11.09.10

The Art World's New Kingpin

As auction house Phillips de Pury shows off its new Manhattan digs with a $137 million mega-sale, Claire Howorth sits down with its eminence grise, Simon de Pury.

Phillips de Pury’s brand new auction house on Park Avenue roared to life Monday night with a $137 million inaugural sale, “masterminded” by the maverick art adviser, Philippe Ségalot. A few days prior, de Pury sat down with The Daily Beast in one of the private bidding rooms, overlooking Maurizio Cattelan’s ingeniously creepy Charlie, to discuss the new space, his business, the market, and, of course, art.

Though he’s been a prominent art world figure for decades, Simon de Pury made his grand debut with American couch potatoes in Bravo’s Work of Art, in which he was the mentor and critic to an ever-whittled-down group of artists. “See-MOHN says it’s not quite right,” worried some; “What will See-MOHN think?” fretted others. Each episode, de Pury would surface, always in natty suits, to say things matter-of-factly, “Zees is not quite what I wass expecting. I do not zink it ees your best work.” Or he’d send a contestant over the moon with a compliment, in the same distinct Swiss-French accent.

“I very much enjoyed doing Work of Art. I very much enjoy things that are outside my normal routine. It was particularly interesting and impressive to see great professionals at work, and to understand the judges’ criteria. We saw more than 1,000 artists show their art to try and make an impression. What was fascinating were the degrees of talent—some more, some obviously less—but they all had this great passion about what they were doing.”

De Pury cuts a formidable figure, but he does not come across as scary—rather, accessible, enthusiastic, and inspired. He spent 16 years at Sotheby’s, including a stint as its European chairman, and was curator of the Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid, which houses one of the world’s most significant collections. He has a predilection for qualifiers (“very,” “totally,” “really”), and tends to skew positive on anything. Passion, it seems, is his passion.

“It’s always exciting when you see something that really turns you on. We spend our time going from galleries to homes of collectors to exhibitions at museums, so the more you see what is really good, [what is good] automatically sticks out, and instantly catches you,” he said of the quest to find great art. “The only rule that there is is, ‘See, see, and see again.’ That’s all that matters to buy well, and to form your tastes.”

Buying well for de Pury has meant the contemporary blue chips: Monday night saw Andy Warhol’s Men in Her Life go for over $63 million; Takashi Murakami’s Miss ko2 for $6.8 million; Ed Ruscha’s Sex at Noon Taxes for $4.3 million; and that aforementioned tricycle man, Charlie,  by Maurizio Cattelan, for $2.9 million.

GALLERY: Phillips de Pury’s New York Auction Highlights

But “buying well” has also meant investing in and fostering new talents, not least of which are the final three contestants on Work of Art, Abdi Farah, Miles Mendenhall, and Peregrine Honig, all of whom he says “will have great careers.” While they have had the benefit of major television exposure (which some gallerists and collectors will surely snub), de Pury has been faithful to many more up-and-comers of the past three decades, and places at least one previously unauctioned artist in each sale. On Tuesday morning, de Pury auctioned Farah's self-portrait from episode nine for $20,000—more than three times the low estimate.

Once upon a magical time, de Pury made a sensation selling a work by Damien Hirst for $600,000; “now,” said de Pury, “that price has been beaten something like 270 times.” (Hirst pieces regularly sell in the tens of millions.) De Pury was also the first to sell one of Richard Prince’s Nurse works for over $1 million; some now go for $10 million. Urs Fischer, the young contemporary artist and fellow countryman, stands apart. Not only does his work regularly sell well, but, said de Pury, “in my view he is going to be the towering figure of this new decade.”

Regularly plopping the word “million” next to a price is not the norm, especially in a market that has struggled to rebound since 2008, and to steady its past standard-bearers, like Prince, whose prices have experienced some volatility. De Pury, though, believes in a resurgent, expanding market. The new Park Avenue space is as good an indicator as any, but it is also the emergence of strong economies in countries that previously were not major players in the art world.

“The art market has become totally global in the last three to five years,” said de Pury. “It used to be a market dominated by North American and Western European collectors buying North American and Western European artists. Today you have collectors all over the world buying art from all over the world. With the fast growing economies in Asia, Latin America, the Gulf countries, and Russia—a lot of that new wealth has gone into collecting art. And that is just the beginning.”

When asked whether he thinks of himself as a businessman or a promoter of the arts, de Pury said, “All of the above. I do this out of passion for art. If you have a business, you of course have a commercial vocation, but at the same time, I think we have a cultural vocation as well.”

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Claire Howorth is the Arts editor at The Daily Beast.