Heritage Auctions Bids to Become Bastion of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Middle Market

  • Heritage Auctions's Director of Modern and Contemporary Art Leon Benrimon. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Heritage Auctions is hosting its first sale of Modern and Contemporary in New York on Wednesday evening. The auction, headlined by Ai Weiwei’s Surveillance Camera (2010), features 30 lots by such artists as Andy WarholRoy LichtensteinAlexander Calder, and Ed Ruscha. But these aren’t the eight- and nine-figure blockbuster works hitting the block at Sotheby’s and Christie’s when New York’s fall auction season moves into full swing next month. “Our entire business model is low value, high volume. We’re not going after $100 million lots,” says Leon Benrimon, the former dealer who joined Heritage in May to build out its modern and contemporary art department. “What we’re out to do is make collectors and institutions know that there is a place for them to come with a solid, middle-market work and get what that work deserves.”

Estimated to sell for $400,000 to $600,000, the Ai Weiwei marble sculpture had received two bids up to $330,000 (which meets its reserve) as of two days before the evening sale. Heritage is rare among auction houses in that it publishes reserves seven days before its live sales commence. It’s a reflection of the house’s strategy, which “revolves around transparency and approachability,” says Benrimon. “There is no cloak-and-dagger chandelier bidding,” he adds, referring to the practice by which auctioneers take imaginary bids from the room in order to reach a lot’s estimate.

  • Robert Motherwell, Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) (1972-73/1974) (est. $800,000–1,200,000). Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Benrimon projects that the sweet spot for Heritage’s modern and contemporary art evening sales in New York is with lots in the $100,000 to $5 million range, and $10,000 to $100,000 for day sales in Dallas, where the second part of the modern and contemporary sale is taking place on November 14. Thirteen of the works in this week’s sales have estimates that surpass $100,000. The highest is Robert Motherwell’s Untitled (Ochre with Black Line) (1972-73/1974), which is estimated to sell for $800,000 to $1,200,000 but has not yet reached its reserve. The category is still relatively new for Heritage. The house, which brings in around nearly $1 billion in annual revenue, claims to hold the top spot in the world for the collectibles market. It broke into the modern and contemporary art market seven years ago and has been steadily building up that business, with Benrimon reporting revenues of around $9 million for the category in 2014. This season alone should represent approximately $7 million in revenue, according to the director.

  • Tom Wesselmann, Blonde Vivienne (Filled In) (1985/1995) (est. $150,000–200,000). Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

“It’s been a moment of overall growth for the company,” says Benrimon of the past few years, which also led to an expansion of Heritage’s office and salesroom on Park Avenue. “The modern and contemporary art world is a huge nut to crack.” And aggressive marketing is key to cracking it, in Benrimon’s eyes. “We’re spending an enormous amount per lot,” he says. “For us, a $300,000 lot or a $100,000 lot is really a big deal and included in our evening sale. We’re able to do so much more marketing for a work of that magnitude.” Benrimon says that Heritage has been aggressive in the business terms they have offered for consignments as well: “What Sotheby’s and Christie’s are able to offer for business terms on a $1 million lot, I’m able to offer on a $100,000 lot.”

  • (left) Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera (2010) (est. $400,000–600,000); (right) Mel Ramos, A Sinister Figure Lurks in the Shadows (1962) (est. $80,000–120,000). Images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

That consigner-minded approach to the middle market means Heritage will likely have to attract a high number of new bidders to both their house and the art market at large. They’ve taken a split approach: bringing in lots by artists like Weiwei that have typically been the domain of Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips, and leveraging their collector base in other categories to attract them to art. “Heritage has this very remarkable ability to service crossover clients that no other auction house does,” explains Benrimon. He points to the example of a piece by Marc Chagall in their most recent modern and contemporary sale that received a significant number of bids from established collectors yet, in the end, was won by a comic book collector from Chicago. “I’ve been trying to maximize our crossover potential,” says Benrimon, marketing, for example, a Warhol trial proof of Pete Rose from their upcoming sale in Dallas to their collectors of sports memorabilia.

That cross-vertical tactic has played a significant role in getting consignments as well. “A lot of the greatest works that we’ve gotten to auction have come in because we can go to someone and say that we can sell their collection of everything they have collected ever: art, coins, rare minerals, Americana, letters from George Washington,” Benrimon explains. Often, those collectors aren’t even aware of what they had. Take Mel Ramos’s 1962 canvas A Sinister Figure Lurks in the Shadows (est. $80,000–120,000) from this week’s sale. “A guy had traded the artist a stack of comic books for the painting,” says Benrimon. “He had no idea what the value was.” The piece has garnered more pageviews than any other in the sale thus far, save a screenprint of Warhol’s dollar signs, suggesting this approach to the secondary market might well be the key to Heritage continuing its growth.

—Alexander Forbes

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