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Episode 60
Auctioneer Simon de Pury

  • 20 min read

Episode Description

A conversation with art world icon Simon de Pury. Simon is an art dealer, curator, artist, photographer and even a DJ, but he is most notably an auctioneer. After rising to the top of the Sotheby’s organization, he left to strike out on his own. That led to an eventual merger of his auction house with Phillips to form Phillips de Pury. These days, Simon runs the eponymous de PURY organization which provides access to artists and their work through conventional sales, auctions and charity events. I speak with Simon about how the auction world has evolved, the market dynamics for middle-market galleries and his upcoming launch of an auction model for primary market sales.


Craig: [00:00:10] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with art world icon Simon de Pury. Simon is an art dealer, curator, artist, photographer and even a DJ, but he is most notably an auctioneer. After rising to the top of the Sotheby's organization, he left to strike out on his own. That led to an eventual merger of his auction house with Phillips to form Phillips de Pury. These days, Simon runs the eponymous de PURY organization, which provides access to artists in their work through conventional sells, auctions and charity events. I speak with Simon about how the auction world has evolved, the market dynamics for middle market galleries, and his upcoming launch of an auction model for primary market sells and now the ever evolving world of art auctions. With Simon de Pury.

Craig: [00:01:24] Simon de Pury, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Sense Podcast. Simon, it seems like the majority of the art world knows exactly who you are, but I imagine that from time to time you run into people who don't know Simon de Pury. If you were hypothetically at a dinner party and were seated next to someone who had no idea who you were or what you did, how would you describe who you are and all the things that you have your hands in?

Simon: [00:01:53] Well, first of all, Craig, thank you so much for inviting me onto your podcast. It's a great pleasure. I guess that if some people do know me, it's simply because I have been around in the art market forever. I've started in this field 50 years ago, so longevity can be sometimes an advantage. However, to answer your question, if I have to explain in one word what I am at a dinner party, I'm an auctioneer, and I have been so for most of my professional life. But beyond being an auctioneer, I have been in many different roles in the art world, going from a curator to directing a museum to being an artist myself, to being a gallerist and an advisor. And so, yes, I think by now I know the art market and the art world from nearly every angle.

Craig: [00:02:59] So at the core of that, you're an auctioneer and you have been in the auction world for quite a while. I believe you spent time with Sotheby's and headed up Sotheby's in different levels, in different areas for for a matter of time and then moved on to Phillips and Phillips de Pury. How has the auction world changed over the 40, 50 years that you have been associated with the auction world? How is that world different today than it was when you first entered the space?

Simon: [00:03:31] It's become much wider and larger in those last 50 years. Back then, it was really a field that was reserved for a small group of truly passionate and committed collectors, and the financial community was looking at them with interest, but not taking them really seriously. And over the years, the number of people who have been collecting and showed an active interest in art has grown not exponentially, but has grown quite substantially. And meanwhile, all the financial institutions have accepted art being an alternative asset class. And that has, of course, changed many things. But in absolute terms, even today, when you look amongst the wealthy people around the world, still not the majority of them are collecting and are active in the art market. So I think that the art market still has a long, long way to go in terms of growing and getting more global.

Craig: [00:04:46] When we put a number on the auction world and we think 50 years ago, it makes me think of the Scull Sale that we see in "The Price of Everything", the documentary from four or five years ago. There's this one iconic scene where Robert Rauschenberg goes up to the collector, Robert Scull. And Robert Scull has profited greatly on the secondary market for the sell of these Rauschenberg's that he had owned. And Rauschenberg kind of takes umbrage to the fact that Rauschenberg wasn't really seeing that gain or realize the same benefits of that secondary sell, that Scull the collector was, you know, and I feel like that's something that the market is still trying to figure out how artists can benefit more from the mechanics of the auction world.

