Interview with art auctioneer and collector Simon de Pury

by William J. Simmons


photography by Manuela Barczewski


How do you, and how do you help your clients, understand the duality of art as both an emotional investment and a financial one? Does an artist having inflated or deflated prices have an effect on how you view the work formally?
With any client wishing to start collecting or investing in art, I first try to understand what makes them tick and what appeals to them personally. This ensures that an emotional involvement will be there right from the start, and within those parameters you try to acquire the very best works at the best possible conditions.

Going off of this question, does knowing the inner workings of the art market ever make you feel depressed about art? Does it tarnish the aura?
My passion for art has been my inner engine since day one. The beautiful thing is that you can’t ever become jaded by it or tired of it. As far as the market is concerned, art and money have always gone hand in hand, so that I am not depressed by.

It is interesting that the dust jacket of The Auctioneer separates the “great dealers” and the “great artists” from the “wonder women.” There is a lot of talk these days about gender equity in the art market. Is this a worthwhile goal, or is something more foundational, and more structural in need of revision?
As far back as when I started to work in the art market in the 1970s, there were no obstacles in advancement based on gender, age, background, or sexual orientation. Whether it is in the auction world or the galleries, you had already back then as many great women as men. This was in strong contrast to most other businesses at the time. I remember vividly meeting Wilhelmina Holladay in the early 1980s when she founded the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington DC. I fully approve of initiatives such as the one by Lisa Phillips, Director of the New Museum, who wants to put more focus on women artists. I am certain that as a result of such efforts there will over time be a larger representation of works done by women artists, in institutions as well as in galleries, and auctions.

I read that you collect cartoon mugs, and imagining you on eBay makes me chuckle. I remember how excited my mother would get when an auction was nearing a close. She’d even buy “sniping” software to put in last minute bids. What is it like for an auctioneer to bid for things on eBay?
I can’t resist auction fever—whether I am sitting in a big evening sale in New York at one of the big auction houses or if I am sitting behind my computer screen. A decision taken in a split second will decide on the fate of an artwork, and yours.

In your book, you use the term “midwife” to discuss ushering an artist through an auction. Could you describe one of your most rewarding births?
A successful artist needs to do well on both the primary and the secondary markets. The most gratifying experience has been to sit down with my colleagues at Phillips de Pury, and decide each season which artists, designers, or photographers we want to introduce for the first time to the secondary market or to champion their works. During my twelve years in the firm, we have done so with a long list of artists including Richard Prince, Christopher Wool, Takashi Murakami, Mark Grotjahn, Joe Bradley, Urs Fischer, Mark Bradford, Marc Newson, Ron Arad, and many more.

I imagine that you’re always at cocktail parties and openings with finger foods. How do you manage to not get any food or drink on your gorgeous suits? I always spill!
I systematically spill all the food on my suits, and my wife tells me that my jackets are a visual résumé of what I have eaten during the day, and sometimes the week preceding.


See more on Simon, and the other men we are featuring in issue, “Men At Work”, here

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