The TANR spoke to Lord Poltimore, the chairman of the Russian branch of Sotheby's about the market prospects of modern Russian art, about his experience shooting a Hollywood blockbuster and how to sell glasses for $660k. You can access the original interview in Russian here , or please read our English translation below.
You come from an aristocratic family. Do you have an family castle and an art collection passed down from your ancestors?
Sorry to disappoint you, but I do not have a castle! My family sold most of their valuables after the war because of the high inheritance tax and other economic reasons. We do have the family Poltemore House near Exeter, it‘s in West England. Unfortunately, it’s about to collapse — we hope that local authorities will buy and restore it. But it doesn’t belong to me. It's sad, but that's life!
You mean to say, the family art collection hasn’t survived?
The family portraits were mostly inherited by my cousin. But my father in the 1960s was a art dealer. So we always had an interest in these things. I think this was the beginning of my love for art. It's in my DNA.
Who is your hero in the auction business?
There are many people I admire. At the age of 18 I went to work at Christie's, and I was influenced, more than anyone else, by its director — Joe Floyd. It was he who introduced me to this business, along with my godfather, art dealer Jack Baer. I think that these two influenced me most of all and thanks to them I fell in love with the world of art. Joe Floyd was an extraordinary man. When I began looking for a job in the auction business and started with Christe's, he said he would hire me if I learned a foreign language. I decided to learn Arabic. I left for Dubai for seven months. Then I returned, came up to Joe and greeted him with the words: "Salam aleykum!" He said: "Alright, you‘re in!" To be honest, besides that, I could hardly speak Arabic at all. However, it turned out that my clients from the Middle East were fluent in English.
And why did you shift your interest from the Arab world to Russia?
I spent 23 years at Christe's, then decided to go online, because I wanted to understand the new technologies. I did this for two years, but then decided to return to the auction business. I had many friends at Sotheby's, I turned to them, and they said: "Great, you’ll be working with Russia" I was surprised — because I had never been there. They replied: "Don’t worry, you will do just fine" For me it was one of the most amazing moments in my career. I'm a big Russophile — I love your culture, people. So, I think I was lucky!
What kind of art do you like best? What style or era? What would you prefer to buy yourself — Francis Bacon or Kazimir Malevich?
I would definitely chose Malevich. Of course, Suprematist. I love this style in general. But if you asked me 20-30 years ago, my tastes would probably have been more traditional — I would have chosen a classical painting of the XIX century. And now everyone's preferences have shifted towards modernity. Now I'm much more inspired by things like Malevich, who challenges you and makes you think every time you look at his work. I probably have a Russian soul, Russia is my rodina. Maybe I was Russian in a past life?
Do you think Russian art will ever overcome the 100 million mark?
We are already approaching that. In May of this year, Malevich's brilliant work was sold for more than 80 million. So anything could happen. I think if the "Black Square" appeared on the market, it could overcome this bar.
Do you sell only Russian art as an auctioneer?
No, I also sell Islamic art, impressionism, British modernism, the art of the Victorian era and much more. But Russian sales are not like any other. The public at these auctions is wonderful. They’re always a bit eccentric — we all remember that legendary moment when a woman with a parrot on her shoulder came. Russian sales are never boring. After all, you love art and culture with a passion. I like the passion that the Russians bring to the auction.
More and more works are now sold with a third party guarantee. Is this something also practiced in Russian sales, and don’t you think that this deprives auctions of drama?
Strangely enough, this doesn’t happen at Russian auctions, it often happens at large auctions of impressionism and contemporary art. We are a public company, we must be careful, we bear responsibility for the market. Of course, you could say that the drama is decreasing, but truthfully the existence of a guarantee does not mean that you can’t bet. It’s good for us to have the certainty that some of the lots have already been sold at auction.
And why does this system not work at the Russian auctions?
I think the Russians just don’t like it. But we‘re okay with this, because the prices in this market aren’t very high. Russians like the drama at the auction (for which I love them!), and they love to see how other people make bets — it gives them the courage to bid themselves. The competitive spirit is always strong at Russian auctions.
And do Asian buyers behave differently?
They make bids slower. Sometimes our auctioneers spend 20 minutes on selling one lot. So in this respect, there definitely are some national characteristics.
What is more difficult for the auction house — to find good work for sale or buyers?
In my opinion, it is more difficult to find the best work. This field is getting smaller. Once the object enters the museum, it usually doesn’t appear on the market again. Many large collectors do not sell works from their collections for decades.
