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Inside Gagosian Art Advisory with Its Director Laura Paulson

The Canvas
Jun 23, 2021 6:56PM

Portrait of Laura Paulson. Courtesy of Gagosian Art Advisory.

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When Gagosian Art Advisory was first announced in the spring of 2019, the criticism from certain corners of the art world was practically instantaneous. How could an advisory firm owned by the most famous and powerful dealer in the world not pose a conflict of interest to its clients? Would collectors ever fully trust that they weren’t being steered towards buying Gagosian’s primary-market artists over those represented by the gallery’s competitors? And would fusty fiduciaries who often prefer to avoid the high-flying limelight of the contemporary art world in favor of the more traditional and conservative appraisal firms and auction houses truly feel comfortable entrusting the estates they represent to a Gagosian-branded enterprise? Now, a little over two years since its inception, after performing appraisals for over $1 billion worth of material in 2020 alone, and upon assembling a murderer’s row of talent with the requisite client list to match, the answer to all those questions is clear: Gagosian Art Advisory is here to stay, and the market is only just beginning to feel its full impact.

A large portion of the firm’s initial success can be traced directly back to the tireless work ethic and drive of its leader, Laura Paulson. The former global chairman of 20th-century art at Christie’s, Paulson excels at deftly cultivating long-lasting relationships with many of the great collectors of post-war and contemporary art from the second half of the 20th century. She has a savant-like grasp of granular details of art history that, when conveyed and contextualized correctly, can ultimately prove the difference between a given lot or collection simply meeting its estimate at auction or far outstripping expectations. Her speaking style is straightforward and matter-of-fact, an approach that no doubt endears her to the countless lawyers and accountants who are retained by families to help manage their estates. This combination of qualities has clearly served Paulson well throughout her four-decade career in the art world, from her initial jobs working as a receptionist for the David McKee Gallery and then as director of Luhring Augustine in the mid-1980s, all the way through her tenure at Christie’s, where she steadily climbed the ranks while helping to shepherd some of the largest and most important collections and estates to market.

Since its formation was first announced, Paulson has carefully expanded the Gagosian Art Advisory team, bringing in, among others, Bernard Lagrange from Sotheby’s and Michael Walker from Hauser & Wirth, both of whom are in their thirties and are known for fostering relationships with some of their generation’s most promising collectors. After a first year of working together over Zoom, the Gagosian Art Advisory team—which now numbers eight people in total—will be moving into temporary offices at Gagosian’s West 24th Street space in Chelsea before landing in their permanent offices at Gagosian’s flagship 980 Madison Avenue headquarters once renovations are complete by the end of 2021.

Meeting in the firm’s temporary office space in late April, Paulson continues to emanate the same level of efficiency, attention to detail, and roll-up-your-sleeves-and-get-to-it attitude that she points to as being a central component of her success throughout her career—and, frankly, that we expected from a former auction house executive who counts appraisals as her forte. What we didn’t expect going into the interview, however, was the ardor and passion she harbors for tiny nuances of the 20th-century art world usually only cared about by art historians and academics.

Paulson takes us behind the scenes at Gagosian Art Advisory, walking us through its genesis two years ago, explaining how it operates on a day-to-day basis, and detailing the process that she and her growing team undertake when bringing a major estate or collection to market. Along the way, she addresses the criticisms that a Gagosian-owned advisory firm poses an inherent conflict of interest to its clients; offers her perspective on what major collectors are looking for when determining where to consign pieces from their collections; shares which 71-year-old contemporary artist the firm’s young advisory clients are flocking to; and answers the question on everyone’s minds: What exactly is Gagosian Art Advisory, anyway?


The Canvas: Thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with me, Laura. So, I believe it’s now roughly two years since Gagosian Advisory was first announced. I was hoping we could start by traveling back in time a bit and having you take me inside your thinking in the months leading up to its formation. What were your motivating factors in joining Gagosian (albeit independently)? And if you don’t mind hypothesizing, what do you think Larry Gagosian saw as some of the benefits to launching a full-fledged advisory arm?

