Christie’s, the world’s leading art business, often hits headlines for the sale of extraordinary art, watches or diamonds around the world. The auction house conducts around 350 auctions annually – live as well as online – in over 80 categories, including all areas of fine and decorative arts, jewellery, photographs, collectibles and more. Christie’s also has a long and successful history of conducting private sales for its clients in all categories, the oldest dating from 1780s when James Christie negotiated the sale of the Walpole picture collection to Catherine the Great of Russia.
2019 marks Christie’s 14th year in Dubai with sales held consistently since 2006. It recently opened its newly refurbished gallery space in the Dubai International Finance Centre (DIFC), the team’s permanent home, where lectures and talks will be held on a more regular basis going forward.
Arabian Knight caught up with Dr Dirk Boll, President of Christie’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East & Africa) during his recent visit to Bahrain for insight into the world of Christie’s and the global art market.
“Art collectors from the region have a deep impact on the market. They are usually high-value bidders and are determined too. It also shows confidence in their choices and in collecting,” says Dr Boll.
Excerpts from the interview:
What makes Christie’s the leader in the auction industry across the world?
It is due to the combination of our expertise, our network and our global approach. Our founder, James Christie, understood that if you want to succeed in selling art you need to offer the best expertise and that is still at the core of Christie’s today. We have world-leading teams across the collecting fields to provide market-leading expertise. This, combined with an early understanding and participation in the globalisation of the art market, helped us to secure a leading position.
We were the first international auction house to seriously look into the emerging regions; we came to the Gulf in 2005 and started regular auction seasons in 2006. And we did the same in India and Mainland China as well. Also, Christie’s, with its worldwide network, is in a unique position to deliver what these markets demand, when they demand it.
How important is the Middle East market in the global art scene?
The Middle Eastern market is very important to us, and our hub for this wider region is Dubai, with a network of consultants placed throughout the region.
In the early 2000s, when we started to explore opportunities in the Middle East, we quickly understood that we need to establish a representative office and we selected Dubai as our base. The then small Middle Eastern collecting base was appreciative of our plans for the region and Dubai was successful from day one. In a marketplace which has quickly developed from five to over 80 galleries, Christie’s remains the market leader in the region, not only in the art category but also in watches.
Christie’s holds sales of its popular Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art twice a year, the first in Dubai in March to coincide with Dubai Art Week, and the second in October in London to coincide with Christie’s 20th Century Week and the International Frieze Art Week. This allows for international appreciation of the arts of the Middle East to continue to develop, exposing to a wider collecting group.
The collectors of the region have been very ambitious in engaging with other elements of Christie’s, including Christie’s International Real Estate and Christie’s Education. You see a new generation of collectors meeting at Christie’s Dubai and transacting in our sales in London or New York. It highlights their international lifestyle, together with their global perspective on art and collecting.
How do you see the Middle Eastern market evolving?
We were the first major international auction house to set up an office in the region; the first to have a regular schedule of auctions for art, quickly followed by dedicated sales of watches and jewellery. The buyers at our Dubai sales are predominantly Middle Eastern and represent a relatively small group when you consider the global buying base we deal with on a day to day basis. However, the Middle Eastern collectors have a real impact on the market because they are usually high-value bidders and are determined too. This also shows confidence in their choices and in collecting.
What are the some of the major interests of Middle Eastern buyers?
Newer collectors tend to be predominantly interested in works related to their own cultural circles. In our case, collectors based in the region are interested in Middle Eastern and Arabian art as well as decorative arts from the region. Collectors then often develop an interest for art from other regions – be it Indian, Russian or Western. At the top-end of collecting, people are curious about what other collectors are interested in, and an exchange might start. They all travel a lot, to attend museum and gallery openings in London, Paris, New York and so on, attending the Venice Bienniale and all important art fairs, where they connect with each other. However, they maintain their love for Middle Eastern art, adding wider interests alongside. There is also clearly a high interest for jewellery and watches in this region. I believe the global language of watches, combined with a deep knowledge of watch-making, are the reasons why these auctions in Dubai are incredibly successful with Middle East buyers.
What are your plans for expansion in this region?
We have a large office in Dubai, which includes art, watches, fine arts, operations and private sales departments. We are investing more in the region and in our Dubai office, a large office and visible proof of how important the region is. We’ve recently refurbished the office, and can now host talks, round tables, private sale and auction previews as well as travelling exhibitions. In addition, the team in Dubai has been strengthened and further announcements will follow soon.
Do you see interest among Millennials for art?
Absolutely, this generation is truly global and interested in art. They have been travelling for many years internationally and established a global network; they communicate through social media, meet at important fairs, gallery exhibition openings and museum shows abroad. They are well educated and are interested in collecting. Whilst they are keen about what their own generation in their home region produces, they are even more interested in what is created globally. They have a very broad and deep understanding of the art market as an economy and as a distribution system. Millennials start with an advantage when compared to their parental generation in terms of availability of information.
Christie’s has a strong online presence. How is it performing?
Online presence is one of the growth pillars for Christie’s. Online access to our sales began in 2006 and we launched online only sales in 2011, and we were the first to differentiate ourselves from the marketplace by creating an in-house online platform, tailored specifically to the needs of an auction business. At Christie’s, the provenance of each piece – in an online or live auction – is prepared and vetted by our specialist team, including the estimate. This is why we give the same Christie’s warranty to all objects whether offered live or online, and this allows for complete trust.