And what is the most difficult part about the auctioneer's work?
Surprisingly, but despite the fact that I have been conducting auctions for 40 years, I'm not great at math! If you asked my school math teacher, he probably would have told you: "This Poltimore is hopeless!" But I count well and remember the numbers. When you run an auction, you have to keep a lot of things in mind. First, you need to remember the minimum price for which a thing can be sold. If you give it away cheaper, it will cost the firm dearly. Secondly, there are a lot of people in the hall, you must not lose contact with them. Then we must not forget about the phones. In addition, many people leave preliminary bids — they are all in the auctioneers notebook. And now there’s also the Internet. And all of this must be remembered. You can learn this only through many years of practice. At Sotheby's, I am also involved in training young auctioneers. We want more women and youth among them. I'm getting old, I need to look for a successor.
Which sales were the most memorable in your career?
It's hard to say, because I’ve probably done a thousand of them. One of those that I remember most was the recent charity auction in Qatar. We sold eight lots and raised $20 million! At the end, the former Emir of Qatar took off his glasses — they were exactly the same as I have now — and asked: "Can you sell them?" I replied: "Of course!" At the same time, I had no idea how much to start with. I announced: "$100 thousand!" To my amazement, three people in the hall raised their hands. As a result, I sold them for $660 thousand. Can you imagine? I still had a silver hammer. Sometimes, if the auction goes well, we also sell the hammer for charitable purposes. Once I sold one for € 100,000 to a Russian client, so I decided that I could set a price in Doha for at least $150,000. So I did, but no one raised a hand. "Oh, how awkward" I thought. And so I recovered with: "$100 thousand." Silence. "$50 thousand." Silence. What should I do? I approached the Emir and said: "Sir, I want to present it to you as a gift!" Then his neighbor says: "No, no, I want to present it to you as a gift. I'll pay $150,000 for it!” I thought, “Yes! "So I sold the hammer for a record price. I'm very proud of this. Thank you generous Qatari!
You were in the movie "Trance". And also Paul Pepperstein’s new film "The Sound of the Sun". How was it?
Well, in "The Sound of the Sun" the role was very small. It was exciting to work with Danny Boyle on "Trance". I don’t know how to act, as you probably noticed. I immediately warned him: "I can not act." He replied: "Don’t worry, just do everything that you usually do." Do you remember the Goya, that was stolen in the film? We later had the opportunity to put auction off the letter in which this picture was mentioned. So the film turned out to be good advertisement. For me it was an opportunity to try something completely new, and I liked it. Strange as it may seem, since then I have not been called from Hollywood again! So I‘m not gonna give up my day job.
In your opinion, is the romantic reputation of the auctions good PR for them?
Well, yes, after all it's theater with all of its pros and cons.
The market is now on the rise, and over the past year your turnover was $5 billion. Do you think this trend will continue or will the prices fall?
Oh! If I had a crystal ball showing the future, I could tell you. In life there are always ups and downs, and the art market is no exception to the rule. I think that the best and the rarest things will continue to grow in value. In general, some things go out of fashion, some, on the contrary, become popular. In 1977, when I first started, the prices were stable. But if we look back at the past, we will see that the prices, for the most part, have increased.
And what about contemporary Russian art? In your opinion, does it have a future in the market?
In general, Russian buyers are very traditional in their tastes and buy mostly art of the XIX — early XX century. I think now you have several international artists. We, as a company, are happy to support modern art, we have repeatedly successfully sold individual works of contemporary Russian artists. We have arranged auctions of contemporary Russian art, and promoted it. This is a very small market, but, according to our forecasts, it has some serious growth ahead of it.
You mean to say, the 1988 auction in Moscow will not happen again?
My personal principle is: "Never say never." Right now may not be the time, but who knows what awaits us in the future?
And how does the current political situation affect the market, because the current relations between Britain and Russia are difficult?
Well, politics is one thing, and culture is another. At this level, I do not feel any changes. Where would we be without Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky? Also, we can not prohibit Russians from reading Shakespeare or listening to The Beatles. At the level of culture, our ties are only strengthening — we see that the same customers come to London. And we, in turn, brought a pre-auction exhibition to Moscow. Maybe one or two people from among the sellers, who aren’t familiar with Russia very well, were afraid to provide things for this exhibition. But nothing serious has happened. For us there is no difference from what we had five to ten years ago, we just continue to work. Let politicians do politics, and we will carry on our cultural diplomacy!