Simon de Pury, the auctioneer and art star, reveals another side to himself – that of passionate photographer and DJ. We spoke exclusively to him about his new photography exhibition and his optimism for the future of the art market.
Simon de Pury proves that you cannot judge a 59-year-old art auctioneer by his conservative ensemble of what appears to be a Savile Row suit, Charvet shirt and Hermès tie. Over coffee at Paris’s Café de Flore he casually reveals that he once studied the Japanese painting techniques of Sumie and Nihonga at the Tokyo Academy of Arts. What’s more, the founder of the modern incarnation of the Phillips de Pury auction house, is also a passionate photographer and, even more surprisingly, a budding DJ with an encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary music.
“The terrible thing is I don’t know how to DJ. I have one month to try to learn,” he says, referring to the fact he is due to play on October 21 at the opening party of Purepurygraphy, an exhibition of his photographs in Berlin.
Born in Basel, de Pury began his career at Sotheby’s where he held several key positions – including Chairman of Sotheby’s Switzerland and Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe – before founding his art advisory firm, Pury & Luxembourg Art, in 1997 with Daniela Luxembourg. In 2001, Pury & Luxembourg Art merged with the auction house Phillips, and de Pury set about revolutionizing the art market with an increased focus on the newest art.
De Pury differentiated Phillips de Pury from Sotheby’s and Christie’s by positioning the auction house as a luxury brand in itself. Fitting, then, that in December 2008 he sold his majority share of the company to the Mercury Group, Russia’s leading luxury retail group.
It was around the same time as the sale of his auction house that de Pury decided to stage his second show of photographic work. Exhibited at The Corner concept boutique in Berlin (as opposed to any of the world famous gallery spaces he could of commandeered and testament to his modesty), the show of 38 works is accompanied by a catalogue, or “phonebook” as he calls it, of over 400 photographs.
The photos – which include several of hotel rooms and are all accompanied with a note of the time and location they were taken – offer a glimpse of de Pury’s nomadic existence, which is based mainly between London and New York.
At the Berlin show, the photographs will sell for €6,000 each, suggesting de Pury’s confidence in the art market. Of course, it is de Pury’s steadfast enthusiasm for art that is the real reason behind his optimism. “There’s simply no way that people will ever be able to live without art. We don’t need it to survive or live but yet we cannot live without it. “
Over a coffee at Café de Flore in Paris, we talked with Simon de Pury about Purepruygraphy, his new photography exhibition in Berlin, and his optimism for the future of the art market.
What is your definition of luxury?
I have two definitions of luxury. The ultimate luxury for me is to eat a sausage in front of a football match on TV. That’s a supreme luxury. Ultimately, our most precious luxury is time. For me, the definition of wealth, which is something else, is children and family. I’m very fortunate to have four children. For me it’s like peasant families: the more children you have, the richer you are.
If luxury were a place, where would it be?
Maybe somewhere in Rajasthan because I find it's where all the senses are pushed to their maximum whether its visual, sensuality, sound, music, smells. It all comes to a level of refinement that is unheard of anywhere else. Ultimate refinement is possibly the ultimate luxury.
If it were a moment?
It’s always the now. The greatest art is to be able to make the now a key moment.
If luxury were a person?
The first name that comes to me is Catherine Deneuve. During my entire teenage years I was dreaming of her. I think physically and aesthetically, she is my idea of beauty, class, style and luxury, all combined.
I’ve become allergic to skulls because we live in a time of skull mania. Despite that, possibly my favourite object is a skull, which is a fifteenth century German sculpture of a skull. So it’s not a real skull, it’s a stone sculpture after a skull that I bought on the Quai here in Paris many years ago. I absolutely adore that object.
Why have you decided to put forward your photography, positioning yourself as an artist as well as an auctioneer?
I have always enjoyed taking photographs and I had a show in 2002 at a gallery in Geneva called Art + Public, owned by Pierre Hubert, an important dealer and collector. When you are my age you can afford to do something for the sheer enjoyment and I thought it would be fun to do another show and have a publication that would coincide with that exhibition. In order to have double fun, I will DJ at the exhibition’s opening party in Berlin on October 21. In the same way I’m passionate about contemporary art, I’m passionate about contemporary music and have followed it as closely as I have contemporary art except in art I’m privileged to make a living out of it. My other passions, taking photographs and listening to music, I haven’t so far been so public about.
Do you aspire to be as well known as a photographer as you are as an auctioneer?
