artnet: Simon de Pury on what 50 years of observing the tastes of the industry have taught him to invest in art
Each month in The Hammer, art industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the veil on his life as the ultimate art world insider, his connections with celebrity and his invaluable understanding of the inner workings of the market. art.
Since I started working as a newbie in the art world 50 years ago, I have watched the art market grow. It did so geographically, in terms of the number of participants, and above all in terms of the price level reached, at the top and overall. Occasionally, especially in the early 90s and for a very short period of time in 2008, there was a temporary slowdown but in absolute terms the market rose more and more. I expect that in the not-too-distant future we will see achieved price levels that none of us ever imagined possible. The very first billion dollar art sale might not be that far away. Documentary evidence on the prices paid for works of art dates back to at least the mid-19th century and also shows an almost continuous upward trend.
There has always been this conversation about so-called “pure” good collectors, and “bad” speculators. Even in my early days, I never met a collector showing me a work and saying, “Look, I bought this for x and now it’s only worth a fraction of that price”. Once you start to devote a significant portion of your financial resources to art, it is only natural that you want to make sure that it is well invested. Seeing the prices go up for what you bought is gratifying because you see it as validation of your exceptional eye and business acumen.
Given the continued growth of the art market, it seems foolproof to invest in it successfully. You would just need to acquire a work of art and sit in it for as long as possible. The only thing that interferes with this assumption, sometimes quite dramatically, is the changing taste and the availability of higher quality works on the market. Until the late 1950s, Old Master paintings financially represented the lion’s share of the art market. Gradually, most of the masterpieces found their way into public collections and were therefore lost to the market. So even if you had theoretically unlimited funds, you would no longer be able to build the best Old Masters collection. On the death of J. Paul Getty, he bequeathed most of his fortune to the J. Paul Getty Foundation. If they have acquired over the years an impressive number of exceptional works, it is simply no longer possible for them to catch up with institutions like the Louvre, the Hermitage, the National Gallery or the Metropolitan Museum.
October 16, 1958: Bidders and auctioneers at an auction by Sotheby’s of the collection of impressionist paintings of New York millionaire Jacob Goldschmidt. Photo by Keystone / Getty Images.
The progressive “drying up” of the leading works of the Old Masters has opened the window to Impressionist and modern art. With it changed the general taste. A super rich collector no longer wanted to live surrounded by the best Old Masters and Italian Renaissance furniture, but the best Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. The most coveted decorative arts to accompany it were 18th century French furniture mounted in gilded bronze, silver, and porcelain. The auctions that Sotheby’s organized in Monaco in the 1970s with works from the Rothschild, Rédé, Béhague, Wildenstein and Ojieh collections responded to this taste. No wonder their evening auctions attracted the tycoons of the time. The 1980s saw the impact of strong Japanese purchases pushing price levels for Impressionists and Post-Impressionists ever higher. This culminated in May 1990 when Ryoei Saito purchased within 24 hours Portrait of Dr Gachet by Vincent van Gogh at Christie’s for $ 82 million and The Moulin de la Galetteby Pierre-Auguste Renoir at Sotheby’s for $ 78 million.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s began to organize contemporary art sales in the early 1970s. It was then seen as a new ancillary category, financially insignificant. Looking at some of the early catalogs is a fascinating lesson in taste change. There were full-page illustrations for works by photorealistic (or hyperrealistic as they were called then) artists who today, with the exception of Richard Estes or Malcolm Morley, have faded into complete oblivion. Paintings by revered artists today, such as Cy Twombly, were only illustrated in a tiny format the size of a postage stamp.
At the start of the 21st century, sales of contemporary art were becoming more and more important and financially more and more important. The category was divided into post-war art and contemporary art, and eventually dethroned Impressionist and Modern art to become the most lucrative part of the global art market. When I became the majority shareholder of Phillips de Pury and Company in 2003, we and my colleagues decided to focus entirely on very recent contemporary art, design and photography. Each season, we decided together which artists, designers and photographers whose works had never appeared at auction before, to include in our auctions.
We defended works by Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, Robert Gober, Cindy Sherman, Christopher Wool or Richard Prince, as well as Helmut Newton, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff, or Ron Arad, Marc Newson and Zaha Hadid. The long list of artists we were the first to sell, from Mark Bradford to Mark Grotjahn, from Ai Weiwei to Mickalene Thomas, from Urs Fischer to Elizabeth Peyton, is what I’m most proud of when I look back on this period. It was gratifying to see that a large number of artists that we championed or introduced in the day sales during the 2000s became the top artists in the evening sales of the three main houses during the 2010s. this we have become aftermarket taste makers. If today’s wealthy individual prefers to surround himself with cutting-edge contemporary art and French furniture from Royère or Prouvé, we have participated.
Simon de Pury during Phillips de Pury and Company – 210th Anniversary Party & Auction at Howick Place in London, UK. Photo by Richard Lewis / WireImage for Phillips de Pury & Company.
The only category that is to some extent immune to changes in taste are the ultimate “trophies” which are so exceptional and of such rare quality that anyone able or willing to spend over $ 100 million. for a single work of art can not afford not to pursue them. , if and when these works become available. Almost everything else will be affected by how the taste changes. Much of the 18th century French furniture that was in high demand by the super rich in the 1970s is only worth a fraction of what it was then. Renoir, which was a highly prized commodity in the 1980s, has lost its value, unless you are talking about one or two of his flagship works left in private hands. Pocket watches, snuffboxes, Art Nouveau glass, postage stamps, which were all major categories of collection when I started, have declined considerably. We can safely assume that what we value most today will not be sought after in the same way 50 years from now.
The change in taste accelerates. While process-based abstraction was all the rage about five years ago, most of today’s “hot” artists are figurative in a neosurrealist vein. What’s inside will be outside. What is released will not necessarily be in it. Nonetheless, art along with other tangible assets will provide some of the best investment opportunities during the turbulent times to come. The constant evolution of taste should be closely monitored. In my next column, I would like to analyze what are some of the factors behind the change in taste.
Simon de Pury is the former President and Chief Auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, artistic advisor, photographer and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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