Hammer time: Hirst, Banksy and the auctions that changed art
“Roger Federer can’t have a bad day on Centre Court, but in our business you can’t have a bad half-day,” says Oliver Barker, the chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. “If you blink, you’ve missed something.”
“费德勒（Roger Federer）在中央球场每天都不能有闪失，但在我们这个行当，半天的闪失都不行，”苏富比欧洲区主席巴克（Oliver Barker）说。“如果你眨眨眼，就会错过一些东西。”
The stakes are high. As auction houses vie for a greater slice of market share, spectacle has increasingly triumphed over scholarship. In November 2017, after much marketing hype, Christie’s sold Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi for an astonishing $450.3m in New York. In October 2018, the British street artist Banksy appeared to try and wrestle back control, shredding his Girl with Balloon as the canvas hammered at Sotheby’s in London for £1.042m.
风险很大。为了争夺更大的市场份额，各家拍卖行无所不用其极创造知名度。2017年11月，经过大量的市场宣传，佳士得在纽约以4.503亿美元的惊人价格，售出了达・芬奇（Leonardo da Vinci）的《救世主》（Salvator Mundi）。2018年10月，英国街头艺术家班克斯（Banksy）似乎想要夺回控制权，在他的作品《女孩与气球》（Girl with Balloon）在伦敦苏富比以104.2万英镑成交后，他将这件画作切成条状。
Barker was on the rostrum that fateful night, describing the prank as it unfolded as “a brilliant Banksy moment”. In truth, Barker was initially caught unaware. “I’ve got to be honest, to begin with I didn’t think it was a Banksy moment, I thought maybe it had slipped out of the frame,” he says.
“And then of course the alarm went off, and it was while everyone’s phones came out and there were gasps that I realised, this is absolute genius, it’s a great Banksy moment.”
Barker himself has had his moments. It was while going to work on the bus that he, then a director in Sotheby's contemporary department, spotted the potential for a deal which would result in the 2004 sale of the contents of Damien Hirst’s failed Pharmacy restaurant and bar in Notting Hill.
班克斯在Instagram上贴了一段视频，讲述《爱在垃圾桶里》（Love is in the Bin）这件作品的前前后后。巴克本人也有自己的辉煌时刻。在他还是苏富比当代艺术部的主管时，一次坐公交车上班的路上，发现了一笔可能的交易，最终促成了2004年赫斯特（Damien Hirst）在诺丁山经营失败的药房餐厅酒吧的物品大拍卖。
“I was looking out of the window and saw that the restaurant was clearly shut, there was a removals van outside, and I suddenly thought, 'wow, that could be an amazing auction.'”
A series of breakfast meetings at the Wolseley restaurant with Hirst’s manager Frank Dunphy followed. “Damien’s initial reaction was, 'oh God, auction houses are the Antichrist.' If Damien was punk rock, then we were very much classical music,” Barker says.
Hirst changed his mind the morning after the 2004 Momart warehouse fire that destroyed hundreds of works by British artists, including several of Hirst’s spot and butterfly paintings. “I got a call from Frank telling me that Damien thought it was a sign; he’d got out alive and he wanted to do the sale,” Barker says.
The Pharmacy items - menus, chairs, tables, lighting, even the ashtrays - had been stored elsewhere. In a stroke of good fortune, Dunphy had picked up the rubbish dump-bound fixtures and fittings at the last minute from the restaurant's new owners for £50,000.
The 'white-glove' sale - an auction in which every single lot sells - was a runaway success, racking up £11.1 million on an expected £3 million. The first lot, a pair of Martini glasses designed by Hirst, which had been estimated at £50-£70, fetched £4,000.
“As an auctioneer, I was totally hooked,” Barker says. “For Damien, it shot him overnight into a whole different galaxy.”
The highly unusual sale also paved the way for Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, Hirst’s 2008 auction, which saw the artist sell 223 new pieces straight from the studio.
这次极不寻常的拍卖，也为赫斯特2008年的“美丽在我脑海中永存”（Beautiful Inside My Head Forever）拍卖会铺平了道路。那次拍卖会售出了这位艺术家工作室中223件新作品。
The same evening, Lehman Brothers went bust, triggering an implosion of global stock markets. “It was a major risk,” Barker says. “We were all thinking whether we could pull it off.”
