Published: June 7, 2021
We are far enough into the Twenty-First Century that it should not have come as a surprise that auction houses making headlines with contemporary art sales would eventually create an entirely new category to distinguish those sales from auctions of Twentieth Century art. That moment has arrived at Christie’s, which, on May 11, conducted its first sale dedicated to works made in the Twenty-First Century. Auctioneering that sale was Gemma Sudlow, who heads the firm’s Private and Iconic Collections department, which is based in New York City. We reached out to Sudlow to find out how high the pressure is for those sales, and what she does to prepare when the world might be watching.
Was this the first Evening sale you’ve auctioneered? If not, what was the first Evening sale and when was that?
I became an auctioneer for Christie’s back in 2012 and have taken many sales in London and New York across multiple categories, including furniture, photography, Chinese ceramics and works of art, Old Master paintings and postwar and contemporary art. As part of my day job, I’ve also had the privilege of selling some of the most important and press-worthy collections that have come to market in that time, including The Private Collection of President & Mrs Ronald Reagan, the David Gilmour Guitar Collection and the private collections of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Paul Walter, Joan Rivers, Jayne Wrightsman and Mrs Henry Ford II – to name but a few.
Technically one could argue my first ‘evening’ sale was selling the Chinese works of art from the Rockefeller collection around midnight at the close of a phenomenal and record-breaking week of sales (May 8-11, 2018) it remains the most valuable collection ever sold at auction to this day. I think auctioneer John Hays, however, took the prize for the most outstanding performance during a night shift; the rare duck decoys from the Rockefeller collection concluded somewhere around 2 am! With a truly global art market, our perception of evening sales has shifted – that’s why I start every sale by saying good morning, good evening and good afternoon – you never know what time zone your bidders and buyers might be in.
Auction houses have had to shift to global online only sales – was this the first global online sale you’ve sold?
The Twenty-First Century sale in May was my first time fielding live-streamed telephone bids from colleagues in global locations, but Christie’s established our LIVE bidding platform in 2011 so I’ve always been used to taking bids globally via a screen in the saleroom.
I imagine the pressure before any auction might be fairly intense. Does the global aspect magnify that?
It makes it more exciting honestly knowing that bidders can join the saleroom from the comfort of wherever they are and that you never know who’s watching. There was a wonderful moment a few years ago when a client approached me in the saleroom during an exhibition and began talking to me as if we knew one another. Somewhat embarrassed, I had to ask her where we had met. It transpired I’d sold her several lots when she was bidding online and she genuinely felt after that interaction that we had gotten to know one another – that’s when I realized the power of engaging with your online bidders – although I can’t see them, it’s still a meaningful – and hopefully memorable – exchange for the buyer.
Can you describe what you do to prepare for auctioneering these sales?
A critical part of the preparation is to get under the skin of what you are selling. I spend time in the galleries, meet the clients who might be bidding, work with the department and try to fully understand the needs of the vendors and buyers alike. I think you also need to be a bit in love – fall for some of the lots and learn something along the way – especially where you are selling something that is outside your specialist expertise. As far as possible, I try to tune out all other distractions in the final few days prior so I can really devote my energy to the performance on the day. I have a 15-month-old daughter at home, however, so that’s one distraction that’s hard to tune out!
Is there a singular moment from the sale that will stand out in your mind?
It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment in such a fabulous sale! What the team put together broke new ground on a number of levels – it really was thoughtfully curated (an often overused word but absolutely true in this case) and the market responded with intensity of enthusiasm. Setting 11 new world records for artists (many of whom were women and artists of color) was an extremely exciting moment in the art market to be a part of. For me, it’s never really been about the number of zeros at the end of the price but the thrill of getting that extra bid, and another, and another… The end of the sale with the powerful work by Dana Schutz was a pretty edifying single moment (if I really have to choose one) with the result generating 300 percent in matched funds for Art into Acres. When it’s all going to a great cause, so much the better.
-Madelia Hickman Ring
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