Simon: [00:05:42] You see, even 50 years ago when, as I said, the market was dominated by sort of a small group of real collectors. Even back then, I have never encountered a collector who did not hope when he was buying something that it would not gain in financial value. I think this is a legitimate human thing that if you start spending a meaningful amount of money on anything, that you hope you haven't thrown that money away, but that in fact you've placed it wisely. And this, whether you love what you just bought or even if you bought it coldly so that has, in fact, always been the case now. The artists, of course, do indirectly benefit nevertheless, because to go back to your example, once the work of any artist does really, really well on the auction market, even if the artist does not directly benefit financially from the actual work that is then being sold by a collector at auction, he will benefit from it indirectly because the gallery representing them, when they will sell new works by this artist on the primary market, they will have to take into account what the public market price is for that artist. They will adjust the prices. So the artist is gradually also benefiting from a increased interest for their works at auction. But it is true that ever since your example of the Scull Collection and this has of course grown exponentially in numbers, not only in the amount of money, but in the amount of people participating in the market. You have collectors who buy works on the primary market. And when an artist is very hot in demand and let's say he does a new exhibition with 15 works, you have maybe a list of 100 people who would like to buy one of these 15 works.

Simon: [00:08:05] And then it's really the gallery who chooses strategically who they feel is worthy of getting one of these 15 works. They will, of course, privilege their most important collectors. They will, of course, also want to make sure that it goes into some public institutions. But you you will, as a collector, very often feel frustrated because if you are not one of these 15 people. So, the lucky 15 people who just got those works. Amongst them, you can bet anything that it will be one who fairly quickly will want to cash in on the fact that so many people are after this work. So what do they do? They turn around and go to the main auction houses to Sotheby's, Christie's or Phillips and will put one of these works on the market. And then what you see, if there is a strong demand for that particular artist, you will see a steep increase between the asking price of the gallery and the price that that works makes. Because simply because all the people who are on the waiting list who were not able to get their hands on the bid at auction and at auction, it's whoever pays the highest price, who gets the work. So and that has been particularly clear over the last three, four or five years where we have seen massive increases for some artists from some hot artists that went literally from 10,000 right up to a million in no time at all.

Craig: [00:09:43] When I listen to your answer there about the kind of the intrinsic benefit for the artists and the benefits for the collector, I guess one of the parties that winds up I don't know if the word suffering is quite right, but that first gallery, that middle market gallery for an up and coming artist, there are oftentimes kind of in the weakest position, right? Because they aren't going to benefit from secondary market sells. And if there is success in the secondary market, their artists is probably going to get poached by a larger gallery. Can you kind of speak to some of the challenges that middle market galleries face in this sort of system?

Simon: [00:10:27] No, I fully agree with what you just said, because when an artist is exhibited for the first time by a gallery who believes in them, by a gallerist who champions their work, and, and then that work takes off and it takes off at auction, then it's very difficult for that gallery to keep that artists, because then larger galleries have noticed what happens to the work of that artist, to have noticed a strong demand. And very, very often then these bigger galleries come and take those artists away from the smaller galleries that initially champions them. And in a way, these galleries suffer nearly more than the artists themselves, because, as I said earlier, the artists themselves, ultimately they they benefit from it because this increased demand at auction will allow them to sell their works on the primary market for higher prices. Whereas the gallery, once it's out, it's out. And, and it can be very frustrating for some gallerists and some that have been extremely good at discovering strong new talents to then be kind of locked out out of it. And that's why I feel and that's why I have come up now with a new concept, which is to have the possibility for artists and their galleries to sell their work and also some of the work of the primary market at auction, and then for the proceeds to go to the artists and to the gallery representing them so that they are not locked out of that strong demand. But also, yes, that they are directly benefiting from that demand. And by doing that, you cut out the speculation that is happening to their detriment, in fact, because you then avoid for the people to come and flip the work immediately and go to the auction houses and put it on on the secondary market.

Simon: [00:12:49] So that's the idea behind it. Now, like any idea, the proof is in the pudding. You have to see how it works in practice. But. In the 1990s. I was working at Sotheby's at the time, and at one day it was decided, well, the bonus of the main business winners of the company will no longer be determined solely on how much business they bring in for as consignments for the auctions. But one percentage of it has to be also based on how many private transactions they do for the auction houses. And since the 1990s, Sotheby's and Christie's have very successfully conducted many, many private transactions on the secondary market. And this has become a key component of the profitability of those houses. And while they never separate out the turnover of these transactions, but if they were to do so, the main auction houses would rank right at the top of the list of the top galleries. So I always found it interesting that the auctioneers became also top dealers, whereas the top galleries who know their clients as least as well as the main auction houses, have never crossed that line and have never done auctions themselves because they could do it just as just as easily. And in a way, there is nothing that prevents a big bank from doing different things. You know, you can be a commercial bank, but you can be also a private bank. And so that's the thinking behind it all.

