Going Once, Going Twice, Sold!

“How do we do business in American art at Christie’s?” At the art colloquium in Golden Auditorium, Eric Widing set out to enlighten the audience by answering this very question. As the father of a Colgate student and the head of American paintings at Christie’s, the international center for art business, Mr. Widing has certainly been instrumental in the sale of art in America and thus it was a pleasure to have him speak this past Monday night. This lecture, titled, “American Masterworks and the Art Market: Behind the Scenes at Christie’s in New York,” was quite the riveting introspection into the American art market from the world’s premier art auction house that sold over $6 billion in objects this past year.

Christie’s is extremely unique in that it integrates both the old and new in its art market. This art business still has actual previews of paintings and the typical “hubbub” that comes to mind when one imagines a standard auction house. There is even still a Chippendale podium that James Christie once stood on. And so, this extraordinary organization has maintained many of the traditions that were started at the London Headquarters, but Christie’s also has been able to incorporate nouveau developments in the business of selling art. Technology has advanced this auction house such that now there is even internet bidding.

Christie’s has achieved such a status since its foundation in 1766 that the New York City Venue at Rockefeller Center is now the biggest in the world. Christie’s has thus maintained its position as a popular showcase for centuries. Perhaps this has something to do with their process of connoisseurship that uses five primary principles to determine the value of a masterpiece. The first principle is provenance or the history of ownership: if a famous person owned it, someone is going to want to buy it. The second is rarity, such that the first Charles Wilson Peale portrayal of George Washington sold for over $6 million. Then, there is, of course, the condition of the artwork. In order for art to be most valuable, it must be in pristine condition because otherwise it doesn’t epitomize the true nature of the artwork. The next qualifying principle is taste, because what is in demand today may be out of style tomorrow. And last but not least, overall quality is used to define a masterpiece. The more a piece of art captures the ideas of an entire age or the more it provides a personal and visual drama, the more valuable it will be deemed.

With this complex value determining system, it is not surprising that Christie’s has achieved global recognition, thus enabling this once small auction house to expand to faraway places such as London, Paris, Geneva, Amsterdam, Dubai and Hong Kong. However, despite this newfound global emphasis, Widing states that regional museums are “essential to the fabric of our culture.”

Widing further enthralled the audience with some of his own personal reflections on Christie’s art practice through his in-depth study on the American Art Market. This survey looked at different categories of art including colonial art, impressionism and sculpture and then examined the record earnings for each category. Interestingly enough, Widing discovered that modernism had the highest records in terms of the business art world, thus proving the crux of America’s artistic taste.

My personal favorite presented in the case study by Eric Widing was “Green River, Wyoming” by T. Moran which was described as having the best color and grandeur of a western oil painting ever. This masterpiece sold for an astonishing $17 million. Nevertheless, this was not a record breaking sale. $68 million for “Gross Clinic” by Thomas Eakins anyone? Going once, going twice, sold! And so, Widing proclaimed, “even we are surprised from time to time.”