‘Welcome to the new theatre’: The four auctioneers — all for ONE
On 10 July Christie’s makes auction history with ONE, a single sale taking place in sequence in Hong Kong, Paris, London and New York. We talked to the four auctioneers about their expectations — and the works they look forward to selling
Elaine Kwok starts the auction in Hong Kong at about 8.30pm local time — that’ll be 2.30pm in Paris, 1.30pm in London, and 8.30am in New York
‘This is a relay sale that starts in Hong Kong. The action is here for about half an hour from 8.30pm in the evening, then the sale carries on in Paris, where it will be lunchtime. After Paris the sale moves on to London, and it finally it goes to New York, where the day will just be beginning. So it will be a grand travelling show as well as an auction — and it’s going to be huge fun.
‘Bidders can stick around in the Hong Kong saleroom and take part in the sale while it’s happening in Europe and the US. Others may go home for dinner and watch it unfold online, bidding from their own sitting room.
‘A traditional auction is a piece of drama, but this will be more like live television. We four auctioneers will be talking to each other across the continents. If someone in Paris wants to bid on on the Zao Wou-Ki [21.10.63], everyone taking part will hear Cécile tell me so.
‘I am really taken with the Kusama Pumpkin that we are selling in Hong Kong. The pumpkins are very familiar, of course, but this one is historically important because it is one of the earliest on canvas.
‘Kusama painted it in 1981, way before she became famous for them. The dotted red bunting on the sides with white polka dots — that is stuck on, it’s collage. We see lots of Kusama pumpkins, but this one is quite special.
‘Then there is George Condo’s Force Field, a monumental painting from his most sought-after series. It reminds me of Picasso, not just in its fractured Cubist forms, but in the subject matter, too. That group of provocative figures makes me think of the Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon.
‘And Zao Wou-Ki’s 21.10.63 looks sumptuous. It belongs to what is known as the ‘Hurricane Series’ that came about after he went to America and encountered the Abstract Expressionists. You can see the energy within the painting, the way it hovers between representation and abstraction. In Chinese we call these paintings kuangcao, which means ‘wild grass’. It is a really big canvas, full of huge, universal ideas.
‘Our buyers are global, and this format reflects their varied interests. The new platform mirrors the taste of our collectors’ — Elaine Kwok
‘It is interesting that we are selling that work alongside Gerhard Richter’s fabulous Frost (1). The latter is quite a bit smaller than the Zao, but there is amazing variety and richness in the colours and the brushwork. Both artists are playing with the idea of abstraction, but taking different approaches.
‘Our buyers are global, and this format reflects their varied interests. As for bidders here in Asia, they are very worldly and look at artists across the modern and contemporary categories.
‘The new platform mirrors the taste of our collectors. I am pleased that I am going first — getting the hardest part out of the way at the start. And if I could take one piece home from the Hong Kong leg, it would be the Zao hurricane — or maybe the pumpkin.’
Cécile Verdier continues the auction in Paris
‘Paris is the second leg, but the thing about the ONE sale is that it is not a Paris auction or a Hong Kong auction — it is a Christie’s worldwide sale. Every lot will have global reach: it is as if each work of art were magnified and hung on an enormous wall.
‘Pierre Soulages’s Peinture 130 x 89 cm, 25 novembre 1950 is super-strong. It comes from the original owner, and so is a completely new discovery. The light emanating from the middle of it is unbelievable: when you look at it you really feel that you are trying to break through to that light.
‘We will sell a Modigliani portrait of a beautiful young man who looks at you deeply with his blue eyes. It is so modern, but I would say there is something Fauve in it, and maybe even something Russian: you feel that young man’s soul.
‘The painting has been cleaned, and removing that layer of old varnish has revealed all of Modigliani’s glorious colours. It’s the first time the painting has appeared at auction, and it was previously held in the collection of the most important patron of the artist, Dr. Paul Alexandre.
‘We have a still-life by Zao Wou-Ki that is so different from the large abstract in Hong Kong: our vase of flowers is entirely representational — you could call it a pre-Zao Zao Wou-Ki.
‘And we have a blue hippopotamus bathtub by Francois-Xavier Lalanne. The taps are in the hippo’s mouth, while the body is the tub itself. It is a great piece of French design that sits somewhere between surrealism and Pop art, and it demonstrates that François Xavier Lalanne was an artist at least as much as he was a designer. You can easily imagine it standing in a bathroom or close to a pool — even beneath a Hockney swimming-pool…
‘Buyers will have three options. They can bid on the phone as normal, or they can be online; but what’s new is that they can also be in the room in London, New York or Hong Kong, and participate live by making a bid to the auctioneer that will come to me on my podium.