Laura Paulson: I’d be happy to. Before I left Christie’s, I really enjoyed what I was doing on a day-to-day basis, which, in essence, was a multifaceted practice encompassing advising, auction sales, private sales, appraisals, working with estates, and helping families with their legacy planning.

After I left Christie’s, several people asked me about my future plans because they wanted to continue working together. During this period, I was under a non-compete, so I was really just trying to keep my head down while also staying in touch with both the art world in general, and a few longstanding clients who were also friends with whom I’d worked for a number of years. That gave me the time to take a step back, think, and consider the current state of the art market and my career.

It was clear to me that many of my clients at Christie’s were looking for someone to take a more active role in the management of their collections. When you work with people for so many years, you achieve a level of knowledge, expertise, and personal investment that a bond of trust is created in which they feel comfortable with your guidance through all phases of collecting, estate planning, appraisals, etc. It became increasingly clear to me that a number of the larger galleries were missing this component. At the time, a few people had reached out to me to ask if I could recreate what I had done at Christie’s in a gallery setting for clients who traditionally had to look in multiple other places to fill all their various art world needs. Of course, one of those conversations was with Larry…


The Canvas: So, just in terms of the timeline, this would be roughly early 2019?

L.P.: Correct. My non-compete ended in November 2018, and other than that initial announcement, I wanted to keep things really quiet. It started out with just me and two other people on the team, and that first year was really all about laying the foundational structure for the business, organizing our space, and reaching out to key clients. Unfortunately, by the time we were able to put the full team together and bring in Bernard Lagrange from Sotheby’s and Michael Walker from Hauser & Wirth, it was literally March 6, 2020. So, we spent our first year as a team on Zoom.


The Canvas: And what about the second part of the question? What do you think was going through Larry’s mind at the time in terms of the underlying value he saw in opening a full-fledged advisory?

Portrait of Laura Paulson with Larry Gagosian onstage at “Pixels at an Exhibition: The New Art Market” at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, California, 2016. Courtesy of Gagosian Art Advisory.

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L.P.: I can’t speak for Larry, but as you noted before, the businesses are separate entities, and the advisory provides several services that the gallery does not provide. The advisory also expands the client base for many of the primary-market artists represented by the gallery and provides opportunities for secondary-market sales as well. And I think other aspects of the business, such as appraisals or having clients on retainer, proved particularly attractive.


The Canvas: When the announcement was made, there was some criticism from different corners of the art world about the inherent conflict of interest posed by a gallery and an advisory firm being owned by the same person. For instance, as you just pointed out, the advisory firm theoretically expands the buying pool of clients for the gallery’s primary-market artists by steering clients in that direction. Or, in the case of an estate, it could, perhaps, cherry-pick a few works for Larry to offer privately before they’re consigned with the rest of the collection at auction. Do you feel that there’s any validity to that criticism? Or, do you take the opposite approach and say, “As long as the client is happy at the end of the day, then what does it even matter?”

L.P.: Exactly. Gagosian represents so many great artists and artists’ estates, and it’s actually quite competitive to acquire works when there’s such high demand. But aside from that, it’s always been understood that we advise clients to buy across all platforms, including from other galleries. When I look at the acquisitions in the last year—especially since Michael and Bernie joined—our clients have acquired works from other galleries around the world. So I don’t see it as a conflict of interest. In fact, people often come to us hoping that we can open doors for them for some of the most in-demand artists at Gagosian, and we do our best to do that, but again, we try to be balanced and respectful to all the different sales directors, as they’re balancing interest and demand from their own clients, as well.

In terms of estates, my primary focus is devoted to the needs of the client. If the client was interested in pursuing a private sale for a work in the estate, then of course I would explore that option. It may be with Gagosian, or perhaps with another party elsewhere in the market that would be a better alternative. It’s important to be transparent and discrete. So yes, at the end of the day, the person who matters the most is the client. We’re here to maximize value for them.


The Canvas: Let’s get a little granular. Walk me through the actual day-to-day workings of the advisory firm. What’s the most common use-case scenario for why a client retains your services?

L.P.: For the most part, straight acquisition advice or appraisals represent the primary points of contact. From there, acquisitions usually develop into curatorial advice and collection management. We ask about what they have collected so far and whether there are works to be sold as they refine their collection. And this even includes the more quotidian aspects of a collection from maintenance, to framing, to insurance, etc.

