Treasure Hunter

Discretion and the instinct of a hunter are called for in Cheyenne Westphal’s job: She looks after the multimillion-dollar contemporary art business at Sotheby’s auction house.

Since last February, Cheyenne Westphal and Alexander Rotter have been jointly responsible for contemporary art at Sotheby’s, the world’s leading auction house for fine art alongside Christie’s. Westphal grew up in Baden-Baden, Germany, went to school in Scotland and studied at Berkeley, California.

Ms. Westphal, you have been working at Sotheby’s for over 20 years. You were recently given global responsibility for contemporary art. What kinds of changes has that meant for you? I guess the main difference is I now spend much more time in New York. But in Europe, I also focus more on the pictures that will be sold in New York. European collectors have magnificent works that play a part in shaping the New York market. When Tobias Meyer, the star auctioneer whose charismatic appearances and numerous record-breaking sales made him for many years the face of Sotheby’s, left the company last November, I took over the role. My first major assignment in that position was a London auction, which went unbelievably well. Generally, though, New York auctions for contemporary art fetch higher prices – somewhere between $300 million and $500 million in total.

And you are there to ensure it doesn’t drop below that level? The market is our measure. A great deal is possible at the moment. Prices are high, customers are interested in selling and the buyers are out there.

I imagine you’re always looking ahead to the next auction. How does an artwork find its way to Sotheby’s? There are certain artists who always fetch high prices: all the Americans from the Pop Art movement, Europeans such as Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni and, increasingly, of course, German artists like Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer, Martin Kippenberger… Then there’s the younger league, people like Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool. And we’re also working on a fresh program involving young talent. We might get our hands on one of Lucien Smith’s “Rain Paintings,” which the New York-based artist creates by aiming paint-filled fire extinguishers at a white canvas.

What’s the best way to get hold of pieces that are in demand? It’s really all about nurturing good relations. That’s exactly what I’ve been doing for years. Generally speaking, collectors acquire an artwork with a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s my job to make sure that parting with it again, once they decide to resell it, is as simple a process as possible. That means I look after the consignment from the outset and try to match it up with a buyer who is an equally valued client.

IKB 271 by Yves Klein

IKB 271 by Yves Klein temporarily hangs in Westphal’s office along with another work by Klein.

As a rule, collectors acquire an artwork with a lot of blood, sweat and tears. It’s my job to make reselling it is as easy as possible.” Cheyenne Westphal

With Christie’s as a rival, you presumably have to invest everything into securing the acquisition. What’s it like when you pull out all the stops? I’m extremely focused from the very beginning – both on the artwork and on the seller. We usually operate as a team and deliver an excellent offer tailored to the specific requirements of the vendor. Then it’s all about finding the right level. What price should the work fetch? What kind of marketing is required? Where should we exhibit? Do we show the work at our Hong Kong branch because it’s appropriate for the Chinese market? Or do we take it to Doha because there may be possibilities in the Middle East? How should we put the catalogue together, and what about our Internet presence? Then there’s always the delicate issue of whether the seller prefers anonymity. I can’t afford to ease off for a second. I know that our competitors will be hard on our heels and making their own pitch. We have to tailor every aspect individually.

Tobias Meyer once wept in an interview when describing the nerve-jangling, emotionally charged process he went through to acquire Warhol’s Silver Car Crash. I can understand that completely. It’s not every day you get to see a monumental masterpiece like that.

What takes priority in your job: discretion, the killer instinct or knowing how to handle a collector? You need all of those things. A hunting instinct can be very important, because the market is driven by fierce competition. You have to be quick off the mark, as well as a little brazen sometimes. You might approach a collector who is not even thinking of selling and ask, “So, how about it then?” Discretion is very important, particularly with collectors who value privacy above all else. Sometimes it can take years to even develop a point of access.

You are working in the biggest and fastest-growing market segment in art. Given the size of the business involved, isn’t there a risk that the artwork itself loses something of its original appeal? It’s always important to find something you identify with strongly. Take this wonderful “Anthropometry” series painting by Yves Klein for the New York auction. [She points to the canvas with an ultramarine-blue print depicting a woman’s body.] This is a work I’ve loved for years. Another work for which I have huge admiration is Wand by Gerhard Richter. The artist had the painting in his own collection in 2010. And last February we auctioned this sensational work for $28.7 million in London.

An auction is a fast-moving, tightly timed sequence of events. The few minutes in which the lot is auctioned decide the success or otherwise of your months of acquisitioning and preparatory work. Yes, but even more important is how we orchestrate the evening’s sale. At the last London auction, we started off with more recent art. Then came a fairly minor Richter, which was already the focus of buyers’ attention in the run-up to the event. It was a great warm-up for Wand. Then there was Twombly’s Untitled (Rome), which fetched a record price for the artist. And finally, Richter’s Wand. If this gradual build-up misfires, however, the tension can easily go out of the auction.

Do you feel a certain responsibility for the auctioneer at moments like that? We provide backup. He’s very involved in terms of what should happen – who is talking to which client on the phone and taking bids, or which collector might join the bidding in the room.

The sums realized during a single evening in an auction room can be astronomic. As the person who stage-manages this grand theatre of bidding, do you ever get nervous? I get a little tense, I have to confess. On the one hand, it’s exciting to see how much money is paid for art at auction and how the prices become accepted as the status quo by the market. On the other hand, high prices force up collectors’ expectations. The next picture in the mould of Silver Car Crash probably won’t have a valuation of $60 million, but $70 million or $80 million. The price barrier is going up all the time.

How do you feel about this? Psychologically, it’s crucial to provide a valuation that reflects the importance of the picture but also generates competition.

Auction houses are increasingly attracting the super-rich from all over the world. Can contemporary art even continue to challenge and explore social issues when it is the object of desire of billionaires? I think you can look at this in a number of ways. Of course, the latest billionaires are on the lookout for internationally recognized masterpieces to surround themselves with at home and promote their lifestyle: my penthouse apartment, my yacht, my Koons. We sell these pictures and objects – and not necessarily bulky installations or video works. At the same time, however, more art – including non-commercial art – is being made, shown and talked about than ever before. The artists at the Whitney Biennial in New York, for example, were not only very young, they were also highly critical of the art market in particular.

An elite clientele with unlimited means is part of the reason why art is becoming more and more expensive and ending up in the hands of private collectors, out of sight of the general public. Museums can no longer keep pace. How do you see your role as a setter of artistic trends? It has always been a challenge to buy for museums at auction, because there’s no way of knowing the final price. Usually they don’t have enough time to get the funding together in advance of the auction. But we also support museums around the world through sponsorship and charity auctions.

In 2013, global art market sales rose to $47.7 billion – a result due in part to the increasing revenues from private sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, art deals made “behind closed doors.” Sure, private sales have become part of the company’s regular business. We arrange a lot of private sales through our S|2 gallery, with offices in New York and London. These happen because we know where artworks are in the world – and who is looking for what. So dealing continues all year round.

Your involvement in private sales takes you out of the auction house and into the world of the gallerist. Does that not cause a certain amount of resentment? Of course, our gallery and these kinds of activities tend to divide opinion. But I should stress that we don’t represent artists, we don’t build them up or try to promote them in the way the gallerists do.

Would it be fair to say that S|2 is an attempt to gradually move away from traditional dealing, to stop seeing art as a commodity? At the first London exhibition, we presented drawings and sculptures by Joseph Beuys, an artist one wouldn’t immediately describe as commercial. I curated that exhibition myself. But let’s be honest: Our business interests are clear. Sotheby’s is about selling and buying art.

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