Interview with

»Not every artist can sell themselves.
I find it hard to fathom the art market without galleries.«
– Cheyenne Westphal

»Not every artist can
sell themselves. I find it hard
to fathom the art market
without galleries.«
– Cheyenne Westphal

© Image Tom Jamieson

She is one of the best-known names on the international auction scene: Birte Cheyenne Westphal. Raised in Baden-Baden, she began her career in 1990 in the basement of Sotheby’s, and went on to become their Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art. Since 2017, “the most powerful woman in contemporary art,” according to Forbes, has been the chairwoman of Phillips Auction House. For his podcast series Was mit Kunst, Johann König spoke with Westphal about her career, her most spectacular auction, and how the art market has changed in recent decades.

Johann König: Cheyenne, your title is Global Chairwoman of Phillips. Phillips is the third largest auction house in the world. How does one even become Global Chairwoman?

Cheyenne Westphal: Of course, it didn’t happen overnight. I got my foot in the door in the traditional way, as a junior specialist, as we call it. And I like to say this: I started in the basement. At Sotheby’s, my first workplace, we were trained in the basement, where the art was stored. That’s where we cataloged, that’s where we looked closely at the works. It was a real education in the 1990s, and I enjoyed it. In the beginning, it was just about cataloging pictures, classifying them, and then of course evaluating them, evaluating objects. And gradually building up contact with clients. These are the elements that are essential to working at an auction house; you have to have a broad and deep knowledge. Assessing art, both in terms of art history, but also, of course, in terms of the market. And that you build up a good client network that expands over the years. It’s only after that that you can begin doing good business, acquiring wonderful consignments of important works which you can then place back into important collections. Thank goodness I was given a lot of responsibility early on in my career. I took over directing Sotheby’s Europe back in 1999. I was just over thirty at the time, so I was given the time needed to grow with the art market. An uncanny amount has happened in the last twenty years.

JK: If we go back to the early 1990s, how can we begin to imagine it? Did they still work with index cards and Ektachrome transparencies, or did they already use computer databases?  

CW: Oh no: everything was still done with index cards. After the auctions took place, the cataloged works were cut out by hand and pasted onto index cards. They were then organized by color. Christie’s London was pink, Sotheby’s New York was yellow. I can probably still remember all the colors. I believe, Phillips was green. And they were sorted by year and artist. That order was very important. That’s also where we learned how to price works. You had to go to these index cards first and then choose the ones that were related to the work you wanted to classify. It was a way of getting information that, at least for me, is quasi-etched into the brain. It’s certainly very different from the way it’s done today with Artnet.

JK: And how were the results of the local auction houses handled? Were they scanned in as well?

CW: They were hardly scanned.

JK: That’s so interesting, Hans Neuendorf also told me that. In New York at that time, you could be in the same building and find comparable works trading at different prices. He called them “elevator dealers”: they went up and down to find a small de Kooning from a series comparable to another small one from the same series. And in one gallery it would have cost 50 percent more than in the other. You then negotiated between the dealers based on your knowledge of the price differences —because there was no transparency at all. 

CW: We saw that at the time, too. There were many dealers who bought locally, in Germany or in France. And then the art was resold internationally at a profit. And, of course, there were also dealers who bought from us and profited from the lack of transparency, who then offered the works at fairs.

JK: Lets go back in time: how did you end up at Sotheby’s London? You’re originally from Germany.

CW: I grew up in Baden-Baden. And I had no idea, like many other 18-year-olds, what I really wanted to do. And then, I accidentally had a conversation. My father is a pharmacist and he had a customer whose daughter was studying the history of the Middle Ages in St. Andrews. She was excited about it and would brag about it to my father repeatedly. One day, my father simply asked me to come and have a coffee with her. I liked what she said, and foremost, I was happy to be able to delay deciding what to do. So I went to Scotland. Later, I was extremely fortunate in landing a scholarship. I moved on to UC Berkeley, California. It was there that I had the possibility of studying contemporary art.

JK: That’s rather rare, no? At university, art history usually ends with Duchamp.

CW: Exactly. And that’s exactly how it was in Scotland. But at Berkeley, there was a continuum. The very first lecture was about Cindy Sherman. I had no idea what it all meant. But it was so exciting. It was such a moment, like wow, I have no idea what this is. But that’s what I wanted to do, that’s what I wanted to be a part of. And then came the question of how and where. I didn’t know London myself. But most of my schoolmates from Scotland were going down to London. To the city center. And the auction houses were there. I just applied to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I didn’t get very far at Christie’s. But at Sotheby’s, everything went smoothly. I got into a graduate trainee program that was highly competitive.