“I remember clearly, because I had never seen her in one of our auctions before, but Bianca Jagger arrived, and she was sitting on the front row. She was looking at me, somewhat stony-faced. I could almost hear the knives being sharpened.”
The sale exceeded all expectations, fetching £111.4 million over two days, setting a record for a single-artist auction. The ballsy move, which bypassed the usual middle-men, also heralded a sea-change in the auction world, much to the chagrin of art dealers.
As Barker observes: “The biggest transformation in the auction business over the past 60 years, arguably, has been our ability to go direct to the consumers.”
Composed and quick-witted, Barker is a natural with the gavel, but the auction business was not his first choice. “My mother was in advertising and I was desperate to get into that, but failed miserably,” he says with a wry smile. “My best friend’s father took me aside and said, ‘why are you pursuing advertising when clearly, art is what you’re good at and what you love?’”
With that, Barker decided to return to university, studying his masters at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. It was then he first witnessed the drama of the saleroom. “Sotheby’s was holding a Picasso ceramics sale; for the first time I saw art and commerce together. It was a lightbulb moment,” he says.
于是，巴克决定重返大学，在伦敦的考陶德艺术学院（Courtauld Institute of Art）攻读硕士学位。就在那时，他第一次亲眼目睹了拍卖会的戏剧性场面。“苏富比正在举办毕加索的陶瓷作品拍卖会，我第一次看到艺术和商业紧密联系在一起。这是一个让人茅塞顿开的时刻，”他说。
After graduating from the Courtauld, Barker gained experience in Sotheby’s impressionist and modern departmentCfirst in London and later in Paris, where he worked on the 1995 sale of the Man Ray estate.
At that time, the contemporary art market was still somewhat niche, so Barker continued to cut his teeth selling more historical pieces, working his way up from cataloguer to head of day sales in just seven years. Despite the freedom (“you could make bigger decisions and move really fast”) and bringing in £30m a year in sales, Barker sensed change was afoot.
“It was really exciting until the point I realised I wasn’t so interested in dealing with only dead artists. Ultimately, I wanted to be dealing with the art of my time,” he says.
In 2000, an offer came for Barker to launch New York dealer Larry Gagosian’s first London gallery, an offer Barker “seriously considered” but ultimately declined. Instead, he moved into Sotheby’s contemporary art department.
“In the first few months, I thought I’d made a huge mistake. It was like going from the Premier League to the Conference,” says Barker, a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur fan. “If you were really lucky, you would get a Gerhard Richter once in a while, or an Andy Warhol, but it was principally bad European abstract art from the 1950s and 1960s.”
“在最初的几个月里，我觉得自己犯了一个大错。就像从英超跑去打足协联赛，”巴克说，他是托特纳姆热刺队的终身球迷。“如果你够幸运的话，偶尔会得到一件里希特（Gerhard Richter）或者安迪・沃霍尔（Andy Warhol）的作品，但主要还是20世纪五、六十年代糟糕的欧洲抽象艺术作品。”
And then came that Damien Hirst epiphany. Since then, post-war and contemporary art has gone on to dominate the sector.
As Sotheby’s celebrates its 275th anniversary in 2019, the auction business looks to be more in flux than ever. A recent slew of high-profile departures from Christie’s and, to a lesser extent, Sotheby’s has raised the question of burn-out at the top, while significant growth in online sales and the proliferation of blockchain start-ups have posed other issues.
Barker observes digital to be by far the biggest area of growth in the auction world, with 60% of new bidders at Sotheby’s in 2018 doing so online.
“The scale is swinging radically towards the online bidding options,” he says. One of the big online retailers such as eBay or Amazon could even challenge the traditional Christie’s and Sotheby’s duopoly, Barker suggests.
So, what are Barker’s predictions for the future? Blockchain was a buzzword in 2018, but its potential to revolutionise the art market has been hotly debated. “The train is coming, we just don’t really know what it’s going to look like in its mature form,” Barker opines.
He also raises the question of artificial intelligence (AI) following claims that a London firm hosted the first property sale to be concluded by an AI auctioneer in October. “Could auctioneers be taken over by some sort of machine? Probably, yes.
This could be a really interesting development. Even two years ago, people scoffed at the idea of self-driving cars, but now they are a reality. In terms of the art world, we’ll see.”