Art Market

Auction Houses and Galleries Are Working Together—Here’s Why

Brian Ng
Sep 26, 2022 2:29PM
Evie O'Connor
Phillips, 2022

Purchasing art via auction is very different from buying art at a gallery. At auctions, prices are transparent, all are welcome to bid, and the highest bidder wins the artwork. At galleries, the process for acquiring a piece—and the price of the piece itself—can be much more opaque. One might assume these two different points of sale are always in competition. Yet sometimes, the goals of galleries and auction houses align, and the outlets work together. Their collaborations are, in fact, integral to the art market.

While galleries discover, represent, and build a collector following for their artists, they also may discretely and discerningly channel their artists’ works into the secondary market, using the resources to their advantage. At times, galleries and auction houses collaborate on authenticating older works and consult one another regarding provenance. However, these relationships are often about much more, especially in facilitating secondary market sales.

McWillie Chambers
Collecting 19, 2017
George Billis Gallery

Auction house clients typically have dedicated specialists who help them source works on wish lists that may not be in upcoming auctions or readily available on the primary market. These specialists—or advisors—may contact galleries with access to collectors who own certain works. And galleries, in turn, may then reach out to their clients to explore the possibility of resale. Though this process starts at the auction house, such transactions often take place away from the sales floor.

Conversely, galleries and dealers may buy items through auctions, then sell to their clients at a later date. “It’s a relationship-based business,” said Noah Horowitz, worldwide head of gallery and private dealer services at Sotheby’s. “Art-market demand is all about access—if we can provide really great access to really great things, then that works for all parties.”

While galleries have been known to place works by established post-war and contemporary artists into secondary-market auctions, they’re also increasingly working on primary-market auctions, featuring in-demand emerging artists. Though auction houses have been dabbling in the primary market for decades, fresh sales initiatives have been introduced in recent months and years by Christie’s, Simon de Pury, Sotheby’s, and Artsy. In such cases, works for sale are sourced directly from artists, and in some cases, their representing galleries, too.

Artsy Auctions, for example, use primary-market auction models that benefit galleries, artists, and social-impact organizations. Artsy Spotlight Auctions focus on a single lot contributed by one artist and their gallery to benefit their chosen cause. The next such sale will launch on September 27th in collaboration with Gagosian, focused on one large new painting by Stanley Whitney, to benefit the Art for Justice Fund and Planned Parenthood of Greater New York.

Also this month, Christie’s announced a collaboration with Baltimore’s Galerie Myrtis to form a portion of its September 29th auction. The auction house will sell a capsule of works by six Black artists, titled “Time, Space, Existence: Afro-Futurist Visions From Galerie Myrtis,” which corresponds to the exhibition that gallery founder Myrtis Bedolla curated in Venice this year, “The Afro-Futurist Manifesto: Blackness Reimagined,” in time with the Biennale.

Auction houses also conduct private sales, at fixed prices, which can involve galleries and dealers. This mechanism is gradually becoming a larger part of auction businesses, as they integrate private selling exhibitions and opportunities into their services. In doing so, auction houses are encouraging their specialists to engage their clients in both public auctions and private sales, dissolving the boundaries separating the two, while prioritizing the collector’s needs.

Sometimes, auction houses curate shows in galleries to build brand awareness. Phillips, for example, recently mounted an exhibition called “New Romantics” at Seoul’s Lee Eugean Gallery. The show coincided with Frieze Seoul and KIAF and led to a major sale at Phillips Hong Kong two weeks later. The gallery benefitted from new visitors and potential collectors from around the world, as well as a portion of the sales.

The traditional notion of a rivalry between galleries and auction houses is slowly eroding as they find more ways to work together. More and more, gallerists and dealers are working with auctions as business clients and partners in the larger art ecosystem. Ultimately, auction houses and galleries are similarly driven by growing the art market, attracting a new global audience of collectors, and championing the next generation of leading artists.

Brian Ng