Christie’s online sales generate 40 per cent of our new clients annually. It is interesting that the majority of new buyers to Christie’s who came via online sales quickly move to other Christie’s formats – live auctions as well as private sales. Our online platform is a very important place to engage with new clients, a good entry-level platform for our next generation of clients, as well as an ongoing trusted and popular site for auction-related information and news.
Luxury watch sales is one of your business lines. How big is this business?
Watches are a very important business for us. Here, the Christie’s advantage is the trust clients have in our expertise and in the qualification of our teams. When clients buy from us, they are sure that every item has been inspected by more than one watch specialist. This is important in every collecting field, but particularly with watches. Christie’s expertise and its warranty are the reason for the high prices achieved comparable to items you might find in other places in the market.
What’s the role of technology in art and sale of art?
It is a growing one because technology improves by the day. By using technology, we can be very precise in understanding what clients want, and we can tailor-make the information they receive from us. This is only one aspect of the role of technology, another is the valuation process, where comparisons can quickly be made for interpretation by the specialist.
One of your publication is ‘Art for Sale – a candid view of the art market’. What’s the candid view?
It is a handbook which explains to someone not working in our field how the industry works, providing information on what goes on behind the scenes. It also has an historical perspective – how the market has evolved over time; what are the important stages in its evolution; what are the current trends amongst collectors.
Art for art’s sake or is it a business / an asset one should invest in? Is art becoming out of reach of real art lovers?
Art is created every day; art surrounds us; art is for everybody, everyone can enjoy art. It’s not only for those who can spend $20 million on a Picasso to enjoy the artists’ work; you can go to a museum, you can read a publication, you go to the internet and celebrate the artist. If you are interested in art, you don’t have to buy the art; the appreciation of art is not necessarily connected to ownership.
If you reach the point where you say ‘I want to own art, I want to live with art, I want to appreciate and enjoy art in my home, not just in museums’, a lot of art is sold at prices far below what we read about in the media. Newspapers are interested in record prices. In the EU for example, 60 per cent of all art-related transactions are below 4,000 euros and 40 per cent of the transactions are below 2,000 euros. I understand that this is not accessible to everyone, but many more people than you may think can and do own art.
I believe that art will be collected forever. The good thing about collecting is that the more art you see, the more art you want to engage with; the more you have, the more you want.
When you refer to investments, this is one specific part of the art market. Investment is investment. Some will be more successful in investing in art than others, as is the case in every investment field.
Tell us about Christie’s Education and its goals?
Christie’s Education is the only academic institute wholly owned by an auction house. A wide range of courses are offered, including short and evening courses to full master’s programmes in London and New York. In addition, there are online courses offered in English and Chinese. Christie’s Education in London has its new premises in a beautiful 18th Century building, which provides students with the best learning and a very inspiring environment. Christie’s Education courses combine art market expertise and knowledge with current trends. Our students come to the auction house regularly where they can engage with works of art … it’s not like other places where you look at slides and discuss art, you have an actual piece in front of you, you experience the depth of the paint. Many of Christie’s executives give lectures at the institute; I do it myself.
What’s your take on digital art?
Christie’s was the first auction house to sell an art work created by an algorithm last year for a record price in New York. I think digital art is interesting, it’s a great tool for young artists to work with; and as in every type of art, you have more interesting and less interesting outcomes. But one has to be thrilled that we live to see the next level of art production, because that hasn’t been the case for many generations. It’s very exciting…
Some of the big moments for you in your 20-year career with Christie’s …
The greatest moments always in a career are when you are successful for your client. There have been many such moments over the years, but my greatest memory is the auction of the collection of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge. It took place 10 years ago and remains the biggest auction room in history, with a capacity of 1,500 people. Christie’s converted the Grand Palais, a huge 19th Century exhibition space, into a replica of Yves Saint Laurent’s apartment for the preview, and this is where the auction took place. The collection itself was an eccentric mix of items of the highest quality, and broke numerous records. It was a very special moment.
What makes a good art work?
That is not for me to decide. Canonization is done by many people, a group of opinion leaders comprising museum curators, artists, art historians, collectors and art critics. They have at some point decided that Picasso is an interesting artist for example. I am not part of that. We work in the secondary market and we take a step back and look at the scene. I personally think an interesting art work reflects the world of its creation. Very good art works have qualities that transcend to any generation, an exceptional art work can answer questions the author of the work did not know existed. An art work that reflects on today’s world, no matter how old it is, is an exceptional art work. I would say it is essentially the intellectual content that makes something great. I personally feel an intellectual art work is allowed to be beautiful, but being beautiful is not enough.
• Dr Dirk Boll joined Christie’s in 1998 in Germany. In 2004, he took over the position of Managing Director of Christie’s International AG, Switzerland in Zurich. In 2011, he was appointed European Managing Director and moved to Christie’s London, headquarters of the company. In 2017, he became President, Christie’s EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa). Dr Boll is also a lecturer at the University of Hamburg on the subject of Art Management. In the same year – 2017 – Dirk was appointed Member of the Academic Board of Christie’s Education, a private university with branches in London and New York.
– By Sree Bhat
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