Christie’s: A hammer comes down in the east

Christie’s has held the first major auction in China. Its chief executive tells Laura Chesters why this is the way ahead

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The Independent Online

The 1984 Apple computer – a beige, box-like lump of plastic – looks a little out of place in the office of the chief executive of upmarket auction house Christie’s.

“My wife has tried to throw it away a few times but I wanted to keep it,” says the American Steven Murphy. He might know his Matisse from his Monet but not everything has to be high culture. 

He spent much of  his career in music and publishing, including  a post at EMI,  before joining Christie’s exactly three years ago. And while the auctioneer is famous for modern art and old masters, Christie’s in New York also sold an Apple 1 computer at an online auction for $387,750 recently.

His plan for the past three years has been to bring the 247-year-old company up to date without losing the “DNA of what makes it Christie’s”. 

This week he launched its debut mainland China auction; it is the first foreign art auction house to receive a licence to operate in China without a local partner. The lots smashed through estimates and reached more than £15.65m in total.

The Chinese art auction market has boomed in recent years to become one of the world’s largest. Buyers from the Asia-Pacific region made up nearly  20 per cent of Christie’s total auction sales last year, while sales of Asian art globally reached more than £ 415m last year. But what makes the likes of Christie’s, or indeed rival Sotheby’s, think they can do a better job than the existing Chinese operators?

Mr Murphy thinks his company’s global reputation and its “integrity” – its reliability – are the key to  its appeal in new territories.

Now that lots like Diamond Dust Shoes by Andy Warhol and the first Picasso to sell in China have gone under the hammer in Shanghai, preparations will begin for its launch in India. Christie’s will hold its first South Asian art sale at the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai in December. So far the reaction has been good. Mr Murphy says the only comment he has received is, “what took you so long?”

So, with all this travelling, has he got used to being based in England yet?

London, he says, has got better since his first visit. “A chic dinner was San Lorenzo or … San Lorenzo. Now the city has one of the greatest restaurant experiences anywhere. This is a great city but everything is done with a sense of humour. Annie and I love it here, he adds,” referring to his wife, the parenting expert and Good Morning America regular Annie Pleshette Murphy.

They might love it now but, having been part of New York society, why did they leave for him to work in a little street off St James’s? An art collector himself, he was lured by Christie’s because of its people – their “ubiquitous talent” and “intellectual rigour”.

They have got on with executing Mr Murphy’s strategy of expanding “technology and geography”. A third of all bids at Christie’s are now made online, and it isn’t just small lots. Last year Edward Hopper’s October on Cape Cod became the most expensive lot sold online at $9.6m (£6m).

So now global and online expansion is firmly established, are there any big worries? “Ah – what keeps me awake at 2am? Well the tension is around, ‘Can we open up a network fast enough through online and in new markets to secure the position we need? Can we build the ships and set sail as fast as we need to?’ ”

So far things have been going smoothly. For the first six months of 2013, Christie’s reported sales at £2.4bn,  9 per cent up on last year.

And unlike Sotheby’s, Mr Murphy has a reasonably understanding shareholder: Christie’s is owned by the French billionaire François Pinault, who bought the group through his Artemis vehicle for $1.2bn in 1998.

While it helps to have an owner who is “passionate” about the company, Mr Pinault is a hard taskmaster and Mr Murphy says he is in “constant” contact. But at least he hasn’t got activist investors Daniel Loeb and Nelson Peltz breathing down his neck, like Sotheby’s.  Mr Loeb revealed his stake- building at the New York group last month, and the pressure is on to make radical changes to the business.

In 2000, Sotheby’s famously conspired with Christie’s to fix prices  – and questions on this are met with a roll of the eyeballs from the man for whom that scandal is ancient history. But how is the competitive environment between them now? Extremely stiff, Mr Murphy says – not just between the two but with other rivals worldwide. There are many new customers to fight over and existing ones to keep onside. The global mega-wealthy have been driving bigger and better sales and Mr Murphy certainly has connections in the world of luxury – due in no small part to being on the board at designer Ralph Lauren. But this doesn’t mean he wants Christie’s to go too upmarket. Anyone can walk in and there could be a collectable to buy for a few hundred pounds. Its south Kensington showroom even focuses specifically on the “middle market”.

Mr Murphy points out that the “filter is quality” – not price. “There is a very vibrant and active art market outside the auction rooms,” he notes, so part of the growth plan is to tap into the space currently occupied by art dealers and galleries.  He relishes seeing the pieces that turn up ahead of each auction, and he has made a point of getting to know everyone from doormen to the art handlers. When a 2nd-century Roman helmet came in recently, the handlers in the basement picked up the phone “to tell me it was being unpacked and I should come and have a look”. So it isn’t just ancient computers that catch his eye.

Steven Murphy CV

Age: 59

Car: uses the Zipcar rental scheme.

Currently reading: the essays of David Foster Wallace.

Last track listened to: Eric Clapton and The Band: Further on up the Road.

Hobbies: music, riding, reading poetry, finding the perfect espresso.

Shanghai: Top Sellers

1. Butterfly necklace by Faidee $3.4m

2. Sui Jianguo, Clothes Veins Studies series $1.9m

3. Pablo Picasso, Homme Assis $1.8m

4. Sapphire and diamond ring $1.7m

5. Alexander Calder, Hanging Mobile $1.6m