When clients approach us for an appraisal, it’s often the first step of a larger project, such as representing the collection or works from the collection at auction, or helping a family with determining the future of an art collection when the time comes for one generation to pass it to the next.


The Canvas: So, when approaching a new potential client about working together, how do you describe Gagosian Advisory’s services vis-à-vis other advisory firms, or even compared to other galleries or auction houses? In other words, why should an estate or major collector go with Laura and her team rather than one of the other players in this space?

L.P.: Over my 28-year career, I have had enormous experience with many estates and collections. My method and approach—which is what we now do here at Gagosian Advisory—is to assess a collection as a whole, looking for its overarching story and tying any disparate threads together. Every collection has a special identity, and it is important to understand how the identity of the collectors and the collection itself can maximize value and tell a story. Yes, theoretically everyone else can say the same thing, but I do think we bring a level of expertise, passion, and hard work that’s unmatched by anyone else. It continues to be an exciting experience for us because we always learn something new. We show great respect for the complete collection, even the $500 work that may be consigned to an online sale. It’s important to our clients that we consider works of all value and that they know we will maximize the value of their collection through scholarship, dedicated catalogues, and personally proofing and editing the content of those catalogues.

Additionally, we’re able to offer a level of discretion and day-to-day engagement which can be more difficult to achieve when dealing with an auction house representative in a more corporate environment. It’s unfortunate—and isn’t always the case—but I’ve found some younger specialists to be less curious about these types of things, even though the collectors or their families still care very much, as it was part of their lives.


The Canvas: Less curious about what types of things?

L.P.: Less curious about the history of an artwork and the nuances of its provenance. For example, if a work belonged to Ben Heller, it is a reflection of his legendary vision and is immortalized in history, in a way. It says something about the work. It adds value.

So, I think that our care, our concern, and our excitement for that kind of information, and our resulting advocacy on behalf of our clients is an aspect of our practice that separates us from some of our competitors. There are still some great experts at the auction houses, and many of them are friends. However, we focus relentlessly on the details, ensuring the story of a collection is told appropriately. This contributes to our ability to maximize value for our clients and to support them until all proceeds are realized. These are the values I would point to as differentiating factors from our competitors.


The Canvas: Okay, got it. I think I have a pretty good understanding of how the advisory firm works and where you see yourself falling within the overarching ecosystem. I want to talk a bit about your perspective on how that ecosystem has changed over the years. You joined Christie’s in 1989. And in your time with the auction house, you oversaw some pretty significant collections, including the collection of David N. Pincus and that Mark Rothko that sold for $86.9 million; the Bergman Collection, which included Alexander Calder’s Flying Fish that sold for a record $25.9 million; and Ileana Sonnabend’s collection. You also, I believe, did a lot of work with the Cy Twombly Foundation, and were involved with one of the most expensive Twombly works ever sold (an untitled blackboard work for $69.6 million). From your perspective, how has the process of major estates and collections coming to market changed in the past three decades?

L.P.: My career actually began before I joined Christie’s in 1989. I first started working at David McKee Gallery in 1981 and then joined Luhring Augustine as director in 1985. I had eight extraordinary years of working on the fifth floor of the Fuller Building when André Emmerich, Pierre Matisse, Robert Miller, and Andrew Crispo were several of the galleries located there. It was an exciting and interesting moment. I would go to the auctions and sit through the sales in order to write down the prices and capture the atmosphere. The first sale I remember attending was of fantastic works by a famous music impresario, Ted Ashley, at Christie’s in 1986. I remember just sitting there, captivated, and thinking about how this all works.

I joined Christie’s in 1989, and that fall season we had an overwhelming number of collections, including the Manilow collection, the Mapplethorpe estate, and the first of Robert B. Mayer’s sales over the years. The atmosphere was chaotic, but at the same time, the level of the pitch at that time to the different estates and collections was much more low-key than it is now. A lot had to do with relationships. And, of course, it still had a lot to do with money, and who proposed the highest estimates or could offer the best deals, but it was almost quaint compared to the level of preparation and analytics the auction houses are expected to provide these days for both collections as a whole and individual works of art.

