On 15 September 2008, the art world's equivalent of the City's Big Bang took place at Sotheby's sale room in London. Just as Lehman Brothers was imploding on the other side of town, Damien Hirst bypassed his galleries and dealers to sell 287 lots — a riot of pickled sharks, mounted butterflies, endless spots, all his greatest hits — directly via the auction house, in a two-day sale that hauled in more than $200 million.
In an interview in the auction catalogue, Hirst asserted that the likes of Sotheby's and Christie's were now as vital for the dissemination and appreciation of contemporary art as galleries and museums: “This will blow it wide open and benefit everyone. The art world is already going in this direction, and my auction is just a fast-forward.”
Four years on, Oliver Barker, Sotheby's senior international specialist in contemporary art, and the man who conducted the Hirst auction, is reflecting on the changes that it wrought. “It was a game-changer, in that it flagged up the fact that contemporary art was now the major growth area in the market,” he says, sipping tea in Sotheby's cafe, as various beseeching statues of Jesus and John the Baptist roll past behind him on pallets, bound for the sale room. “And it also changed the perception of the auction houses; we were now seen as major brokers in modern and contemporary art.”
Indeed, the Hirst sale fast-forwarded the auction houses into a modern art boom that continues to buck all recessionary trends. In spring 2012 sales, the Warhols, Lichtensteins, Pollocks, Rothkos and Richters brought Sotheby's its highest sale total ever — $330 million — while, less than a week later, a Christie's evening session ended up making $388.5 million, the highest total ever scored in any category.
For the world's wealthiest people, art — and modern art in particular — is now accepted as the pinnacle of asset-class investment, as well as being an object of desire and a symbol of social status — all of which insulate the top of the art market, those rarefied heights at which Sotheby's and Christie's operate, from the travails of the rest of the global economy.
“Records seem to be felled every other week,” says Ingrid Dudek, a specialist in contemporary Asian art at Christie's. “There are so many places for [ultra high net worth individuals] UHNWIs to put their money, but the art market isn't tethered to other markets, so it's seen as a safer place to go; there's also an enormous pleasure in collecting. And things have shifted; Old Master prices are exorbitantly high, and those works only come up once or twice in a generation, but with modern/contemporary work, you've still got a chance to snap really good stuff up. You're more likely to get a great Warhol than a great Titian. Those combined factors are making for a great moment in the market.”
Barker echoes this point: “We're now selling $1 million-plus paintings to more countries than we have in our history, perhaps 50 or so. There's a synergy involved; collecting brings a sense of sophistication, as it has from the Medicis onwards, but, today, with all the art fairs and Biennales from Miami to Basel, there's also a huge social circuit that goes along with it, plus artists such as Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince have been very canny about building their own brands and attracting their own collectors. I don't think there's ever been a moment in time where Sotheby's engages with so many diverse regions of the world at very high levels.”
Today, 70 per cent of global fine art sales are generated by modern and contemporary art, and the auction houses see it as part of their remit to contextualise their offerings, offering museum-quality shows both in and out of the saleroom; Sotheby's has a dedicated gallery space in its New York premises called S2, which shows single artists or small group shows, and is hosting an exhibition of photos of Lucian Freud by David Dawson and Cecil Beaton in London this summer, while Christie's regularly mounts large-scale selling shows such as this year's House of Cards [click here for video], featuring eye-catching outdoor sculpture scattered amid the verdant grounds of Waddesdon Manor, the Rothschilds' chateau just north of London, including work by Hirst, Richard Serra, David Smith, Donald Judd, and other heavy-hitters. Figures such as Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, and François Pinault, owner of Christie's, have become modern-art eminences in their own right (Pinault's own cutting-edge collection is showcased at his in Venice). “Given the speed at which people are coming to us with no knowledge base, but diving straight into the top end of the market, it's in our interests to help them,” says Barker. “So we curate our own shows, and have a presence at art fairs or museum openings, where we'll try and get clients exclusive access. That's about education rather than transaction. We're as passionate about the art as our clients.”
Last year, China nudged ahead of the US in money spent on art and antiques, and both houses are establishing a strong far eastern presence. Christie's has a 30,000-square-foot exhibition space within its Hong Kong headquarters, and recently mounted a show of Andrew Wyeth — the figurative US painter beloved of a generation of Chinese social-realist artists — in Beijing and Hong Kong; while Sotheby's inaugurated its new Hong Kong space — the entire fifth floor of hotel/retail/office behemoth One Pacific Place — last May, with a show of paintings and sculptures by the iconic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.
“Asia is a huge growth market in terms of the emergence of new collectors,” says Dudek. “And I think modern Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei and Liu Xiaodong, the generation that came out of the post-Mao period, are comparable to the post-Second World War Abstract Expressionist painters in the US. They're reflecting massive cultural and historic change, which is why their work is now equalling the Richters and Hirsts in value.”
“I'd say Hong Kong is now the third leg of the art market stool, with London and New York,” says Barker. “The Chinese are resistant to buying western art so far, but modern Chinese art is huge. There's a museum-building boom in China, and western art collectors will follow. If you're a dealer in London or New York, you have to be looking east and the great prospects it holds – taking your artists there and building your brand.”
And as Hirst's prophecy comes true and the global modern art boom continues to resonate — “one dealer instructed me that today's haut-bourgeois lifestyle comes with an obligation to collect,” wrote the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl recently — the auction houses will bolster their status as facilitators-in-chief. “Many more people are buying art than in the past,” says Barker. “There are enough people out there with deep pockets, laser-like focus, and a real tenacity to go after the very best. And it's our job to bring it to them.”