When Martha Baer arrived at Christie’s in 1978, she had little idea of what she was letting herself in for. Enticed from the respected art gallery Acquavella to establish a new Contemporary Art department at the auction house, Martha quickly built what has since become one of the most important categories in the company — helping to strengthen not only Christie’s reputation as an art market leader, but also New York’s reputation as the global centre of contemporary art.
Martha was born in St. Louis in 1939. Soon after graduating from Vassar College, she went to work for Charles Buckley, the legendary director of the St. Louis Art Museum. Moving to New York, she then embarked on an illustrious career at notable galleries including both Andre Emmerich and Acquavella.
Her early years at Christie’s were challenging. While the company was new to the American market, Martha was the perfect person to establish its reputation in the United States. She was familiar with the local market, she knew the artists, and she knew the clients.
‘She was a strong and forceful character, demanding of herself and those who worked with her’ — Christopher Burge
Christopher Burge, then Head of the Impressionist and Modern Paintings department remembers Martha’s first week. ‘She was a strong and forceful character, demanding of herself and those who worked with her. She came to the company with a lot of experience, but when she arrived, she had no desk, no assistant, and thought all the English people who had been sent over from London were quite mad. She was ready to quit after her first week, but she spoke to her close friend, the critic Clement Greenberg, who persuaded her to give it another chance. I’m so glad she did.’
Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie’s Americas, who had worked with Martha since his days as a specialist in the Books and Manuscripts department, says that in addition to being a great asset for Christie’s in America, Martha was also a great ambassador for the Americas within the company.
‘She understood the culture of doing business in America,’ he remembers fondly, ‘and was able to navigate all the cultural differences. At the time, the New York office was regarded by many as something of a “colonial outpost” by the head office in London, but Martha helped to establish the region as one of the most important in the company.’
Her four decades at the auction house were marked by many highlights. In 1983, she was responsible for the successful sale of Willem de Kooning’s Two Women, which sold for $1.2 million – the highest price achieved for a living artist at the time.
Between 1988 and 1991, she secured the collection of Burt and Emily Tremaine for auction. Considered by many to be the greatest private collection of twentieth-century art in the world, the two sales were highlighted with works by Fernand Leger, Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns amongst many others.
Winning these consignments was often the result of relationships that Martha had spent years nurturing. She was adored by collectors who turned to her for advice and guidance, which Martha was always keen to share.
‘She was devoted to her clients, and would dedicate considerable time and energy toward developing relationships with them’ — Stephen Lash
Stephen Lash, Chairman Emeritus at Christie’s and someone who had known Martha since her early days at the company, recalled: ‘She was devoted to her clients. She had access to all the top collectors and would dedicate considerable time and energy toward developing relationships with them. She would introduce them to new artists she believed in — and dissuade them from acquisitions that she felt weren’t right for them or their collection. Consequently, she was rewarded with their trust, and both Christie’s and her clients benefited tremendously.’
Another example of a longstanding relationship that Martha developed over the years was with the Chicago collectors Robert and Beatrice “Buddy” Mayer. Under Martha’s leadership in November 1989, Christie’s offered 20 works from the couple’s collection in a special single-owner evening sale, including an important 1963 painting by Roy Lichtenstein, Torpedo… Los.
Following that successful sale, Martha maintained her friendship with Buddy Mayer, calling on her whenever she visited Chicago. This decades long relationship resulted in another blockbuster sale of the couple’s artwork in 2019, highlighted by Robert Rauschenberg’s iconic Buffalo II, which sold for a record-breaking $89 million.
Anyone who worked with Martha will also recall her great sense of humour and highly infectious laugh. Burge remembers joining Martha on a client visit to Japan: ‘She had taken up knitting, and as the aircraft taxied to the runway, she took a ball of wool from her bag and began to knit,’ he explains.
‘As the plane took off, she accidently dropped the ball of wool which promptly rolled back under the seats of hundreds of passengers through the entire length of the aircraft. Once the plane had leveled off, Martha sheepishly had to go back through the aircraft and retrieve her now unraveled ball of wool.’ Martha would often regale clients with stories such as these, and they loved it. ‘Her sense of humor was very disarming,’ Burge says.
As well as being an accomplished specialist and a determined deal maker, Martha was also a passionate mentor to more junior colleagues, many of whom have gone on to hold senior positions within Christie’s and beyond.
‘She was tremendously generous with her time and knowledge, and helped to propel anyone who demonstrated talent and intellectual curiosity’ — Marc Porter
Sara Friedlander, now Deputy Chairman of Post-War & Contemporary Art, began her career at Christie’s as Martha’s assistant. ‘She had a reputation for being “tough,” which is a good thing in my opinion, but I loved working for her. She wasn’t a lavish or ostentatious person and extremely corporately responsible, so there were very few receipts to process — you learn so much about a person from their receipts. She took the train in from Connecticut and stayed at the Cosmopolitan Club and always bought me lunch at her own expense.’
‘She quickly realised that everyone, whatever level they held within the company, had an important role to play,’ Porter adds. ‘She was tremendously generous with her time and knowledge, and helped to propel anyone who demonstrated talent and intellectual curiosity. She always sought to teach more junior people and elevate them, something which she continued throughout her career.’
Burge, who perhaps worked with Martha most closely throughout her career at Christie’s sums up her influence on both auction house and the wider art world: ‘She knew a lot of artists and their work, but she also had a very, very strong sense of getting a good deal done. She was both fearless, and a feared competitor. Her colleagues respected her, and her clients adored her. She was a magnificent example of the best kind of specialist.’