Richard Prince, Untitled, 2017. © Richard Prince. Photo by Jena Cumbo. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Richard Prince, Untitled, 2017–18. © Richard Prince. Photo by Jena Cumbo. Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

The competition was strictly between Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and there was always a lot of heartache when you lost a consignment. We didn’t have the allure of a truly global audience for contemporary art because at the time, there wasn’t one. But there was a generation of absolutely amazing collectors who were focused on their collections in these years leading up to the art market downturn in the early 1990s. That downturn became an amazing buying opportunity for collectors such as Eli Broad, Norman Braman, and Sam Heyman. They were buying with precision and with an eye for truly great works, and at that time, many were available at auction. Many of the sales were the result of distressed situations, which we don’t see nearly as much in today’s market.

But it wasn’t until the Ganz sale in 1997 that things really began to shift. I was part of the Christie’s Ganz team, and it was really the first time a collection was marketed in a concerted, cohesive manner. From Picasso to Mel Bochner, it was really a collection of masterpieces. It set a new level of expectations for prices, and it also raised the stakes between the auction houses for the level of presentation, financial terms, and marketing that would need to be committed to clients in order to win coveted collections. That was really a turning point where it became almost an arms race for market share and prestige between Christie’s and Sotheby’s.

In the last 10 years, the story is really about the arrival of a deep pool of international collectors and the opening of new markets in Asia and, to some extent, in the Middle East. It began, for example, in Hong Kong sales, when we saw huge sums for porcelain and jade, but as the market expanded, many of these new collectors began to look at Western art and post-war American art as an important part of their overall collection. They are pursuing blue-chip modern and post-war works and are eager to understand how these works fit into the wider art historical context, and they care about the nuances of provenance and the stories of who owned these works and how it matters in terms of value and art history.


The Canvas: Going forward at least, the auction houses claim that they’re going to be far less interested in market share and are increasingly likely not to offer terms to clients that end up being unprofitable for the house solely in the interest of winning a prestigious trophy lot or gaining market share. Do you think that’s likely to be the case over the next few years?

L.P.: Personally, I’m doubtful. I mean, yes, it became so reckless in many ways that there had to be a bit of a pause to reassess and try to understand the market, but at the end of the day, when we’re sent consignment proposals and marketing materials on behalf of our estate clients, market share is always the metric that’s touted.

It’s interesting, because now that I’m on the other side, frankly, I realize how meaningless the concept of market share is to clients. What our clients care about is expertise and the time and willingness to put in the hard work necessary to maximize the value of their collections. An auction house may not be leading in market share one season, or perhaps it isn’t currently where an individual artist’s auction record was last set, but what is important is if the auction house will treat the collection with the highest level of respect and genuinely work to leverage its value in all ways possible.


The Canvas: What effect do you think third-party entities like AGP will have on major collections coming to market?

L.P.: I think every estate has specific needs that either can or can’t be met by certain entities in the market. For instance, I just worked with the Friday Foundation on the collection of Jane Lang Davis and Richard E. Lang. Because there were certain philanthropic components to the estate, that was not a situation where a collection could be bought outright, as was the case with the Marron collection.

However, I think for certain estates, where families just want to say “we’re out” and prefer not to be as involved, those kinds of third-party options can make sense. The Marron Collection was almost entirely post-war and 20th-century artists, and there was no furniture or other extraneous collecting categories. So, in that capacity, they met the client’s needs. However, in many estates, the collections include works from a range of genres and categories. In those cases, clearly an auction house would be a preferable alternative. So, again, each collection and estate has its own individual needs. But in Marron’s case, I think it worked out really well, and generally speaking, I think it’s important to have an alternative in the market. It makes everyone work a little bit harder.


The Canvas: Okay, so this will be the last question I pepper you with on this topic. To me, it seems like there has never been a better time to be in the business of advising truly significant/major collections. The auction houses and galleries are competing with each other for this business. In recent years, the auction houses have increased their buyer’s premium for top lots, at least partly to account for the compensation of outside advisors to said collections. And because of the increasing amount of concentrated wealth, there are more and more of these types of collections to advise. So, from your perspective, at the end of the day, brass tacks, what are most of these estates and collections looking for when it comes to determining where to consign their works (either privately or at auction)? And are the current options in the market currently satisfying those needs?