‘So as I am about to bring the hammer down, I might hear Adrien say, “Oh, and now I have a bid,” because he has that person in front of him in New York, waving their paddle.
‘There will be tremendous energy and momentum on the day of the sale, because we have a fantastic tool in our hands to bring people back into the auction room. In New York it all happens between eight and ten in the morning, so I hope that they have arranged good coffee. But just imagine: before you go to work you can buy yourself a wonderful painting.’
Jussi Pylkkänen then picks up the gavel in London
‘For a while now we have been living in a new era, a Zoom era where we can have conversations in real time across continents. The past three months have made us much more comfortable with that — with getting engaged in events from our own homes.
‘At the same time, we have seen the appetites of collectors change. Buyers are prepared to cross more boundaries. They are extra curious and welcoming, more prepared to ask themselves: what would an Old Master look like next to a Giacometti sculpture, or a Monet alongside a de Kooning? The ONE sale will reflect all of that. It will be real festival of the arts, as well as a watershed moment for the art market.
‘The London leg of the sale has some pieces that will fly. Carnival and Lent, the Cecily Brown work, is a masterpiece — a really complex, visually satisfying painting by an artist who has an utterly distinctive signature.
‘So many of the works across all the four venues are best in class. Take the Magritte, Arc de Triomphe: it is a very mystical painting, one of the few large-scale pieces still in private hands. It is a fine example of his work, which was exhibited at MoMA the year after it was painted.
‘Ben Nicholson’s 1945 (still life) is sublime, a beautifully balanced, measured composition. He, more than any artist apart from perhaps Morandi, has a unique sense of how proportion creates harmony.
‘Then there is the Pissarro street scene, La Place du Havre, effet de pluie — an absolute jewel, the artist at his best. But my own favourite in the London leg is the Alberto Burri, Rosso Plastica, which is sonorous, dramatic, and so dynamic.
‘I think the ONE sale will be career-defining for all of us, and certainly one of the most exciting experiences I will have had in my long tenure as an auctioneer’ — Jussi Pylkkänen
‘So this will be a sale of high calibre, carefully curated, representing some of the best artists of the 20th century. As for the new global format, we had a live practice session the other day and I have to say it was seamless. The auctioneers, though hundreds or thousands of miles apart, could have been in rooms next door to each other.
‘It was interesting, too, because the dynamic between us changed as each of us took our turn as principal auctioneer. The whole experience was far more multi-dimensional, like a stage-play with four very different protagonists.
‘I think the ONE sale will be career-defining for all of us, and certainly one of the most exciting experiences I will have had in my long tenure as an auctioneer. So, welcome to the new theatre: the lights have been switched on, and it’s going to be a great night.’
After meetings from 5am, Adrien Meyer hosts the final leg of the auction in New York
‘I have led many after-dinner auctions, but never one before breakfast. It’ll be an early start for me — the meetings begin at five in the morning — but I am glad to be going last. My colleagues in Hong Kong, Paris and London will have warmed up the atmosphere, and I will have been able to witness all the skills that they bring to bear.
‘Many American buyers will be taking part from their holiday homes, following the course of the sale with a cream-cheese bagel.’
‘We are selling a fantastic work by Lucio Fontana — Concetto Spaziale, Attesa — in the New York leg. It is very large and pure, the canvas has a single slash, and the whole thing feels very serene and soothing — even though these works can be seen to have a kind of violence about them.
‘I will also be auctioning the Richard Prince picture of a nurse in a facemask [Navy Nurse] — a timely picture that is also one of that fine artist’s core subjects.
‘The Picasso that I am selling has a lot of magic. It is not the largest of the Femmes d’Alger series, but it is certainly one of the best. It is colourful, elaborate and has a well-balanced composition.
‘It is a historically important picture, too, because Picasso here pays tribute to Matisse, who himself was paying tribute to Delacroix! And the fabulous thing is that it is fresh to the market. That is why you will probably not have seen it before.
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‘Of all the works we have in New York I particularly like Miró’s wonderful Peinture, which came in on the day we were closing the sale. Miró himself considered it a breakthrough in his work. It has a poetic vocabulary of shapes and forms, in primary colours, very evocative of Alexander Calder. And, amusingly, this painting was once owned by Calder himself.
‘Am I excited about the ONE sale? Certainly. It is going to require an even greater focus than usual from us auctioneers, and hopefully excitement always beats nerves on the day. This concept is so new, so innovative, I feel sure it is going to break the mould of the gala auction.’