Smart Art


“Auction has always been great theatre. But we felt that we could reach out to a much bigger audience and bring what Christie’s does best into people’s living rooms.” Jussi Pylkkänen is speaking about the new livestream format that the world’s biggest auction house has adopted. It’s a success story that makes multi-million pound sales accessible, keeps the 18th century establishment contemporary and offers a vital lifeline amidst Covid-19. For Christie’s global president, it’s all in a day’s work.

In October 2020, Christie’s opened its 20th Century London to Paris auction series selling a total of £90,279,883 across four auctions simultaneously live-streamed from Paris and London. Over 190,000 viewers tuned in to watch. Among the top lots of the evening were Peter Doig’s ‘Boiler House’, which achieved £13,895,500, and David Hockney’s ‘Portrait Of Sir David Webster’, which was sold to raise vital funds for London’s Royal Opera House and achieved £12,865,000.

“Livestreaming from two cities creates a different dynamic,” explains Finnish-born Pylkkänen, “because you don’t just have the competition amongst the telephone bidders but amongst two auctioneers as we try to figure out where the final bid is going to come from.”

Pylkkänen, who specialises in impressionist and modern art, has an almost mythical reputation amongst those in the know. Just a handful of paintings in the world have sold for $100 million or more, and Pylkkänen – the man with the Midas touch – has presided over most.

The turning point came in 2010 when Picasso’s ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’ sold for a staggering $106,482,496 (£80,428,100*). Since then, works of art by Giacometti, Bacon and Modigliani have joined the $100 million-plus club, but it was the 2017 New York sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’ painted circa 1500 that truly captures the imagination.

In a frenzied phone auction presided over by the enigmatic Pylkkänen, two collectors fought it out in a furious bidding war that culminated in the record sale price of $450,312,500 (£342,182,751). Over two million people watched the televised sale.

“That was the moment when I understood that everyone who watched it had exactly the same experience as those of us in the room,” says Pylkkänen.

Even when watched three years later the tension is palpable. Murmurs of amazement rise and fall from an audience roused by vast sums of money, enthralled by Pylkkänen’s 19-minute performance. He holds court with gavel in hand, sprinkling humour and panache over a gawping front row before pausing for effect and allowing the room to fall silent. Pylkkänen believes that a great auctioneer can bring 25 per cent more to the value of a work of art. But where does the auction room
excitement originate?

“It’s an interesting cocktail because the artworks are symphonies vying with each other in a marketplace trying to accredit them with proportionate values,” he says. “Then you have the gladiatorial combat of individuals wanting to acquire them, the psychology of when people drop out or come back in, and the history of the artwork. I stood up at the beginning of the Da Vinci sale and said, ‘Now we have the Leonardo ‘Salvator Mundi’, previously in the collections of three Kings of England’. And that is a powerful start.”

The art market today is increasingly global – Asian collectors represent 33% of Christie’s art sales worldwide. But Covid restrictions have forced Christie’s to invent a new vocabulary for the art world. One thing that will never alter, however, is the thrill of possibility. “The piece isn’t sold until the gavel drops,” says Pylkkänen. And that is the magic of auction.

“Auction has always been great theatre.”

Jussi Pylkkänen

*Written 18th November 2020

18942 PWC room 05
Christie’s 20th Century London to Paris auction series
Sale 18942 Lot 110 Peter Doig Boiler House
Peter Doig’s ‘Boiler House’
All images: Christie's Images Ltd. [2020]

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