I don’t know if I do. I think that there are always prejudices against somebody who is associated for one thing if that person does something totally different. It is difficult to judge it without thinking ‘this is an auctioneer doing photography’. If I really wanted to do a separate career, I should have done it under a pseudonym.
Were the photographs in your first exhibition similar to these?
Actually, yes. It is quite similar stylistically so I can’t say my photography has evolved enormously in the meantime! It’s very abstract. The only difference is the technical difference. That was a numeric camera whereas now its digital.
I’ve always been fascinated by patterns, structures and by photographing things that when you have them enlarged you lose any relation to what the image actually was, so that it becomes pure abstraction. For me, it’s like abstract art, it just happens to be done with a camera. Most of it is totally abstract and therefore very painterly. And some of the images are more influenced by painters than photographers.
Each image is titled, some of which reveal your humour.
I felt it would be better to have titles as there are 424 images. I sat down for a while! Either the title referred to whatever mood I was feeling in when I took the photo or else things such as the Lucio Fontana reference occurred to me after seeing the image. It’s all visual mind games, which explains some of the crazy titles.
Is it the case that you saw the art references as you were taking the photographs?
With Fontana Meets Zorro, I was interested by this tiny slit in the curtains and how the light has a way of piercing; I was intrigued how this would translate in photography in complete darkness. When it came out I thought it looked like Fontana. There were some shots that were taken in a bathroom at the Chateau Marmont, which had this incredible glass, so I photographed them at several times of the day. I thought the photos looked like certain works by Rudolf Stingel. All the references came afterwards. I hope that somewhere there is my own language that comes through, which is this obsession with structures.
Your photographs provide a snapshot of a nomadic existence. How does this inform your photography?
When I put the titles to each image, I thought to make a note of the place I took it and the month it was taken. In certain cases not only did I not remember what the object was but I did not remember where I had taken it. You will see that is reflected in some of the titles
It becomes truly nomadic when you don’t even remember where you were!
It has not happened to me yet where I do not know which city I am in!
The catalogue must therefore be like a diary?
It is like a visual diary. It’s like in the eighteenth century when people travelled they would have a notebook with them and make little sketches. It was produced by this man called Chris Rehberger who is this brilliant graphic artist and designer. It works like a film on a loop because it starts with some text images and it ends with some text images at the end.
How did your insight into the commercial side of art inform your photographs? Were you conscious of what might sell?
Not for one second do I think, ‘I need to do that in order to sell’. I was very lucky that my first and only show worked very well commercially, which was a pleasant surprise. That was eight years ago and I have no idea what the response will be now. I’m doing it basically to please myself more than anything else and if it does well commercially so much the better. But I’m in the lucky position where my life doesn’t depend on it. I’ve enjoyed tremendously the whole process.
What have you learnt from this project?
What I love doing most with the work of other people is to curate and edit. I’m always amazed whenever I meet an artist that they could be brilliant artists but never good at editing their own work. I now fully see myself that you much prefer to delegate to someone else to edit your own work. My favourite occupation and all that I do is to go to an artist and pick and choose and edit. That’s my greatest pleasure. Here, I felt I had to leave that to somebody else precisely because when you’re so close to it you don’t have that distance you need in order to judge it properly.
Each single print photograph is for sale at €6,000. How did you determine the price with the current uncertainty that surrounds the market?
At my last exhibition eight years ago the price was $10,000 per photograph. I thought when I decided to do this exhibition, six months ago, when the world was quite different, to take more or less the same price. €6,000 sounds less and, as opposed to the first exhibition where they were editions of three, here every image is unique. There’s no artist proof. All will be signed on the back.
You must have faith in the art market to be launching your photography work at this time. What do you predict for the future of the art market?
In terms of the art market in general I project great things for it and I think the best times are ahead of us because in the art market you can follow and observe from 1850 onwards. There have always been moments when there has been a slowdown and a lull, before it continues to go up again. I’m very optimistic for the market overall.
Why did you decide to DJ at the opening party?
Because I’m obsessed with music in the same way I’m obsessed with contemporary art. I have one month to try to learn because I have no clue how to do it. Maybe I will simulate with two turntables. I do know definitely what music I want to play because I could make play lists all day long - that’s the easy part. I have to take some lessons from a professional DJ beforehand.
What other music projects have you been involved in?
