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  1. Wealth
April 3, 2013

Simon de Pury: Art Has Always Been Used as PR

By Spear's

The art world was shocked when Simon de Pury quit the auction house he headed before Christmas. Josh Spero is shocked that among his new projects is Fly to Baku, an exhibition of work from the repressive regime of Azerbaijan

‘Art Has Always Been Used as PR’
The art world was shocked when Simon de Pury quit the auction house he headed before Christmas. Josh Spero is shocked that among his new projects is Fly to Baku, an exhibition of work from the repressive regime of Azerbaijan

THE ONLY PERSON unsurprised by Simon de Pury’s resignation from Phillips de Pury was Simon de Pury. The story broke just before Christmas, shocking the art crowd: the auction house’s charismatic and well-connected chairman and chief auctioneer was 95 per cent of the Phillips de Pury brand.

It was news, wrote GalleristNY, that ‘had even market insiders, in vacation spots from St Moritz to St Barts to Aspen, scratching their heads’. And when most people leave a company, they take some desk detritus, some memories and maybe some stationery with them: de Pury took his name, rendering the house plain old Phillips once more.

On a morning when unexpected snow flurries are buffeting the streets outside, de Pury is sitting at an extravagantly curving metal and plastic dining table in his new Mayfair home, surrounded by pieces from the Contemporary masters he’s made his career selling and curating.

On top of the fireplace are some Ai Weiwei pots painted in pastels, another colour of paint dripping down from the rims, and beside it are two of his chairs sculpted from white marble. A large Olafur Eliasson sculpture, a globe composed of those emergency light-fittings you find in stairwells, illuminates the adjoining sitting room (which has as yet nothing to sit on), and there is a hefty George Condo bronze. Behind de Pury is a painting by a Polish artist, blood-red spots spattering the white canvas.

Does he feel a pang when he sees Phillips’ new de Pury-less catalogues? ‘I feel absolutely fine because I’m happy to have my name back. If you have a company that wears your name but you are no longer in the company, it doesn’t make sense.’ Phillips can survive another two centuries without de Pury, he says.

Before he joined, Phillips enjoyed a rather staid reputation as a general auction house of middling stature; I remember my grandmother consigning her dull old furniture to Phillips when she moved house. De Pury and Daniella Luxembourg had merged their private art dealership into Phillips in 2001, when it was part of LVMH, and he became chairman.

By 2002, Bernard Arnault couldn’t wait to get rid of Phillips: 9/11 had temporarily crashed the market, and his key strategy at Phillips — offering absurdly high guaranteed prices to secure collections from consignors — had brought massive losses. (To obtain the Smooke collection, Phillips paid $180 million; the auction total in November 2001 was just over $80 million, and the loss on this single sale ended up being of a similar magnitude.)

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So, LVMH sold most of it to de Pury and Luxembourg, and by 2004 he owned the entire thing outright. It was then another crisis — that of 2008 — which prompted de Pury to sell a majority stake to Russia’s Mercury Group.

In the meantime, de Pury had turned Phillips from that dowdy jack-of-all-trades into a sleek master of some. Unable to compete with ‘the duopoly’, de Pury abandoned most of Phillips’ departments and settled on three emerging fields — Contemporary art, design and photography; he wanted ‘to do it in a few categories and in these to become the best’.

