Last month, Christie’s Auctions and Private Sales experienced an unexpected internal rift as Chief Executive Steven Murphy stepped down from the position he has held since 2010. The New York Times reported on December 2, “in a swift move that surprised even auction house insiders, Christie’s announced that Mr. Murphy was stepping down. He will be succeeded by Patricia Barbizet, who has been chief executive of the Artemis Group,” of Murphy’s surprising resignation and subsequent replacement.
The Artemis Group was founded by Francois Pinault, the owner of Christie’s, which suggests that executive level management of the auction house is being transferred into good hands. Still, the unexpected resignation of Murphy comes at an interesting time; just 12 days before Christie’s Chief Executive announced that he was stepping down, Sotheby’s Chief Executive, William F. Ruprecht, also announced that he would be resigning “by mutual consent” after 14 years in his role at the rival art auction house. These incidents remind us that although art is the focal point of renowned auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, business is also at the forefront of these enterprises, perhaps even more so.
The last few years have certainly been tumultuous for both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, for reasons both good and bad. In May 2014, activist investor Daniel Loeb was appointed to Sotheby’s board of directors, a move that many art and business insiders speculate forced Ruprecht’s eventual resignation. Despite the change in leadership, Forbes reports that “Sotheby’s shares surged over 7% in after-hours trading Thursday on its announcement of a pending CEO change,” suggesting that not all change is bad, especially in the art world.
In late November of last year, Christie’s made history when Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of Lucian Freud became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. The painting was sold for a staggering $142.4 million, a historic moment for the auction house, and one that would also bring a fair amount of criticism. As New York Times art critic Roberta Smith said, “The spectacle of watching these privileged few tossing around huge amounts of money has become a rarefied spectator sport. These events are painful to watch yet impossible to ignore and deeply alienating if you actually love art for its own sake.”
Still, regardless of criticism, Christie’s has continued to redefine the possibilities of what an art auction house can do in terms of annual revenue and art sales. In short, despite the internal changes in leadership, Christie’s is thriving. According to Carol Vogel and Graham Bowley, who reported on Murphy’s resignation earlier this month, “Mr. Murphy’s resignation came shortly after an auction in which Christie’s sold $852.9 million worth of postwar and contemporary art – the highest total in its history.”
Only time will tell what 2015 holds for Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but for now it seems that both art auction houses are thriving at the intersection of fine art and big business.
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