An Art Market So Big, Even the Brands Have Brands
On Wednesday, the New York Times ran a piece by Carol Vogel about Christie’s plans to present a separate, specially branded contemporary art auction the day before their annual blockbuster spring post-war sale. Organized by a 33 year-old in-house specialist named Loic Gouzer (no relation to the antagonist from Ghostbusters), the sale, dubbed If I Live I’ll See You Tuesday, will be driven by a specific thesis: that young, rich collectors crave edgier work than what’s typically featured by the big houses. Christie’s aims to fill that perceived void, and if successful, their move could lay the groundwork for a new era of auction strategy.
Now, there is a load of crucial information about this whole enterprise that we simply don’t know yet. Christie’s is only revealing the sale’s inventory piece by piece via Gouzer’s Instagram (@loicgouzer), and they seem poised to string that process out for the next several weeks.
As of my writing Gouzer has only unveiled five and a quarter works - one each by Basquiat, Dan Colen, Joe Bradley, Mark Grotjahn, and David Hammons (the only non-painting), plus the lower left corner of a Richard Prince photo. Vogel also mentions that the sale will include Wade Guyton, Cady Noland, Louis Eisner of Still House, a Damien Hirst dead butterfly painting (please, take a moment to breathe into a paper bag if you need to), and three other Prince works, one of which lends the sale its name.
No estimates are included in Gouzer’s Instagrams, either. Sadly, this robs us all of the absurdity of seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of value communicated next to a grey cartoon word bubble. Price-wise, all that we have right now are Vogel’s tips that the titular Prince painting is estimated at $3.5-5.5M, and that the overall value of the sale hovers somewhere near $70M. “Edgy” does not mean “cheap.”
And that’s largely the point to me. A comprehensive inventory and estimates may be trapped in one of JJ Abrams’s mystery boxes for now, but that doesn’t obscure the core idea animating If I Live. When I tweeted about the sale on Wednesday, I borrowed a phrase from Hollywood and referred to the sale as a “red band” auction - edgier, more transgressive, more explicit than what you’d show a general audience.
Now, it remains to be seen whether the actual lots live up to the rhetoric. But there’s no doubt that Christie’s is marketing the sale as the youthful, risk-taking, one-night-only alternative to the traditional two-day Post-War & Contemporary sale that will follow it. Metaphorically speaking, If I Live is being presented as the turnt up bachelor(ette) party the night before the wedding reception where everyone’s parents awkwardly groove to “Shout."
Despite the jarring lack of self-awareness in some of the conversation around it - see Vogel’s notion that the lots on offer will "capture the raw angst intended to appeal to [Gouzer’s] generation of rich embryonic collectors” - Christie’s logic is sound. Essentially what they’re doing is creating a sub-brand that specifically targets a lucrative demographic whose business the existing mega-brand is missing. The theory is that this “generation of rich embryonic collectors” still wants the high-end luxury that Christie’s signifies, but they also consider themselves more daring than the angst-less old money filing into the auction chamber to bid on Warhols and de Koonings.
Enter Gouzer. Through him, Christie’s can present an alternative that offers the best of both worlds: a collection of artworks deemed too subversive for the gray hairs… but still back-stopped by the five-star brand of the world’s top auction house. If I Live is engineered to convince its bidders that they’re being avant garde while simultaneously minimizing the risks associated with bold action. It’s the glamping of art collecting. And from a business standpoint, I think it may be brilliant.
Christie’s didn’t just conjure this strategy out of a boiling cauldron of wolfsbane two days ago. They’ve undoubtedly seen it pay dividends in other industries. In Hollywood, major studios like Fox created divisions like Fox Searchlight to help signal certain movies on their slates as boundary-pushers. In fashion, major houses like Prada conceived of sub-brands like Miu Miu to capture a younger, edgier clientele. In music, major labels like Sony BMG intentionally birthed smaller ones like Kanye’s G.O.O.D. Music to laser-focus on particular niches.
However, Christie’s is the first top tier entity to transition the idea to the art market. It remains to be seen if the move will succeed. But if it does, look for them to build Gouzer’s single sale into a going concern that can cultivate the rich youth demographic for the long haul… and then look for Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury to follow suit soon after.