He calls Phillips ‘the main taste-maker in the secondary market’, and he has certainly had a knack for picking those whose prices were about to rocket, as well as introducing young artists never before put on the block. Some of Damien Hirst’s cigarette butts were sold at Phillips in 2001 for a record $600,000, a price people found initially extreme and later laughable, and de Pury advised his friends to buy Richard Prince’s Nurses when they were selling for $35-75,000, not their current private-sale price of $15 million. Helmut Newton and designer Marc Newson are two others he says Phillips helped to launch into the auction stratosphere; now Newson is a regular at the duopoly.
De Pury seems to have divined the coming disaster of 2008 with much finer perception than most of the world’s bankers. ‘I saw that in the June sales, either people were very slow in paying or not paying at all, so the alarm bells started ringing then,’ he says, with diction and accent both inflected by his native Swiss-German.
‘I conduct a lot of charity auctions and I do some auctions every summer in the Hamptons and the same auctions that every year were very strong suddenly became incredibly tough, which was another indication that the wind was changing.’ In came the Mercury Group, a Russian luxury goods conglomerate, with sufficient resources to help Phillips survive what turned out to be a sharp-V recession (in the art market anyway). They have been expanding Phillips on both sides of the Atlantic ever since, with new headquarters at 450 Park Avenue and, later this year, thirty thousand square feet on Berkeley Square.
Moving to Berkeley Square will be a relief for the house, de Pury says, semi-proprietorially. (He repeatedly has to correct himself after saying ‘we’.) ‘The way the art market has evolved is that the new buyers, they don’t want to take a half an hour taxi ride; Victoria is only eight minutes of taxi ride but still, they want everything to be completely within reach. So that’s why you have now the return of all the top galleries into Mayfair.’ There are plenty of stories about top collectors heading to art-gallery ‘outposts’, he says laughingly, who turn back because of traffic.
‘If you are in London, you have to be in the heart of Mayfair. You will go to Victoria if you make the effort but it’s not any casual thing. That’s why Phillips took already two years ago a space next to Claridge’s which is the size of a handkerchief, but the impact of that location has been huge.’
His final tie with the house was cut last summer, when he sold the rest of his holding to the Mercury Group, after a long meditation on his future. ‘When I sold the remaining stake, I then felt this was a perfect moment to turn the page,’ he says. Moving on after twelve years ‘suddenly puts you in front of a clean sheet again and on one hand you start at scratch every single time and so there is something quite scary about it because you think, “What will I do now and how will I do it?” And it forces you to be creative.’
So what has he written on his pristine piece of paper? ‘I’m still right at the top of the clean sheet! It’s like if you’re a doctor: you don’t stop being a doctor even if you’ve left this hospital and maybe for a while have your own practice without being associated with a hospital yet. You constantly have people who come to ask for advice and say, “What do you think of this work, or can you help me place this work, this work?” You do transactions, that’s something we love doing. That’s something the only thing for which you need is a cell phone and more importantly the trust of your clients. You don’t need a big infrastructure to do it effectively.’ He’s also had a ‘tsunami’ of proposals and opportunities fall upon him.

One wave in the tsunami is his work with Fly to Baku, a travelling exhibition of Azerbaijani Contemporary art which has made stops in London, Berlin, Moscow and Rome, before ending up in Baku. The show came together when he took a two-day trip to Azerbaijan in 2011 as part of his ‘quest and curiosity’ to discover art in unknown areas. ‘It was a very short trip, 48 hours, but during those 48 hours we spent the majority of our time going from one studio to the next, visiting artists, which is my favourite occupation anywhere… and discovering a very vibrant art scene that I was completely unaware of.’
Like an undiscovered island with its own unusual flora and private gods, Baku in its long isolation from the rest of the world had developed artists who produced work with a distinctly Azerbaijani tang, rather than the international modern style practised from Shoreditch to Sydney. ‘There is a great richness of colours, a great expressionism,’ he says with bright enthusiasm. ‘Something very hot and vibrant.’ So he talked to Leila Aliyeva, the daughter of Azerbaijan’s dictatorial president, Ilham Aliyev, and they found a guest curator, Hervé Mikaeloff, who advises LVMH on its art programme. Mikaeloff had ‘carte blanche to select the show that he wanted, to select the artists that he wanted’, and Fly to Baku came together fairly quickly for its first showing at Phillips de Pury (‘as it was called then’) in London in January 2012.
One aspect of the Azerbaijani scene that de Pury highlights is the artists’ technical training — training, he says, that is less emphasised in the West’s art schools, where imagination and innovation are prime, reflecting a culture saturated in Conceptual art. In the West, ‘Execution can be poor or the technical skills can be poor.’ Few who have seen the paintings Damien Hirst made himself — as opposed to those his assistants created — would disagree.