L.P.: First, regardless of how prepared you are, when faced with an estate collection that needs to be managed, it is going to be a challenge. Even for the most organized of people, the process is complicated and often emotional. You try to troubleshoot as much as you can beforehand, but you can never fully prepare for managing the family dynamics surrounding an estate.

At the end of the day, the clients themselves feel relieved knowing that the job will be done, it’ll be done well, and it will be done with a smart and strong financial return in mind. However, what is most important to families and advisors, and the lawyers representing the estates, is efficiency and maximized returns. If it’s important to tell a story, they want it to be told well, and they want to be sure the family dynamics will be managed and that all parties are working together. And I also believe they’re looking for expertise, very often with a depth of knowledge in one or two specific artists who are particularly represented in the collection. For example, with the Bergman Collection, there were nearly 50 works by Joseph Cornell, and expertise and an understanding of the artist within the full spectrum of his work and how to sell it was critical to winning the collection.

One of the last things I worked on before I left Christie’s was the great collector and philanthropist Melva Bucksbaum’s collection. We had 1,500 works on a computer spreadsheet, and I sat with everyone in a room and said, “Okay, this is not going to be fun, but we’re going to go through every one of these works and decide where it’s going to be sold, how it’s going to be sold, and determine how it fits into a view of the overall collection.” I have the patience to do that because I’m interested in the full texture of the collection itself. It’s how you develop advocacy for the complete collection. I knew Melva, adored her, and I wanted us to do a great job for her legacy. However, there isn’t a lot of reward in the auction houses these days for that roll-up-your-sleeves, get-to-work mentality, even though that personal investment remains so important to the clients and to winning business.


The Canvas: I know that especially since bringing Michael and Bernie into the company, Gagosian Advisory works with a number of younger collectors. And I think it’s fair to say that particularly during this past year of the pandemic, young collectors have proven especially comfortable spending increasingly large sums on building out their collections even if it means they can’t see the work in person beforehand. What do you see young collectors gravitating towards for their collections?

L.P.: Richard Prince is very popular with young collectors. It is interesting, because Richard is 71, and while originally known for his work with appropriation in the early 1980s, his work continues to resonate and feel fresh with the current generation as well as with the older generation of collectors who first acquired his works at that time. We see a lot of interest in Richard’s work, from the “Nurse” paintings, to the “High Times” series, or the new Instagram works. It all feels very contemporary to this generation. He examines our social mores, society, class, and culture, both subversively and also without a filter, and translates all of that through a formal presentation that is extraordinarily seductive, but with a dark side to be sure. Richard was one of the first artists I remember seeing when I moved to New York in 1980; Metro Pictures had a show of his photography at the time, so it’s incredible to see his work continue to resonate to this day.

Of course, artists of color are very much part of a conversation and remain a priority for collectors with a feeling they must make up for lost time. But there is concern about the level of speculation that has surrounded some of these acquisitions, so artists and dealers are rightfully very cautious about who acquires the work.


The Canvas: What’s your take on the outlook for the market for the second half of 2021 and 2022? I know that during the pandemic, the signal from major estates and collections was that they would wait out the uncertainty until a more traditional auction calendar coalesced.…What’s your sense of major collections coming down the pipeline?

L.P.: A lot is still to be determined, but I definitely think there are a handful of estates which will appear on the market in November. However, after living through 2020 with the extreme difficulties and circumstances the market faced, to see the art market perform as well as it has been performing has been really encouraging. There was no precipitous drop. More wealth has been generated. And I think the enthusiasm to see art again, to get back into the collecting cycle, to see friends and artists, the social aspect of the art world, certainly suggests a good prognosis.

What’s interesting to me is that many of the collectors who were driving the market back in 2012, when I had the Pincus Collection, are already selling works acquired from that time; not because they have financial need, but because they have simply lost interest. Fortunately, though, as in the past, there is always a new group of collectors to take their place. In the end, it’s just history repeating itself.


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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019