We did do two CDs with Philips called Around the World which are two music compilations. We are planning an auction on November 21 called Music with four components. The first will be contemporary artists whose work has a direct link or reference to music, from a Warhol of Mick Jagger to Richard Prince. The second component will be musicians who produce art, from Marilyn Manson to David Bowie and Pete Doherty. Most musicians have an artistic talent and are visual artists in their own right. The third component is musicians photographed by top photographers, such as Helmut Newton and David LaChapelle. The last component is memorabilia. For that auction we will ask a top DJ to come and do a sound carpet during the auction so it will be the first auction ever that will literally be a musical auction. We always try to mix music and art, that’s something I strongly believe in.
How would you feel if these photographs you are exhibiting came up for auction?
I would be totally thrilled. I had one of the photographs from my first exhibition included in a charity auction organized by Sotheby’s for the Israel Museum two years ago.
Did it sell?
Yes! So I can sympathise with the anxiety of artists that their work will not sell.
You sold the majority of your auction house Phillips de Pury & Co in October 2008, just before the art market cooled down. Did you know that you were selling at the top of the market or was there an element of luck?
You only know in hindsight if it was good timing or bad timing. It’s hindsight that gives you all the wisdom in the world. When you do something on the spur of the moment you don’t have that distance or hindsight. So far, I’m thrilled to have done what I did when I did it. I’m particularly happy to do it with such great partners as the Mercury Group, which is the leading luxury retail company in Russia. Its founders and leaders, Leonid Friedland and Leonid Strunin, are brilliant business people and visionaries. I find it very stimulating strategically to be working with such brilliant people. We did the deal last October, it’s not even a year; so far so good.
Who are your favourite photographers?
My all-time favourite photographer is Helmut Newton and I had the privilege of knowing him very well. He was a great friend and I’m a friend of his wife, June Newton, who is a fantastic photographer in her own right under the name of Alice Springs. He is the youngest man I’ve ever known. He died a young man at 83. Whenever you spent time with him you were invigorated. I like German photography from the 1950s. There’s a photographer I love called Pather Kitman, who I think is very strong. There’s a German photographer who emerged in the 1920s called Albert Renger Patzsch who I also like very much. Then there is a Japanese photographer called nayoma kamaya – some of my photography is named after him because it is similar to his work. Then I love William Eggleston, who is incredible, and David LaChapelle. I just acquired a large photograph LaChapelle called The Last Supper. You can have it in various formats, so I took the large format because it’s so powerful an image I wanted it to be as large as possible. Then I love Guy Bourdin. The way I discovered both Helmet Newton and Guy Bourdin was as a young man going through Vogue. Every time I saw an image that I loved it was by one of them. So my taste is very eclectic!
Who are your favourite musicians?
My ultimate musical hero is Prince. I think he is the greatest musical genius ever. I’m an unconditional admirer of his in the same way I’m an unconditional admirer of Richard Prince. Maybe it has something to do with the name Prince? I love Radiohead, the group that emerged in the 90s. Today, I love things like Danger Mouse, who is a DJ and producer. He is the one who did a cross between The Beatles white album and Jay Z’s black album, and produced the grey album, which is an illegal album because he never got the rights for it. The mix is brilliant. Then I like Pharrell Williams very much; Timbaland, the producer; and Dr. Dre. In terms of earlier music, obviously The Beatles. I think the Rolling Stones are still today the best show on earth and they are better now. I love Fred Astaiare and tap dance music. I love movie music, people like Alberto Iglesias, who does all the music for Almodóvar. His music is haunting.
Do you have an iPod?
I have one but tragically no iPod is big enough for me since they stopped doing the 160GB model on which you could put 35,000 songs. I had to do something to my computer, so now I have 68,000 songs on my computer and listen direct from there. But I do lots of play lists, which I put on the iPod.
You could have exhibited in any city and at any art space. Why Berlin and why The Corner?
First of all, I love Berlin. I think it’s the city in Europe that has the most energy at the moment. It’s a bit what New York was in the early 80s. Artists from all over the world have converged there, are working there, and a lot of them don’t speak a word of German. But it’s the energy and the fact they have fantastic studios which cost them nothing. It’s a phenomenally young city. I was thinking of dealer friends and gallerists who I could ask the favour of showing my photography. Then I decided I didn’t want to ask anyone a favour and that it’s much better not to do it in a a gallery. I love The Corner, which is a concept store. I like very much the two people who own it, Josef Voelk and Emmanuel de Bayser, who are great guys. The space is beautiful and has a fanatic location on germandamarket with lots of traffic. At the same time I felt it showed I don’t take it too seriously. By putting myself in a gallery I would be putting it on a pedestal. By putting it in a store, I say, “Hey, look at it how you want”.
The Corner, Berlin
October 21 – December 31
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