The whole concept of Fly to Baku makes me uneasy, however: isn’t it simply PR for a cash-rich authoritarian government, using art to distract from a regime of repression? ‘Up to a degree, art has always been used as PR by everybody. In the 1950s, when Abstract Expressionist art became big, there were all these exhibitions that took place in Europe at the time and that was part of a PR campaign to get American art more widely known in Europe. There is nothing wrong with using art for PR purposes.’
But this is something quite different: that was art for promoting values — this is art to hide abuses, I say. ‘I was very interested in Russia at the time, when the glasnost and perestroika took place, because an artist in the Soviet Union could only get brushes and easels and canvases and all that, when he was painting in an officially accepted style. That style with some exceptions did not produce great art and the most interesting artists, who wanted to do their own original work, were repressed, they couldn’t do it.
‘They could not buy materials, they could not do anything. So they would illustrate children’s books to make a living, and in their free time they would paint in the attics work that they thought nobody would ever be able to see or buy, and then that’s artists like Kabakov, Bulatov, Vassiliev, who are fantastic artists, who all emerged in that adversity at the time. You’re not going to tell me that in Baku any of these artists are prescribed how they have to do their art?’
This is a sympathetic yet oblivious answer. The position of Azerbaijani artists cannot be so different from that of Azerbaijani writers, who are restricted — explicitly or by inference — in what they can write and beaten when they flout the restrictions, according to a report from Human Rights Watch called ‘Beaten, Blacklisted and Behind Bars’. An extract: ‘The government of Azerbaijan is engaged in concerted efforts to limit the space for freedom of expression in the country… Dozens of journalists have been prosecuted and imprisoned or fined. Police and sometimes unidentified assailants are able to physically attack journalists and human rights defenders with impunity.’
In tune with this, what I have seen of the art in Fly to Baku (I did not see the exhibition in London) is negligible in its political content, perhaps because of a self-exercised censorship. It is inconceivable, too, that an art exhibition under the patronage of the dictator’s daughter (whether in a personal or political capacity) could speak of freedom and violence. Perhaps, like the Russians, Fly to Baku’s artists have in their attics radical art which deals with repression and dictatorship and a ruling family which spends the country’s money on vanity projects abroad.

It is not just Simon de Pury who has become involved with Central Asia: it seems like most of London’s cultural, political and media scenes have succumbed to its lure (or rather the lure of access to its markets and its cash). Sotheby’s recently held At The Crossroads, a selling show of Contemporary art from the region, sponsored by Kazakh natural resources company ENRC, which was later hit by scandal. Condé Nast has been contracted to publish Baku magazine, a glossy nothing whose editor-in-chief is the very same Leila Aliyeva. Several large PR firms, including freud communications and Pelham Communications, have been retained by the Azerbaijani government or Azerbaijani projects.
Politicians are not exempt, as reported by Private Eye back in early February: ‘During the past year at least 11 MPs, plus several peers, have benefited from the Azeris’ “caviar diplomacy”. This usually involves no-expense-spared junkets to Baku.’ The Eye noted how British politicians are unusually favourable to Azerbaijan in the Council of Europe, ‘despite its consistent flouting of decisions by the European Court of Human Rights’.
The Eye punchily summarised Azerbaijan’s entire outreach programme while reporting on a new public arts festival put on by YARAT!, an arts organisation headed by the niece of Azerbaijan’s First Lady: ‘In short, the arts festival seems to be for international rather than domestic consumption — yet another stunt to distract attention from the appalling human-rights reputation of the former Soviet state.’
So it’s art and caviar diplomacy for some, and jail for others. Fly to Baku? Easy. Just watch what you say when you’re there.

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