Two weeks after the major fall evening sales of Post-War and Contemporary art at Phillips, Sotheby's and Christie's in New York, the art world is still digesting the Carte Blanche Phillips sale that opened the fall auction season. The Carte Blanche auction was an unprecedented decision by Phillips to invite someone from outside of the auction house to "curate" the sale. This alone is an interesting concept since one rarely overtly and explicitly thinks of auctions as an active curatorial venture, but rather as a commercial one where auction house specialists invite collectors to consign works. Nevertheless, Phillips brought in Philippe Segalot to assemble the "the sale of his dreams" in the inaugural Carte Blanche auction. (Segalot and his business partner Franck Giraud also recently put together their ideal collection in the book The Impossible Collection, which they assembled as if "money [were] no object and anything [were] possible.")
In reaction to this event, Sarah Thornton wrote an insightful piece in the Economist online about the sale in which she raised the following questions:
• "Whether acting for buyers as well as for sellers on the same lot might constitute a conflict of interest"?
• Can it be described as something other than strange when Francois Pinault, owner of Christie's, consigns the cover lot, Maurizio Cattelan's "Stephanie" 2003, to his competition at Phillips?
• What role do "irrevocable bids" play in an auction and what is the difference between these kinds of bids and third-party guarantees on a lot?
• What does one make of the convoluted prices paid by Warhol collectors for works in the week's auctions?
This piece was followed by a post by Jerry Saltz on his Facebook page in which he exalted Thornton's criticism and jokingly suggested that the White Collar Crimes division of the FBI conduct an investigation of the auction houses - a call that is perhaps a bit sensationalist and overemotional when, in the same breath, Saltz states that he is in favor of an unregulated market. Saltz spends most of his post suggesting that the auction houses are morally bankrupt places that conduct "auctions that that aren't about art."
Regardless of whether the art market is regulated or unregulated, auctions play two important roles within that structure. First, auctions create greater liquidity in the market, and second they provide a level of price transparency that does not exist elsewhere in the art market. Thus even though the art market is an unregulated space and caveat emptor has been a guiding principle for acquiring artwork, auction houses play a role in mitigating some of the risk.
Phillips' decision to fashion the sale in this manner can easily be explained by its desire to raise its profile and compete more aggressively with Sotheby's and Christie's for consignments. The evening sale (the Carte Blanche section plus the subsequent portion of the evening sale) totaled $137 million in sales, eclipsing the previous highest total of $59 million for a Phillips evening sale. However, looking forward, one wonders whether the strong reactions elicited by the Carte Blanche sale will lead to more curated sales at Phillips. And if so, will these be by curators from the academic and institutional realms or by dealers and advisors from the commercial sector? The marriage of curatorial and commercial interests has long been a challenging relationship to navigate in the art world and the Carte Blanche sale demonstrates one more of these instances.