Craig: [00:14:43] Well, that's really interesting. I don't know if I've ever really thought about, you know, how those houses are operating as as big dealers or galleries. I know that galleries usually trade on like a lack of transparency, that because they're wanting those pieces to wind up in the right hands, that wind up going to the right institutions, that winds up affecting the the legacy of an artist, then the value and the perceived value that a lot of times galleries want to be gatekeepers to make sure that works would wind up in the right hands. And so when we start talking about anyone being able to purchase these works from a gallery through the means of an auction, are galleries open and receptive that these works will sell to anyone in this sort of system where it's a primary market opportunity, where anyone can play?

Simon: [00:15:46] I think you're totally right. You put your finger on it. I think that galleries, of course, want to keep control of the situation, and the best way to keep control is to not have works come on to onto the open market. But reality has shown that they are not even that are not able to control it fully. And that's how these works appear on the auction market in the first place, because they believe that they have strategically sold it to the right people. But as I said, even when there is amongst a small number of chosen people to whom they have sold these works that are strongly in demand, there is always going to be one or two who will turn around and put some on to the primary market. So you can't fully control it. But it is. I wanted to take into account that concern of the galleries, which is, after all, legitimate, and therefore we have incorporated some of these points. So one of the points is that anybody who will buy one of the works in that initial auction that I'm planning with this new concept commits to not putting any of these works back onto the market for three years. I do not feel that you can demand anything for a longer period than that because after all, if you spend money on anything, I feel you should be able to be free to do with it what you want.

Simon: [00:17:23] But however, I think it's a legitimate concern. So there is this commitment that you're not going to put it back on the market for three years. The other thing, given that the auction house that sell the work knows of course very well who has bought it, but they also know who the who are the people who are bidding for it, who are the under-bidders? This is very valuable information. And so I will share the information of who bought the work and also who the other bidders were with the artist and the gallery that represents them. So therefore it is as if they were themselves doing the auctions themselves that they will benefit from that information, which again I feel is absolutely legitimate because an artist is always very keen to know where his or her work ends up. And of course the gallery that represents them is extremely keen to have that information and that is one of the reasons they were worried that some works would go at auction because they no longer have that information and they no longer relinquish that control.

Craig: [00:18:36] I'm wondering how much of the opportunity that you're taking advantage of here is kind of related to the unique changes in the market over the last few years? I mean, how the market's become more comfortable with online sells with the rise of these online screening rooms, even in the the advent of NFT auction sales and blockchain-based transactions, when those transactions or the bidding is online, you're able to see full transparency of who the bidders were in the ability to write into the contracts on these primary auction sales for art. These contracts can be written in a way where there is long term benefit for the artists. There's limits on how soon you can resell. It feels like some of the things that you're able to take advantage of in the sale are kind of the weather is right for for this sort of change. Would you agree?

Simon: [00:19:39] I totally agree with what you've just said. I think that if it had not been for the pandemic, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation right now. you earlier said, the art market has been very resistant to change, to do with wanting to control the situation and wanting to keep knowing where things end up and all of that. But COVID has changed things around a lot. First of all, it has demonstrated that in auctions, 95% of the purchases are perfectly okay by buying works that they have not physically seen prior to the auction before, people always said, "Oh, you can't do it. You absolutely imperatively have to have seen the work before." Well, it was shown it was not the case. Then I think again in that auction that I'm going to do, you will...the work artwork itself will move only once. That is the artwork stays with the artist or with the gallery that has it until the has been sold at auction and then it will be shipped only once, i.e. when it has been sold, it will be shipped from wherever it is to wherever the new owner is located. This has an advantage in costs, of course, overall, but more importantly, I think an environmental advantage when you move things around only once and the safety of the work itself, of course, if you move it only once instead of twice or three times, is also enhanced.

