Christie's sent a big signal last week: it's going deeper into the dealer business. That is what is behind the announcement that it's set to open a new suite of galleries in its Rockefeller Center home in New York specifically for private treaty sales.
It's no secret that private treaty sales have been growing slowly but steadily in importance to Christie's (chart, below). In the first half of 2014, they hit $828 million or about 18 percent of its $4.5 billion in total sales. For the full year, private sales are on track to be up 20 to 25 percent over last year, according to Vivian Pfeiffer, the director of private sales in the Americas for Christie's. If so, they are likely to exceed $1.4 billion.
Staff is not increasing, but Pfeiffer said that Christie's was poised for growth in this area because "we've perfected our machinery" to make private sales, which includes "making use of the amazing amount of data that we have."
Unlike the auction business, which some say is still largely driven by death, divorce and distress (or debt), private treaty sales are motivated by very high, and often very specific, demand in some categories—like postwar and contemporary art, Pfeiffer said. "We know that client X is looking for a particular artist, and we go and source it," she said. "We're fulfilling the wishes of very active collectors year-round," instead of just at auction times. For sellers, one attraction is not needing to wait for a scheduled auction.
Fees are different too—no buyers' premium or consignor's fee. Just as galleries do, Christie's sets a price with the seller and usually collects a margin that Pfeiffer said is "comparable to the trade."
Christie's declined to provide a geographical breakdown of those sales or a breakdown by category. But Pfeiffer said the most active category is postwar and contemporary art, where the "sweet spot" for a sales price is $1 million to $5 million. Old Masters, Impressionists and Modern, American paintings, Asian Art and jewelry are also very active.
The new exhibition space (above)--11,000 square feet, including five private viewing rooms located on the ground floor of its New York headquarters—sends two messages. First, collectors can buy and sell year-round, untethered from the auction schedule. Second, because visitors to these galleries will use the same entrance as those going to auction exhibitions, they will see Christie's as offering a "seamless" experience—the same service for all kinds of customers. That contrasts with Christie's previous try at a gallery space in Rockefeller Center. Haunch of Venison, the London gallery it purchased in 2007, initially had a 17,000 square-foot space on the 20th floor, above the auction house headquarters, with a different and confusing entrance. Haunch of Venison in New York moved to Chelsea in 2011, and was shut down completely in 2013.
Christie's still has the 20th floor space, though, and plans to open a private selling exhibition of Michele Oka Doner's work on Nov. 21.
Christie's plans to hold year-round exhibitions in the new West Galleries, which were designed by architect Annabel Selldorf. It has not yet announced its program, but the first show, of American Modernism, is set to open at the end of January, 2015.
For the new galleries, Selldorf created "flexible exhibition spaces" that sound draw inspiration from Rockefeller Center's art deco design. She ordered terrazzo flooring and period pendant lamps in the reception and lobby area, as well as special art lighting that allows artworks to be bathed in hot or cool tones and under spotlights, depending on what shows them to best favor. Two of the private viewing rooms are geared for Old Masters and 19th Century art, with cream-colored walls, moldings and a residential feel. The others are white, larger and intended for showing more contemporary works.
Announcing the space, Marc Porter, International Director of Private Sales as well as chairman of Christie's America, said that, in addition to exhibitions, there will be "bespoke experiences for collectors to connect with art, objects, jewels and watches, 365 days a year through Private Sales." That means, for example, allowing buyers to take more time to make a decision, compared to a split-second auction environment, and letting them experience the art in their homes.