Getting the show on the road

Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai was not only the setting for the recent two-day Christie’s art auction, but also the venue for a selection of legendary jewels from the collection of film star Elizabeth Taylor. Ahead of both events, was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the preparations

As half a dozen burly men struggle into the Emirates Towers ballroom carrying the 300kg Fame work by Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri – catalogue estimate a cool US$300,000-US$500,000 – it becomes clear that staging an auction is no easy task.

Moving works of art and priceless gems of all sizes and shapes around the world is one thing. But showing them properly, and hanging huge, imposing and complex works like this one, makes it an interesting challenge for the Christie’s team, where no build-up to auction day is ever the same.

The artwork Fame spells out the word against an iridescent background of tiny plastic pearls in the distinctive font used for the eponymous 1980s hit film. However, on closer inspection, the word is spelt out using wooden handled knives, the blades wedged into the board. The piece is typical of the artist’s work, where the seemingly everyday is subverted. But at 300 kilos, it’s not easy to hang!

But that’s just one of today’s ‘small’ problems to solve, among many the team have faced, and will continue to face during the planning and set-up phase.

Consider the entire auction process: there’s the painstaking task of gathering, authenticating and valuing works for auction; publication of the catalogue; and planning of the venue. This is before the on-site run-up to the event itself: moving the valuable pieces into the auction room and placing them to look their best (the small matter of security features large here).

My behind-the-scenes tour of the Christie’s Dubai auction begins on the Friday before the sale. Here I catch up with various members of the team as the works of art are being moved into position in the Emirates Towers ballroom.

Frank Lasry, Operations Manager
Based in Paris, Frank Lasry is Operations Manager for Christie’s, a job he has had for a decade. His role is to support the organisation of the temporary Christie’s operation at Jumeirah Emirates Towers, which costs around US$250,000 to stage. This means overseeing security; set-up and design; shipping and customs; office and back-stage IT; hotel bookings; and the auction itself.

Lasry takes these extravaganzas in his stride. He was behind the creation of a replica of Yves Saint Laurent’s apartment in the Grand Palais in Paris, which transformed into the ‘biggest sale room in the world’ and the ‘sale of the century’ for the YSL private collection of art and furnishings auctioned by Christie’s in February 2009. Sale proceeds topped US$477m. “Thirty-thousand people went in to see the exhibition, and there were 1,500 people seated in the Palais for the auction with 100 telephone lines!” says Lasry.

Cees van Emmerick and Bob Beelt, Art Handlers
When I meet them, Art Handlers Cees van Emmerick and Bob Beelt, both from the Amsterdam operation, are in the process of installing 30 hand-painted steel saw blades on one large wall, collectively called The Machinery – catalogue estimate US$80,000 -US$120,000 – using a diagram supplied by the Moroccan artist Mounir Fatmi.

It’s Van Emmerick’s 10th visit to Dubai during a 30-year career with Christie’s – an anniversary he’s celebrating during this sale. “It’s always a surprise when the crates are opened,” he says. “Lot 30 (he motions towards Fame) is quite a challenge – those knives are sharp! But, we’re prepared for everything. Our biggest problem is the weight of a work, combined with soft and light walls,” adds Beelt.

Isabel De La Bruyere, Director Middle East, Christie’s Dubai
Isabel De La Bruyere joined Christie’s as a picture specialist in the 19th-century Impressionist and Modern Department, moving on to concentrate on the client advisory side in 2003. Now based in Dubai, she’s Director for the Middle East, and her job involves her meeting collectors and seeing clients about sales and purchases, giving lectures and taking charity auctions.

“My role is to manage the relationship with the client. I help them through the process of buying, caring for and selling – in fact anything related to – art. That could be a valuation, a private sale, finding pieces or even insurance and storage. We are so much more than an auction house these days. Today we are a wide-ranging art business.”

Christie’s offices are based at DIFC (Dubai International Financial Centre), but De La Bruyere’s role takes her across the Middle East and North Africa. “Dubai is a wonderful platform for us in the region,” she says. “It has great infrastructure, and I love the city’s galleries and art scene.”

Hala Khayat, Specialist Middle East Art, Christie’s Dubai
Hala Khayat joined Christie’s in London in 2007. Today she is Dubai-based, and specialises in the Arab, Iranian and Turkish art markets. She travels extensively to source works for sale, visiting clients’ private collections and undertaking research and valuations. “This sale marks a significant change in the variety and value of works we can offer,” she says. “Those already familiar with Christie’s sales in Dubai will see no difference in the quality of what is available but we hope they will notice much more diversity.”

With part-two lot estimates ranging from just US$1,500, it promises to attract a new, younger audience, and a new breed of collectors.

James Lees, Business Coordinator, Christie’s Dubai
Lees is part of the Dubai office, and I want to talk to him about Christie’s Live, as he played a key role in the project development team for the online live-time bidding platform that has brought the virtual auction room to life in places as far afield as Thailand and Indonesia.

“There are a number of ways to bid now,” he tells me. “First, you can turn up and register. Alternatively, you can leave a commission bid, with instructions for Christie’s to bid on your behalf. You can phone bid. Or you can leave an absentee bid on the website, or use Christie’s Live, which is real-time, and real audio and video.”

Bidders via Christie’s Live, can, if they wish, reveal their location. As Lees explains, “When the auctioneer can say, ‘I have a bidder from Istanbul’, it brings a real sense of internationalism and excitement to the auction room. It really gets the audience going.”

The television/online approach – and the theatre that goes with it – has improved auctioneering, says Lees. “Auctioneers now know that the vendor can be watching the sale of their item from anywhere on the planet. Auctioneers are on show, and they know they can potentially raise the value of a work by 20 or even 30 per cent.”

Today, some 20-25 per cent of lots are sold via the website and Christie’s Live together, and in the region of US$120m has been taken using Christie’s Live. “Anyone in the world can sit, bid and buy: you can even sit on your boat off Greenland and bid!”