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  1. Wealth
April 3, 2013

Simon de Pury: Blank Canvas

By Spear's

The art world was shocked when Simon de Pury quit the auction house he headed before Christmas. In an exclusive interview, Josh Spero meets a man primed for new adventures

The art world was shocked when Simon de Pury quit the auction house he headed before Christmas. In an exclusive interview, Josh Spero meets a man primed for new adventures
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, including Fly to Baku, a travelling exhibition of work by Azerbaijani artists.

TALKING ABOUT THE importance of location to art galleries, de Pury compared them to designer shops: ‘Location, location, location, which did not apply to the art world before — it did of course always apply in the high-end luxury retail — now does apply to the art market as well.’ While he means this positively, this remark chimes with the common criticism of the art world that it is more like shopping than a cultural experience.

When I put this to him, his answer is vague: ‘No, because at the end of the day art will never be like a luxury item, however it is the ultimate luxury in your life to collect art. So there are of course similarities: the quest for quality, the quest for something truly special, something exceptional.’

What about the evident similarities, like brand-name artists bought by the nouveaux riches with no taste, only an eye for what is said to be popular and valuable? ‘The difference of how the big brand artists are going to do and how the non-brand artists are going to do is going to become bigger and bigger, because naturally the initial approach and focus will be that. The same thing happens in wine — people who are buying wine, they go first to the most known châteaux, then after a while when you really get into it and once you develop you own feeling, your own knowledge, your own reaction, you begin to distinguish differences, then you are interested to explore other things that are maybe less known internationally — it’s the same thing with art.’ Which seems like a rather long way of conceding that buying a Hirst Spot painting is like buying a Birkin bag.

The art fair is also partially to blame for this commoditisation: its resemblance to a supermarket, with bright and shiny branded goods crying out for your eye and your wallet, is easily discernible. Fairs are often said to force artists to produce what is recognisably theirs, so the fair-goer can identify it from two stands over and be assured of aesthetic (or at least social) satisfaction, and de Pury does agree with this: ‘It’s always a challenge for an artist who is successful: are you going to repeat what sells well and what was very successful? There are plenty of examples of artists — do not expect me now to mention their names —’ he laughs, ‘who endlessly repeat an idea and live on it. But the truly great artists are those who constantly push the boundaries and move forward and surprise you and these are the great ones. There are not that many.’ You might say the same thing about auctioneers.

Read more by Josh Spero

Read more on Art and Collecting

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