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Friends with benefits: art dealers cosy up to auction houses for online sales

Pseudo-Tommaso Salini's Portrait of a Young Man as Bacchus, estimated at £40,000-£60,000 Courtesy of Sotheby's

The coronavirus lockdown is resulting in some unlikely digital alliances in the art market, as poachers jump into bed with gamekeepers. Dealers have long loved to grumble about auction houses. But now, with the latter struggling to get consignments and the former unable to open their galleries or attend fairs, historic divides are succumbing to mutually beneficial arrangements.

Last week it was announced that the La Biennale Paris is organising an online sale with Christie's in September to give exhibitors an alternative platform in lieu of the cancelled September fair. And now, Sotheby's is launching The Dealer's Eye: London and The Dealer's Eye: New York (both 18-25 June), two online sales including over 100 Old Master and 19th century paintings and drawings consigned by over 35 dealers, each of whom has entered three works.

The sale is the brainchild of Otto Naumann, a former New York-based Old Master dealer who joined Sotheby's in 2018 as client development director of its Old Master division.The success of two recent online Old Master dealer sales at Sotheby's—that of works from Rafael Valls in April and from Danny Katz in May—sparked the idea in Naumann's mind, and he and Sotheby's have put the sale together in just three weeks.

"I was a dealer for 30 years and I know that if I could not sell something for six months then I was really in trouble—the costs would still be there, but there would be no income," Naumann says. "So that was my very first thought—that all these dealers still have all their expenses but no income at the moment."

Naumann laid down a few unusual conditions to Sotheby's: dealers would not have to pay any vendors' fees and each lot would be linked to a biography of the consigning dealer with links to their website and email for enquiries. "This is a first—allowing the buyer and seller to interact directly [through the Sotheby's platform]," Naumann says, though he adds "some dealers wanted special treatment and I said no."

The London sale includes works from Agnews Gallery, Benappi Fine Art, Charles Beddington, Daniel Katz, Day & Faber, Derek Johns, Lullo Pampoulides, Stephen Ongpin Fine Art and Sam Fogg, while the New York part features Colnaghi, Jack Kilgore, Salomon Lillian Gallery, Mireille Mosler and Robert Simon Fine Art.

Highlights from the New York sale include Young Girl in Antique Costume by Elisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun (est $60,000-$80,000) consigned by Wildenstein & Co, Portrait of James Abbott McNeill Whistler by Walter Greaves (est $70,000-$90,000) from Adam Williams Fine Art and The Wood of Fontainbleau by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot from Galerie Sanct Lucas ($70,000-$90,000). Meanwhile in London, Day & Faber has entered a costume drawing by Henri de Gissey (est £60,000-£80,000), Robilant Fine Art a view of Florence and the Ponte alle Grazie by Thomas Patch (est £200,000-£300,000) and Benappi Fine Art has consigned Pseudo-Tommaso Salini's Portrait of a Young Man as Bacchus (est £40,000-£60,000).

Cajoling nearly 40 art dealers to work together on one sale must be rather like herding cats—Naumann does not disagree: "There's been so much negotiation—every dealer was asked to submit three works, but some sent ten. Then you send the estimate, and they don't agree with the estimate. Every lot had endless negotiations. Hundreds upon hundreds of emails." Sotheby's was insistent on keeping estimates low, Naumann says, which caused some consternation:

"Some things we've estimated at $10,000-$15,000 and the dealer thinks it's worth $100,000-$150,000. Often I was on the side of the dealers saying 'come on guys, he paid $100,000 for it!' and Sotheby's would say 'no, $40,000-$60,000.'" Some dealers have agreed to estimates that are "far far less than what they paid [for a work]" Naumann says. But, he believes it's worth the risk as "there are far more people who buy online than we know. We have no way of contacting them. This coronavirus lockdown is the perfect time to try and engage with this new world. Dealers can build a website, but they'll never have the huge international reach that Sotheby's has."

Meanwhile, in the Middle East Sotheby's is also teaming up with a group of seven galleries from Dubai's Alserkal Avenue, including Lawrie Shabibi, Green Art Gallery and The Third Line, for another online auction (also running from 18-25 June). The sale includes 60 works of Modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art and 10% of proceeds will be donated to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)'s aid campaign for refugees across the MENA region.

The auction house also introduced Gallery Network, an ongoing buy-now marketplace for contemporary art galleries, in April. The platform features individual viewing rooms for each of the auction house's inaugural gallery partners, which include Gavin Brown's Enterprise, Lehmann Maupin, Luhring Augustine, Kasmin, Petzel, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter and Jack Shainman.

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