Sotheby's Opens First Retail Store

Sotheby’s will be opening a gallery for private sales close to its branch in London.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network observe an increasing conflict between auction houses -- which have been historically wholesale venues --and retail art galleries.

The company has taken an undisclosed amount of space in a five-story block at 31 George Street, opposite the back entrance of its New Bond Street auction rooms, the company said in an e- mail.

The 1980s steel and brick building, shown here, incorporates a ground floor gallery. The space will be dedicated to hosting private selling exhibitions.

Billionaires often prefer buying big-ticket items through unpublicized private sales rather than in the glare of competitive public auctions.

The auction house is opening a selling exhibition of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat at its S|2 galleries in New York this week. Sotheby’s held a near sell-out show of works by Yayoi Kusama in Hong Kong in May 2012.

Growth Market

Discreet transactions are a significant growth market for the world’s two biggest auction houses. Private sales at Sotheby’s increased 11 percent in 2012, accounting for $906.5 million of a $5.4 billion total.

A figure of 631.3 million pounds ($980 million) -- up 26 percent -- was achieved by London-based Christie’s International, which took a record $6.2 billion last year.
Christie’s private sales figures included works sold by its wholly-owned subsidiary Haunch of Venison, a dealership with galleries in New York and London specializing in the “primary” market for new pieces by established and emerging contemporary artists. The company was acquired by the auction house in 2007.

Christie’s closed the dealership and stopped representing artists in March.

The subsidiary’s premises at Haunch of Venison Yard, near Sotheby’s in Bond Street, has been retained as an exhibition space for the auction house’s private sales team, who will concentrate on secondary-market works.

Viewing Rooms

Most of Sotheby’s and Christie’s private sales income derives from high-value modern and contemporary works sold from viewing rooms within the auction houses. Neither company reveals details of individual transactions.

This discreet business is an attractive alternative for auction houses, which can struggle to make a profit from high- value lots at public sales. Owners of valuable items usually aren’t charged a selling fee and marketing costs can soar if artworks are put on view in different continents.

“We’re talking about one market here,” said Alexander Platon, Sotheby’s senior specialist in Impressionist and modern art, and the company’s European head of private sales. “We have clients who want to buy and sell art. Whether this is done at auction or privately depends on the particularity of the work and the situation.”