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June 24, 2011 5:40 pm
Nothing much shocks the art world these days but even its notoriously obstinate eyebrows rose a millimetre or two when it heard of the appointment of Steven P Murphy as chief executive of Christie’s International last September.
Murphy had no direct experience of the art or auction world, aside from living in its febrile centre in New York. His student children, both taking courses in the study of art and architecture, thought “Dad had just landed the coolest job in the world,” says Murphy cheerfully. “Jung said the most powerful things in the home were the unrealised dreams of parents. In my case, I am living my children’s dream.”
But Murphy’s background in publishing and the music industry did give him an even more important qualification: that of having piloted his companies through uniquely fast-changing times. As we talk in his office in central London, where his job is now based, he draws on one of his past experiences as president of EMI Music/Angel Records to illustrate the point.
“I sat on a committee of seven people who had the responsibility of choosing the type of sticky tape to use when sealing the top of a CD case, to set an industry standard. It was so that no one could steal the music.” He pauses and gives a rueful smile. “Meanwhile, in Palo Alto, four guys with baseball caps on back to front were coming up with an algorithm ... and the music went sideways.” Another knowing pause. “It is important to make sure you are solving the right problems.”
The art world, he says, is experiencing similar convulsions. “It will not escape the same kind of tumult. It is exploding in several different directions all at once,” he says. Globalisation and the widespread use of the internet keep moving the goalposts, with barely a pause to play the game. Christie’s needed someone with the necessary imagination, and urbanity, to stay ahead of the times. He will need his well-honed sense of humour. I ask him, as we sit down, how long he has been in the job. “Seven months,” he replies. “In a row.”
Murphy’s first job was in publishing, another industry that was on the brink of traumatic technological change. A decade later, he went to EMI and then, another decade on, returned to publishing again as president of Rodale Inc. Ten more years passed – his working life fits into improbably neatly divided periods of time – and then he made an unusual choice. At the age of 55, he took a gap year.
“I decided to step off the train. I wanted to think about the next 25 years of my life afresh. I had no plans. I wanted to take a full year off. I went home. But the squirrel inside my head was still on the treadmill. It took me 90 days, until we went on a small vacation and, finally, my head cleared.”
This is the kind of thing that people label mid-life crisis or burn-out, I say. “Candidly, no, I was not burned out. But I did not realise how much I needed a break until I was taking it.” He says he did not leave out of anxiety (easy to believe: he exudes unflappability) but wanted to take a “conscious decision” about how to proceed with his life.
Part of that process took him to India, where he had intended to stay for a week with a friend but ended up staying for three. The pair of men moved deeper and deeper into Rajasthan until “we found ourselves on bicycles, in a valley of wheat, surrounded by women in brightly coloured saris harvesting by hand.” Murphy lets the image linger, rightly estimating that no further embellishment is necessary to describe the resonance of the experience.
“And then, during that summer, I received a phone call about this opportunity [at Christie’s]. And that may never have come my way ... ”
So what of this art market, with its extraordinary price inflation and global spread, that seems to set new records by the month and has the world’s freshly spawned billionaires, from Shanghai to Sharjah, in its elegant thrall? Christie’s has shared enthusiastically in the largesse: global auction sales increased by 53 per cent last year and private sales by 39 per cent. Its total sales of £3.3bn were the highest recorded.
The figures indicated “a growing appetite for participation in all forms and formats of art sales,” Murphy declared at their announcement. Today, he has a more nuanced theory about the enduring and, indeed, increasing, value of art. “I think that the virtual world, the ease of access to images in high definition, the total availability of art online – all those things have increased the value of the object itself.” The role of institutions, including his own, he says, is that of “honouring the object”.
“We have this phrase at Christie’s, when our people are assessing or valuing something, they will say, ‘I haven’t stood in front of the painting yet.’ No matter how many times they may have seen images of it, they are not ready to give their opinion.” Murphy is effusive when talking of his colleagues. “I may know more about art than I let on but I know so much less than all of my colleagues, and I am very respectful of that.” That extends to the art handlers, he says, whom he often overhears “doing a complete exegesis of the work [they are handling] in grave detail.”
I ask him about the role of China in today’s market, and he echoes the line in Noël Coward’s Private Lives: “Very big, China.” And correspondingly complex, too. He says the older Chinese buyers are becoming enamoured with collecting their own country’s work, including some contemporary art, and are beginning to show an interest in traditional western genres.
But there is a younger generation, in its 30s and 40s, that is showing a new sophistication in its evolving taste. “I had dinner with a collector of 1st-century Buddhist northern Chinese sculpture and his approach was as particular and as sophisticated as any collector of Renaissance bronzes who lives in Paris.” He says that narrative is repeating itself in the United Arab Emirates, in Singapore, in South America.
But it is not as if the US and Europe are being left behind. “Last year, 28 per cent of our buyers were new to the market and of those, 47 per cent came from the US and Europe. It’s not only the new Chinese buyers.” Younger buyers are entering the market and behaving in a much more eclectic way. “They are not exclusively tied to any one speciality.” He cites another “favourite” client who recently bought a Seurat drawing, some Bergère chairs and a Roman torso. “These folks could just as well be buying an 11th-century Islamic manuscript as a beautiful work of art.”
Speaking more broadly, I ask Murphy what this flowering and fluid interest in art tells us about our culture. He pauses again before replying. “I went to see [Tom Stoppard’s play] Arcadia last Friday, for the third time, in New York. And [one of the characters] Valentine says, almost to the audience, ‘This is one of the greatest times to be alive, when everything you thought you knew is wrong.’
“And with this shift of power from west to east, the financial markets being upside down, the internet upending industries, this sense of anxiety which is prevalent – all of that is a kind of soup, that has made people run towards objects, and towards art.
“They want to stand in front of the painting.”
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