Craig: [00:21:26] I know that part of this new model of auction that we're testing here includes a charity component. And I believe in this particular auction. That will be coming up, 3% of the hammer price will be deducted from the buyer's premium and paid to UN Women, the United Nations organization that benefits women's charity. Was it important to you to include a charity component in this model?

Simon: [00:21:58] Yes. I think that, again, the COVID has demonstrated a situation where the affluent and privileged people have come out of it financially stronger, whereas the vast, vast majority of people have come out of it much, much worse off than they were before. And I feel that there is a responsibility in businesses that are dealing in things that are not essential or vital to live. I mean, of course, it's essential in other ways that there should be always a charity component. So we have decided our buyer's premium will be 18%. But of that buyer's premium, 3% will go to, as you said, in this first instance, to United Nations women, because the theme of this first auction's works by female artists and it's called "Art in Times of Chaos". So it includes only works that were done between 2019,'20,'21 and now. But for future auctions, my intention is to each time have that same percentage going to a charity and the charity will be chosen in relation to the theme of the auction. So let's say the theme of the auction is the environment, so obviously we will select a charity that is focusing on that aspect and so on.

Craig: [00:24:00] Well, I know that you've long been involved with charity art auctions, and in my mind, charity art auctions are far more beneficial for the charity than they are for the artist or the gallery. Can you kind of explain how the dynamics are a little bit different for a charity art auction versus an auction like this? Can you kind of talk about how the dynamics are different there?

Simon: [00:24:26] If you have a pure charity auction, then the art works or the experiences or very often it's things like a trip or a car or a piece of jewelry and all that. All these items are then donated by the artists or by the jeweler or by the companies that donate these items. So there is a charitable act that precedes these auctions, and then the money raised during the auction goes to the charity. obviously if you are an artist that has donated the work, you will not directly benefit from the proceeds of a pure charity auction. But again, there you can indirectly benefit from it because if it is seen that your work is doing incredibly well in that context, in the same way, as we said at the start of our conversation, an artist will indirectly benefit when it is seen that there is a strong demand for their work. So  it's different from a pure charity auction or a regular auction where there is a percentage going to a charity.

Craig: [00:25:50] So can we talk a little bit about the 16 lots that are in the show? The sell is "Women: Art in Times of Chaos". We mentioned that. I saw that Chloe Wise was on the list, she's someone whose work I follow. What are some of the highlights of the group? Who should we take note of? Who were you excited to see in the sell?

Simon: [00:26:11] I'm actually excited by all the works in the sale. But you mentioned Chloe Wise. Chloe Wise is an artist that I have been following for quite some time now and I like her work very much. I also, which happens whenever I like to work for an artist, I then I'm interested to meet the artist. And then in the case of Chloe, I think she's a fascinating person herself. And I've also. I've been fascinated by seeing the impact on her public because when I attended the opening of an exhibition that she had at her in London, I thought I was like that at a pop concert. I think it was I could hardly move. And I was, of course, by far, far, far the oldest in the crowd. I mean, most of the crowds were teenagers and people in their early, early twenties. And I like to see when when artists have an impact that goes way beyond just the relatively small art world. And that is clearly the case with her work, because she touches a chord that appeals to very young people. So I'm very happy with the works that she has consigned to this exhibition and auction. I'm very happy to have a work by Minjung Kim, who is one of my generally one of my absolute favorite artists. Minjung Kim, as as opposed to Chloe Wise, is what I would call a mid-career artist. I think she is phenomenally talented. She is one of the most important living Korean artists.

