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Paulina Kolczynska Conversation with Stephen Lash,
Chairman of Christie’s North America
Keeping it in house
The increasing importance of the in-auction house specialist

(Interview published by Artindex, Winter 2003)

(Left) Childe Hassam, Flags, Afternoonon the Avenue, 1917, From the Estate of Thomas Mellon Evans. Sold at Christie's, New York, May 21, 1998, for $7,922,500.World auction record for the artist

(Right) Pablo Picasso,
Femme aux bras croises, 1901-1902. Sold at Christie's, New York, 2000 for $55,006,000.

Stephen Lash, a former investment banker (for 10 years), is presently Chairman of Christie’s, North America. Here he talks about the role of the in-auction house specialist.

Paulina Kolczynska: How would you define the role of the auction house and role of the in-house specialists?

Stephen Lash: I see the role of the auction house as being one to foster relationship with clients. It means taking a long term view of clients needs and addressing those needs in the broadest possible way, not only selling and buying. Our specialist will be telling clients not only what they should be buying at auction but also elsewhere in the private market and at other aucion houses. They should also advise clients what they should be doing to further their collection, to educate themselves and broaden their own horizons. Some clients like to have completely independent advice and they seek outside advisors as well. There are some good advisors who will provide another layer of service. How it usually works is that we either approach a client that something is coming up for auction or a client will approach us with a work to sell.  It is not unusual for one of our specialists to bid on behalf of th client at another auction house. Another possibility is that we hear about available works via the private market and we will bring those to the attention of the client. It might be that we know about a dealer and a client working together for a particular work and we will bring this fact to another client should he/she be interested in the same work of art. We work with both parties: dealers and private clients. By the same token, with the most serious collectors we usually work in a different way meaning that we know what they are looking for and we track these works of art for them. As interesting question to ask a collector is what is your wish list? if you could come up with ten works of art you would like to acquire what would they be? We would then approach the people who own these works of art. At first our approach would be anonymous. The auction market has changed dramatically in the past 8-10 years and there are vast number of new buyers who have emerged in the market place. As a result, these are collectors who have never bought a work of art before. Due to the amount of money made by these new collectors they tend to buy major works of art at the very first moment they step into the market. It used to be, in the old days, that people would become collectors gradually first buying small or inexpensive pieces and thentheir interest would grow to the extent that they would buy better works and make a bigger commitment to the field. Now when people are starting out they are starting out big and we are in touch with these buyers and potential buyers. This gives us great knowledge about what is potentially available on the market and this allows us to be more effective brokers.

Paulina Kolczynska: Why do buyers feel so confident?
Stephen Lash: I think that first time buyer activity is dictated by the fact that the market is very well informed and marketed. There are many more exhibitions, there is much more knowledge including information available via internet, and people are much more aware of everything – they ask questions, take courses and they seek advice wherever they can including directly with museums. Informed buyers present an intellectual challenge. You help them to form their tastes and explain the buying process. In the art business the most important criteria is quality. The buyer wants to be satisfied by the condition of the piece. This means different things in different fields. For example in the furniture world it means the closest to the original, while in the case of old masters people do not want to see overly restored works.

Paulina Kolczynska: Does growing art market transparency present a challenge to the auction house art specialist?

Stephen Lash: The auction process has always been very straightforward and, for those interested, it has been made public for years, What has not been made public is who the buyer is, unless the buyer wants her/his identity disclosed. The Internet has revolutionized the information flow. Our catalogues are available on the internet fully illustrated and this is great source of information.

Paulina Kolczynska: How does the auction house address the growing problem of shortages of first class material?

Stephen Lash: I would like to refer to annual report from 1929. It was reported that we had a great year but could not assure clients if the next year would be as good because it felt that the supply was running out. What I am trying to say is that this has always been the case. We are in the business of rare objects and the very nature of our profession is to take everything into consideration. Usually what happens is that just as you think that there is shortage of material something surprisingly comes back on the market. If we look back 30 years there were far more significant impressionist collections then than there were today. There are estates of private sales that surprise us by selling individual pieces. For example a blue period Picasso which we sold for $55 million had been in private hands since 1936. Another issue with regards to the shortage of art supply is the issue of restitution. Suddenly, works of art are being returned to the market which no one thought would be on the market again. It is very important that buyers pay particular attention to the works of art purchased between 1933 and 1945. Now with the opening up of formr Eastern Europe countries, files containing acquisition information are available to us. There are examples of works if art hanging in Museums where the issue of provenance is being addressed. We are trying to be helpful in this area as well. Just when we think there is a shortage of material in one field a new filed comes on to the market. For example Post-war material was only introduced to the market in the 1970s becoming a huge business in a few decades.

Paulina Kolczynska: How do art specialists work out their pricing models?

Stephen Lash: In general terms, what every specialist will try and do is to find comparables for each object. If a painting is being offered by a particular artist who does not have an auction record what are the nearly comparable works by other artists. And what is the track record of those pictures. This is the real specialty of the expert.

Paulina Kolczynska: Can you talk about the role of the specialist in the construction of a sale?

Stephen Lash: The role of the specialist is to be very sensitive, to see what is going on in the particular field and to be in the position to advise the client, what the client wants to do relates to what is happening in the market around him and then construct a sale which responds to that market. The specialist has to also be proactive and to anticipate what the trend are and to infuse that into the sale. The information of the sale is not a passive endeavor. A good specialist is going to go out and target the kinds of works if art that she /he would like to see in a sale representing a cross section of works that will appeal to the present audience. In this way an auction becomes a carefully orchestrated event with many elements of interest for different people.

Paulina Kolczynska: How do you set estimates in the competitive environment?

Stephen Lash: This is a very important aspect of the specialist’s line of work. The reason there are auctions in the first place is that there are no stock report for paintings. A good specialist is going to provide an estimate based on past history and comparables that already are there. The market understands that. As soon as a specialist becomes too ambitious in his/her estimates it becomes very dangerous because the work of art will be perceived as expensive and if this is the case, people tend not to bid at the auction. It means that we, as auctioneers, have to be very careful how we hire and train specialists. Our primary commitment is to our clients and to provide long term advice to the client. We should only be doing what is in the client’s interest because th client and the auction house have identical interest  which is to achieve the highest price for any particular work. If you are over-estimating a work in order to secure consignment, one is talking a very short term view and I want to be surrounded by specialists and colleagues who only take a long term view of what is in the interest of most clients.