We'll take Manhattan

A British husband-and-wife team known as 'the power duet' are storming the New York modern art scene. As they plan their new gallery,

Geraldine Norman
Saturday 20 July 1996 23:02

New Yorkers have nicknamed them "the power duet". David Nash and his wife, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, both British, are among the top fixers on the Big Apple's art scene. They met working for Sotheby's but shook its dust from their feet a few months ago, to launch a company of their own. From the vantage point of a new gallery on Madison Avenue, opening this autumn, the two British ex-pats look set to challenge the salerooms at their own game. They're not just a "power duet" but a British success story.

David and Lucy ran Sotheby's Impressionist and contemporary art departments respectively, the two biggest money making departments of the firm, and are beloved by their former auction clients. Many of those clients now prefer to sell through two people they know and trust, rather than go to auction. The couple look perfectly placed to take Sotheby's best business and pop it in their own pockets - in the nicest possible British way, of course.

Both of them joined Sotheby's when it was still a British firm - David was sent out to New York in the 60s, Lucy in the 80s. For two foreigners to rise to so dominant a position in the fiercely competitive American market is a remarkable achievement. But they wear their success lightly.

Their new role as independent art brokers at the heart of the New York market is already beginning to send out ripples. Lucy left Sotheby's first, in September 1994, and has had a phenomenal two years negotiating big ticket sales - which might have gone to Sotheby's if she'd stayed there. SI Newhouse, the magazine publisher - Vogue, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker - has chosen to slim down his contemporary collection by selling through Lucy. A Rauschenberg combine painting that's just gone to the Museum of Modern Art in Chicago, with a multi-million dollar price tag was one of recent several deals she did for him.

The Nashes may not be a one man band - more like a one-woman-one-man- and-two-children-band - but they don't have the vast overheads of the auction rooms and don't have to charge as much commission. Sotheby's and Christie's now operate a sliding scale of charges, pocketing 35 per cent of the sale price on lots worth less than pounds 2,500 but reducing the proportion as the price rises until they reach a minimum of 12 per cent on lots worth more than pounds 3m. The Nashes can make do with charging about half of that.

Alienating the duet was not a smart move on Sotheby's part and seems mainly to have reflected the difficulty strong personalities have in working together. Sotheby's chief executive, Diana D Brooks, known as "Dede", is an all-American blond, combining echoes of Doris Day with a powerful business brain. She was an executive with Citibank before being recruited by Sotheby's via art rather than business - she studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London and worked for Henry Moore, cataloguing his drawings. The two did not rub along. Dede finally made it clear she wanted Lucy out by appointing a new director of the contemporary art department and offering Lucy a lesser role. Lucy took the hint and left.

Her husband found himself on the horns of a dilemma. His entire working life had been devoted to Sotheby's. He had joined the firm at the age of 19 in 1961 when the Impressionist department consisted of two people in a back room overlooking St George's Street in London. He was sent to America in 1963 and built the American Impressionist department from scratch. He may have started on a wing and a prayer but over 30-odd years he has become a walking encyclopedia of art history and sociology. He knows where all the most important paintings in private hands can be found, who owns them and who wants them. When Lucy was eased out of Sotheby's he had to decide whether to follow her or stay. He gave it just over a year, but finally handed in his notice last January.

On a recent flying visit to London, they found time to talk to me over breakfast at the Berkeley Hotel, yawning and very much the worse for a late night. Where were the turning points in their careers? "I was 19 and into rebellion - I wouldn't go to university", David suggested, "so my father sent me round to have an interview with Peter Wilson, the chairman of Sotheby's. He asked what I'd done since leaving school - I'd worked in a lunatic asylum and a graveyard in Leatherhead. Wilson said 'that should come in very handy here' and gave me a job."

Lucy attracted Sotheby's notice by running a very successful charity sale of pictures donated by leading British artists. They needed a new head for the London contemporary art department at the time and invited her round for an interview. "I was supposed to see Michel Strauss, the head of the Impressionist department, but each time I turned up he was too busy to see me. After the third attempt, they just gave me the job." She ran the London department from 1981-83 - meeting David for the first time in 1983 on a valuation near Guildford. "It was a memorable day," says David. "First I met Lucy. Looking at the Impressionists didn't take long and I then went out into the garden where I met a professional rabbit catcher. He had his trousers tied up with string and a bag of ferrets. He was a mine of information."

The highlights of David's career in New York are numerous, but he says that the "Havemeyer sale was probably the most dramatic case of pulling chestnuts out of the fire." When Doris Havemeyer died in 1982, Sotheby's, Christies and other leading dealers were competing to sell her Impressionists - her mother in law had built the greatest collection of Impressionists in America, now mostly in the Metropolitan Museum. And Sotheby's, at the time, was in dire trouble, caught over-expanded in a recession and running at a loss - "it seemed to us as if Sotheby's would disappear," he remembers. David secured the Havemeyer auction for Sotheby's. It made $17m, saved the company and launched the 80s boom.

Lucy's biggest coup was the 1986 sale of the Scull collection. "We were in a two-bit hotel in Southern India when a scruffy fax was pushed under the door saying Robert Scull had died and I must come home." Scull had run a New York taxi fleet and collected the best American art of the 1960s and 1970s, but he was in the middle of a bitter divorce when he died. "His wife, Ethel, got 35 per cent of the collection," says Lucy. "The division took place in an ice-cold warehouse. The idea was that each side took it in turns to choose a picture; we tossed a coin to start." When Ethel won the toss, Lucy got Jasper Johns's Out the Window for sale at Sotheby's where it made a record price of pounds 2.5m for any painting by a living artist and lifted contemporary art into the big time.

It will be interesting to see what the "power duet" make of a Madison Avenue gallery. "I'd like to have a chance to show young artists," Lucy says. It sounds as if lucky breaks could be on offer. !

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