Simon de Pury
Photo by Gary Morrisroe

Simon de Pury: “Curiosity is my engine”

Short Profile

Name: Abram Simon Léonor Christian de Pury
DOB: 1951
Place of birth: Basel, Switzerland
Occupation: Art dealer, auctioneer

Mr. de Pury, as a longtime auctioneer and art dealer, how would you describe the magic of an art auction?

Before going to Sotheby’s, I was working for an auction house in Switzerland called Kornfeld, which was a small but very good firm. Mr. Kornfeld actually recently passed away, just short of his 100th birthday. But I always admired him when he was conducting these auctions because it was so exciting. The electricity in the room… It's something contagious. Everybody's adrenaline is up, and as the auctioneer, you try and sustain this tone, because the better the moods, the more people are willing to bet. Equally, if everybody is completely depressed, then the prices will be less good. So there's something about that, trying to be on the same wavelength of the audience, you have to try and adapt to them.

It sounds like a lot of improvisation; you’re really tailoring the experience to a changing environment.

Auctioneering is all about improvisation, you've got to be fast on your feet. But at the same time, it requires a lot of preparation. When I started in the business 100 years ago, very naively, I thought, if an artwork is outstanding, it will sell itself, you don't need to market it. Well, I was completely wrong. Because even with the best masterpieces, you need to make sure that all the potential buyers and all the great collectors are aware of this artwork being offered. They need to be aware that on a given day at a given hour, unless they are at the end of a phone line or a computer terminal or in the auction house, they will miss their chance. All this is done so that on the day of the auction, there should be a lot of competition.

“For me, it’s about that emotional element. A piece really has to give me a kick when I see it very for the first time.”

A good mixture of speculators, art dealers and true collectors…

I’ve seen some passionate collectors! As good as they are at collecting, they are very bad sellers, because they don't ever want to sell! And if they do decide to sell, they don't feel that anybody is ever going to pay enough for the genius discoveries that they have made. It makes things very difficult. They’ve put their heart and soul into it, so I think that is a natural reaction. There is something very life-affirming about collecting, because by making an acquisition, it's a sign of vitality! I've seen collectors who were perhaps very late in life, or who had health problems, making some of the boldest purchases, because it’s life-affirming to make a big purchase in a moment where you are maybe not at the top of your physical strengths.

What are the deciding factors for you as an art collector to make a purchase?

For me, it’s about that emotional element. A piece really has to give me a kick when I see it very for the first time. If I hesitate when I see an artwork, I already know I should definitely not go for it. If it's really desirable, there can't be any hesitation. Of course, you buy something because you love it, but you also try and look for the finest quality artworks, for the price to go up, for the investment to be a good one… So if it gives you a kick, then you have to start thinking a bit more rationally you have to consider quality, condition, the provenance of the work, you want to know who has owned it before… These are all very rational points, and you can just tick them all off!

What have you noticed about how people’s taste has changed over the decades since you first started out in the industry?

Taste is very different today than when I started 50 years ago! As an auctioneer, you have to keep an eye on the evolution of taste, to see who are the tastemakers, who are the people who have the biggest influence… Of course I’ve heard collectors saying, “Oh, what is being done today is no longer the same level, or no longer as good.” But I think taste is a generational thing — you relate to art being done in your own generation, you are usually quite good at judging the art in the generation after you. But a lot of people lose some of that ability when it comes to the second generation after and then lose it completely when they are 80 or 90 and no longer have their finger on the pulse of what is the most exciting and new in art.

What trends have you noticed in the manifestation of what’s new and exciting in the art world?

Well, when you have an area which becomes very, very active economically, that always it goes hand in hand with an increase in creativity in that area. You see that happening over and over again, for example when China became economically very strong, there was a whole generation of Chinese artists who became very widely known and got international attention. I remember in the 1990s when Seattle was the place where it was all happening economically, that’s also when grunge became a leading musical movement with groups like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam… Now, where there's a lot of talk about all the cultural projects happening in the Middle East and particularly in Saudi Arabia, there are some very good Saudi artists who are getting attention on the international market. You can definitely observe creativity blossom at a place where, at the same time there is a kind of economic positive wind.

“The guiding thing in my own life to this day is curiosity. I think curiosity is my engine. It never dies.”

The technological evolution must also be having an impact on the art world.

I think that technology will completely transform the art market as we know it now. For the moment, when you sell anything between $10,000 and $3 million, you have to leave at least 25% on the table for the auction houses that sells these works — which is insanely high. I think that we can find a much more cost effective way of selling works in that price range, which in itself will vastly enlarge the art market. The market has to find a more effective way, and technology will allow that. Expertise will be able to be shared with everybody, not just with one privileged client. I think we’re going to see a big transformation of the art market going forwards.

Which role does social media in that process?

There are tools now already that artists can use to get that attention on to their work, in particular, Instagram and Tik Tok can really get artists a much wider audience, even if the art market professionals have not reacted yet to what you do. This is not unlike what happened with YouTube 10 to 15 years earlier in the music world. So, what I tell artists these days is to focus on what you want to do and focus on yourself. Don't try and look for what works in the market or what sells in the market. Just work, work, work, and try and create an exciting body of work.

What about for yourself? What essential lessons have you learned over the years?

Oh my God, I wish I had learned anything at all. (Laughs) I think the more I progress, the more I doubt if I've learned anything! But I would say that the guiding thing in my own life to this day is curiosity. I think curiosity is my engine. It never dies. As long as you're curious, life remains very, very exciting.