Simon: [00:28:06] She is hugely successful globally. I would say she has a strong base of collectors in Europe and the United States and of course in Korea. And I like her technique working mostly on paper using traditional Asian technique of working. It's very subtle. It's very refined, sophisticated and beautiful. So and she's donated a wonderful, very, very strong work. And I think she's an artist that we will see going from strength to strength in the months and years to come. So I'm very happy and grateful to her for having given such a strong work. Then I know in a way every single artist in the exhibition deserves a special notice, but we have also an artist that is working in the most difficult conditions you can imagine. It's a Ukrainian artist Alina Zamanova who was not really known before the tragic war broke out in her country. And her works are like a cry out to the world of despair and sadness of what is going on. And she has been painting herself, doing a series of self portraits, and the titles of the works is just day such and such of the war and when during the Venice Biennale, through Peter Brant Junior, through the Therme Art group, through Francesca Thyssen-bornemisza, a group of individuals spontaneously put together an auction of works to raise money for Ukraine. And that auction took place during the Biennale. And I was very worried because there was no preparation for this auction. I mean, people didn't know more than 24 hours before what was going to be sold.

Craig: [00:30:27] Right.

Simon: [00:30:27] And a work by Alina Zamanova before had never, ever been sold at auction was donated and did very well. And now she has donated another work for this auction. So I think this is very poignant. And then there is an artist and which shows the spectrum, let's say, in this group of the sixteen artists that are participating. She's called Shelby Seu. It's an Asian German artist who is really starting off completely starting off. I was shown her work by a mutual friend and I was bowled over by the quality of her work. And so she's donated a self portrait and I think she's an artist with a huge potential. And I always loved to also give the chance to artists that are really starting off and in the days that I was owning Philips, every season we would decide. I'd sit down with my colleagues and said, Which are the artists who have never been sold at auction that we feel would deserve a chance to get that exposure? Then I remember when we decided that Mark Bradford, for instance, Urs Fisher or I could give you a long, long list of artists that we introduced back then to the secondary market. And, and so that is something I want to continue doing and which I think we did now with Shelby Seu and which I want to do also in the design field and in the photography field.

Craig: [00:32:17] On August 25th, when it's showtime, what can collectors expect when they log in to participate?

Simon: [00:32:24] So for those who are, let's say, not tech adverse, we will offer the chance to do it the old fashioned way. We will be happy to call them on the phone and they can relay their bids live on on the phone. But for those who are tech savvy and which now means, after all, the majority of people, you will be able to register and punch in directly your bids now. So it will be a live auction in real time. But you will immediately when you punch in your bid, you will immediately see what stage of the auction you are. And as it is an online auction, you will not see me doing the auction. There will be an avatar, a kind of a caricature of myself gesticulating. You see the prices. The price is hopefully going up. But that's the idea, because I feel it is interesting that people like seeing numbers just going up on a chart, but I think you should always try and entertain the audience and a touch of humor is always a good thing to have.

Craig: [00:33:45] Do prospective collectors and participants in the auction, do they need to pre-register or I'm sure they need to go to your site to see these lots ahead of time and kind of familiarize themselves. But do they need to log in and set up some sort of account beforehand?

Simon: [00:34:03] That is correct, because you, of course, need like with any auction. Also, if you want to bid at one of the main auction houses, you always have to register if it is your intention to bid because otherwise the auction house can't accept your bids. You need to protect the sellers to make sure that the people who are actually bidding will then pay for the lots they have acquired at auctions. So that is kind of a prerequisite. And we both on social media, on the de PURY Instagram or on my own Simon de Pury Instagram, but also on emails to our client base, we we are making sure that people register.

Craig: [00:34:58] And so if, if people wanted more information, if they wanted to register, if they wanted to see the lots, where's the best place to send folks to learn more information and to start getting involved?

Simon: [00:35:10] So there is the de PURY website which will give you that information. So it's, or you can go on my own personal Instagram account @simondepury, all in one word or on the Instagram of the company, which is @depury or yes. These are the three ways of doing it.

Craig: [00:35:43] Wonderful. Well, Simon, I really appreciate you taking time out of your morning to to speak with me. And I'm very intrigued by this new model that you're exploring. It seems like all the ingredients are there for a really successful event. I wish you the best of luck, and I really appreciate you being willing to spend time speaking with me today.

Simon: [00:36:08] Thank you so much, Craig. It's been a real pleasure speaking to you.

Craig: [00:36:16] That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to Art since you can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. And if you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read the transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to and click on the podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at Thanks for listening.

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