At the end of the English soccer season, to keep the excitement as tight as possible until the very last minute, all the most critical games are planned so that they take place on the same day, at almost the same time. This leads to massive cheers erupting in one stadium during apparently dull bits of play, because a rival team has just conceded a goal at another stadium. It certainly keeps the nerves jangling until the very last minute. From my position this is very similar to what is planned on 11 December. Three of the five World Art Departments have sales on the same day: Contemporary Indian in Mumbai, African and Oceanic in Paris, and Antiquities in New York. And it is shaping up to be quite a day. The Indian sale looks very strong, a more than worthy successor to the magnificent inaugural Indian auction a year ago. The Paris African and Oceanic sale has an extra catalogue for a private collection on top of the regular various owners sale, and the New York Antiquities auction is the strongest Christie’s sale in the field for a few seasons. They combine to form a great finale to the first year of the World Art group.
The year has provided me with many aspects that affect anybody taking on a new role. Getting to grips with the new responsibilities, learning rapidly about the fields that I was not familiar with, and building relationships with the very capable teams that form each department have been fundamental to mastering my new position. Learning about new fields has been one of the most pleasurable aspects; specialists have been very generous in explaining individual works of art and the particular intricacies of their markets to me. I have met many new clients, and have been pleasantly surprised at how many faces I have recognised from one event or transaction in the past. In particular it has been fascinating to be introduced to so many Indian clients, both in the modern and contemporary and also in the classical art fields. For me this is the one new area where the main client base, as in the world of Islamic Art that I come from, is based in the geographical areas where the art was produced. Classical Indian, Himalayan and South East Asian Art was also a field that I covered in my first eight years at Christie’s and India was where I spent half of my sabbatical nearly two years ago now. I was enormously grateful to the various clients who made my two weeks in Delhi and Mumbai in August, one of the least hospitable months, into one of the most memorably hospitable trips that I have been lucky enough to experience.
Each individual area has had particular challenges. For me this year, many have been directly or indirectly related to the questions of cultural property and provenance. We have not been able to sell any Pre-Columbian Art in 2014, as we have not been presented with any that has had provable provenance dating back to before the bilateral agreements that various countries have made. I sincerely hope that we will be able to successfully sell items in this field in the coming year. This issue of having to prove provenance on items, with its implied assumption of ‘guilty unless proven innocent’, is an attitude which I detest but reluctantly have to agree is sensible in the current atmosphere. Strong provenance is also becoming more and more reflected in the prices that are achieved in the sales. The flip side to this is that our attitude towards provenance was also a major factor in our winning the most important collection that came onto the market in 2014 (due to be sold in 2015). At the same time I have worked internally as one of the members of the Cultural Property Committee to try to modify Christie’s approach towards works of art where there are anomalies in our regulations, or situations that lead to unnecessarily rigid application.
There have been a number of milestones achieved in 2014, and I write this while there are still a few weeks in which a couple more can be achieved. In March the Indian, Himalayan and South East Asian Art Department was instrumental in putting together the Sublime Image sale which included outstanding examples of Buddhist art from all over East and South Asia. In April the Islamic department doubled the record price for Iznik pottery, a record that had stood for 20 years, achieving £1.4 million for an outstanding blue and white bowl dating from around 1500. In June the Antiquities Department sold the most expensive Egyptian antiquity, the old kingdom sculpture of Sekhemka, with a provenance that went back to the mid-19th century, for an astonishing £15.7 million. The same month the African and Oceanic Art Department sold art from the Blum collection in a sale that achieved two different world records. But the year’s success was not just about world records. In November the Guggenheim opened the first solo retrospective show of an Indian modern artist, Vasudeo Gaitonde, which received very strong positive reviews. Christie’s was very proud to be the sponsor of this landmark exhibition. At this point I also have to note a hugely sad landmark: the untimely death of a collector, who was the most powerful individual influence in three of the five departments and active in a fourth, Sheikh Saoud al-Thani. His unexpected sudden death at the age of 48 leaves behind an extraordinary legacy; the entire art market will never be the same as it was before he entered it.
At the end of this momentous year, the Indian, Himalayan and South East Asian Art Department is delighted to announce the most important single owner collection in the field to have come onto the auction market in a generation, the collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth which will be sold in New York in March (viewing opens 11 March). The collection features many masterpieces, in particular in the Indian and Himalayan fields, and well over 3,000 items from various fields especially Chinese art. It will make for a very exciting series of spring sales.
For me, what has been most special of all this year has been the welcome I have been given by the people in the departments that form the group. I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the specialists and administrators in all five departments. I would like formally to thank them for their energy, optimism, innovation, and sheer hard work that has achieved this year’s results, often in difficult circumstances. I have felt all the teams coalesce through the year and very much look forward to building on this basis in the year to come.
The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth >