This fall, François Pinault, the owner of Christie’s auction house, is opening an art gallery in New York. Tradition in the art world holds that auction houses stick to the resale market, while galleries nurture artists until they become big enough names to trade at auction. But what happens when the auction house cuts out the middleman?
Last year, Pinault’s Christie’s International bought the London gallery Haunch of Venison, which represents Bill Viola, Richard Long, and Keith Tyson. It could be a savvy move for Christie’s if the market slows: Collectors traditionally turn to selling through dealers, not at auction, when prices weaken or when they need cash quietly.
The New York gallery, which opens September 12, will be located in a 17,000-square-foot duplex penthouse atop the same building as Christie’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center. (A Chelsea space could happen later.) Collectors have already toured the gallery, including, a source says, Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire who reportedly paid a record $86.3 million for a Francis Bacon.
Gallerists are up in arms. Art Dealers Association of America head Roland Augustine has said that the purchase of Haunch was to “get product for auctions” and wondered, to Artnet, if the deal would “raise some eyebrows” given America’s antitrust laws. Meanwhile, Haunch was frozen out of the Frieze and Art Basel art fairs.
Haunch honcho Robert Fitzpatrick chalks up the ban from art fairs to misunderstanding and, perhaps, jealousy. “With the acquisition by Christie’s, there were very substantial resources at the gallery’s disposition, and you could do things with and for artists that would not have been possible before,” he says. Besides, “It’s a separate operation,” says Christie’s deputy chairman Brett Gorvy, even if the top people at both report to Christie’s CEO Ed Dolman.
So far, Haunch’s efforts to appear independent have met with mixed success. Potential buyers who arrived at the Christie’s contemporary sale last month found a request in the auction materials that a Clyfford Still for sale be loaned to Haunch’s first New York show. Then, while Christie’s originally announced that Haunch employees could not bid at auction because of conflicts of interest or issues of market manipulation, its co-founder was spotted bidding on a Jeff Koons. Explains Fitzpatrick, “At Christie’s, we bid only and exclusively on behalf of clients, not for ourselves. We don’t share bidding information. There’s a Chinese wall.” But the dealers see it crumbling.