its chairman and chief auctioneer, Simon de Pury is one of the best-known names in the auction world. Asia Tatler speaks to de Pury about his career in arts and learn more about what’s it like to take charge, with and without a gavel in hand.
Asia Tatler: Do you have any auction rituals?
Simon de Pury: Before each auction I eat an apple. It started in 1993 when I conducted an auction for the contents of a castle in Regensburg, Germany. They had bowls with apples and I would always help myself to them before going on. The auction was so successful that I thought it had to do with the apples. So I always eat an apple about one hour before starting an auction.
AT: Do you have a lucky gavel?
SP: I used to have a very old, ivory gavel that had been given to me when I started in the business, but you can no longer travel with the ivory. Now I have a wooden gavel.
AT: Do you have any other lucky charms?
SP: With superstitions it’s like anything else, you can collect them. Every time I see or hear about a new superstition I add it to my collection.
AT: What’s the most expensive item you’ve sold?
SP: Andy Warhol’s Men in Her Life. It shows Elizabeth Taylor with two of her husbands. It sold for US$63,362,500.
AT: What’s the best find you’ve ever made?
SP: As a collector, my best find is always my latest find. So, the most important work is always my next work.
AT: What’s your personal collection like?
SP: My personal collection is very eclectic. Of course, I collect contemporary art because I’ve been at it for a long time, but at the same time I have been buying photography, furniture, design, and African art. Some works are very expensive and some works of little value I find at the flea market or on eBay. What is exciting is a dialogue between different artworks.
AT: What have you bought from eBay?
SP: There are these ceramic mugs in the shapes of cartoon characters like Superman, Donald Duck, or politicians that you used to be able to buy in airports and now you can only buy them on eBay. I’ve also been collecting Godzillas.
AT: Have you ever been particularly attached to an auction item?
SP: We all are only guardians of the works that we are privileged to look after it for a certain time, and we can’t take those works with us when we die. So it’s not an absolute necessity to keep every work we have acquired during our lifetime.
AT: Which auction is the most interesting one you’ve attended?
SP: In 1988, when things were changing in Russia, I conducted the first auction to take place in Moscow since 1917 for Sotheby’s. As a result of the auction, the official artists backed by the state were no longer sought after and it was the unofficial artists, who before the auction could not exhibit their artworks freely, that were able to sell their works. The whole situation changed for artists in Russia as a result of that auction.
AT: What impact is the Chinese economy having on the auction circuit?
SP: What has been very interesting over the last 10 years is how global the art market has become. For instance, Chinese contemporary art has become a global phenomenon. One thing is sure, the proportion of Asian art in money terms versus the global art market is going to go up and up, hand in hand with the economic development in general.
AT: How are Asian collectors different from their European and American counterparts?
SP: I think that Chinese are naturally attracted to the whole auction process. They like the excitement of the auction, and they like to participate directly.