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The Kimbell's Poussin Deal? That's How Auction Houses Roll These Days

by Jerome Weeks 26 Oct 2011 10:46 AM

Sure, Sotheby’s and Christie’s are in the business of selling artworks through public auction. But not only through public auction, not any more. They’re cutting private deals — like the one that got the Kimbell that Poussin.


Last month, if we all can remember back that far through the various acquisitions and new hires in the local art scene, the Kimbell acquired a painting by the 17th-century French master, Nicolas Poussin for a low-low-low $24.3 million. And as cool as that was, what was just as interesting was the entire backstory: how The Sacrament of Ordination was originally part of an ambitious set by Poussin, how the owner, the 11th Duke of Rutland, had tried to auction what remained of the entire set to pay for necessary repairs to the family estate, Belvoir Castle, but he failed when a public outcry arose over the masterpieces leaving England (London’s National Gallery couldn’t raise the necessary $160 million) and how the Kimbell waited a bit, got an official license to peel off just the one painting and buy it, waited some more, no outcry was heard — and le voila, Bob’s your uncle, there you have it.

Well, according to a lengthy feature in Artinfo, the auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, are doing that sort of backstairs private deal a lot more these days. In fact, the Poussin Deal is High Profile Example #1 in Judd Tully’s article about their profitable efforts outside the public auctions.

Mostly, what they’ve been doing is establishing their own private galleries to compete with leading dealers.  Sotheby’s, which the article says helped broker the Poussin-to-Kimbell deal, has just opened its own gallery in Manhattan, and has been in the private gallery business since at least 1990 when it “partnered with Acquavella Galleries of New York to buy 2,300 paintings from the Pierre Matisse Gallery for $143 million following the dealer’s death.” Over time, Sotheby’s doled out the works privately and at auction — and made a gold mine.

Needless to say, private galleries and dealers are not happy with the increased competition from the Big Boys. But the article goes on to say, expect more of the Poussin kind of deal, the seemingly-from-out-of-nowhere major purchase. It cuts out the risks of auctions, which jack up prices through competition (good for the seller, not for the buyer). But a discreet sale can also be good for the seller: It can hide any family financial problems (that led to the forced sale) and prevents any embarrassment if the art doesn’t meet its reserve price at auction.

Going forward, both houses’ venues should produce plenty of action. “We’re seeing growing interest from our clients wanting to buy and sell privately,” says Caroline Sayan, Christie’s international managing director for private sales, who notes that in the first half of 2011 such transactions brought in $467 million, a 57 percent increase over the same period in 2010.

So … is North Texas’ own Heritage Auctions doing the same?