On the Market: An Inside Look at Sotheby’s
I spent the summer after graduation reading novels in McCarren Park. I had been warned that nobody was hiring and was secretly relieved because this meant it wasn’t entirely on me to have a legitimate job. I could copy-edit and babysit and transfer money from my savings account to my checking account in prudent but relentless $50 installments. It was fun so long as it was warm out, but by late September it was too chilly to read outside, and I was running out of money.
A classmate from college set me up at Sotheby’s, a company I knew little about. In my interview, I told my future boss that I had never been able to imagine an idea that could be best expressed by painting it. “But,” I added, making exaggerated eye contact, “appreciating art doesn’t mean you can send effective emails. I can write. I can make your job easier for you.” This is the best thing to say in an interview if you are young and unqualified to do anything other than maintain a personal blog. I started three weeks later.
This was October 2009, one year after “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever,” the most garish triumph by an auction house ever. For that sale, Damien Hirst consigned 223 new pieces to Sotheby’s in London, cutting out his dealers Jay Jopling and Larry Gagosian. “I was indoctrinated by the gallery system—that you don’t do auctions,” Hirst told the Sunday Times. “If you don’t like the rules, change the rules.” The presale estimate was $122-176 million; the sale would bring in an outrageous $201 million, upwards of six times the previous record for a Sotheby’s single-artist sale (set in 1993 by the Estate of Pablo Picasso). But even more outrageous, in retrospect, was the date: September 15, 2008, the very day Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy.
What followed was a down year for the art world. In 2009, worldwide auction revenues were barely half what they had been in 2007. Ad pages in the September 2009 Artforum, the one with the depressing gray Sherrie Levine cover (the one still lying around the office when I started) were down more than 40 percent. But my October arrival coincided with a new and cautious optimism. Everything was taken as a talisman. High estimates intimated a return to glory, and retracted items signaled despair.
Glory won out, decisively: in 2010, sales increased by 60 percent to $774 million. William F. Ruprecht, Sotheby’s CEO, earned $5.97 million, up from $2.4 million in 2009. The average pay increase during this time for top executives at major US companies was 12 percent; at Sotheby’s, it was over 90 percent. This past August, as the double-dip recession strode firmly into view, Sotheby’s proudly reported the most profitable quarter in its 267-year history.