JK: And was it obvious to you that you’d end up working in the art market and not in the museum or studying at university?

CW: It wasn’t so obvious, I believe. It was more about finding a job.

JK: That had something to do with art.

CW: That had something to do with art, exactly. Finding something in the art trade was not so easy. At that time there were relatively few galleries in London; there wasn’t a lot of big dealing going on in the city. All of that came a few years later. The business of an art auction wasn’t something I was familiar with at all. I had never even been to an auction.

JK: And now you’re the head of Phillips, an auction house that’s famous for its innovativeness, and often the ones who bring young artists onto the market. I think it was the team at Phillips that first brought Neo Rauch onto the market, selling his work. Phillips also stands for the secondary market for a lot of young contemporary artists.

CW: That’s right.

JK: And when we look back to the more recent auctions, that’s where we see the real energy. Beforehand there was rarely a work on auction that was younger than ten years old, right?

CW: Yes. We even had a firm rule that if a work was from a living artist, it had to be made more than ten years ago before we could put it up for auction. It was all quite different. In retrospect, I was lucky to have had my start at exactly the right moment, in the fall of 1990, when the art world went into a huge crisis. It came to an absolute collapse after there were these huge prices around 1989 for van Gogh: The Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for over 80 million USD. And then really, for a while, nothing was happening. At the end of the 1990s, everything started to change. We had an auction in New York that was a breakthrough. It was a charity auction, and that’s when Robert Gober, Matthew Barney, and Kiki Smith came up for auction for the first time. I think it was in 1997. And through that, there was a window to developing the market in a completely new way. We held the first evening auction in London in 1996 with a work by Gerhard Richter. That hadn’t happened before yet either, but there were these rather unimportant small daily auctions in London. On the cover was Gerhard Richter’s Frau Niepenberg; on the back was a work by Robert Gober. It was one of those moments where we said, okay, now things are heading in a different direction. Now we can really be part of building a market as well — which was very exciting.

JK: And how should one imagine it? Where did the things come from? How did the works come to auction at all?

CW: Actually, only a relatively small part still comes from dealing. Most of the works are submitted privately. At that time, most of the works had been bought very early, and had been in collections for a long time, and then came on the market. Probably because of some big development in the price. Especially in Germany, often enough it was a case of “Oh, I bought that early from Schmela [Galerie Schmela in Düsseldorf],” and at some point, these works that you had bought from Schmela were really worth something. Of course, we were then able to get many works, because we said, now this Yves Klein or this Antoni Tàpies or this Richter is at a completely different price level. And it came to a sale. Today it is more often the case that things happen quickly. People buy and collect at art fairs, through galleries. After a few years, they decide, “Well, I’ll sell this and buy something new for it.”

JK: There’s a funny formula, I remember: death, divorce, disaster, and…

CW: Death, divorce, debt.

JK: Exactly, debt.

CW: Yes, and that still exists. Especially in America where most of the big collections are put up for auction. Those are the so-called estate sales —and they’re still a huge part of the business. In Europe, it’s not quite like that. Much is held onto or donated or stays in the family.

JK: And so you were a part of this change of paradigms while you were at Sotheby’s. At what point did you change over? Or rather, what happened next?

CW: I had a wonderful time at Sotheby’s. Especially the massive auction where Damien Hirst put over 200 of his own works up for auction in 2008. I had already worked with Damien for a long time, since 2004, in fact. There was this idea that we’d do an auction where everyone could sell anything, that we’d sell works straight out of the studio. Damien liked to do everything in grand style, and this auction just kept growing. In the end, there were 220 lots which took up the entire building. And I do mean entire. There was nothing there that was not touched by the hand of Damien: from the walls to the floors and even the catalogs. And the auction took place on the same day back in September 2008 that Lehman Brothers announced bankruptcy, the worldwide bank crisis. I walked into the main entrance that morning to be greeted by a reporter who accosted me with, “How does it feel to bring down the entire art world today?” When the auction started, with the first four lots we were still shaky. And then it really took off and it was unstoppable. We went over the 200 million USD point. It was a decisive moment for everyone. Especially considering that the art market collapsed again right afterwards. It was like a giant wave that refuses to break, just before everything went downhill for a really long time.

JK: It was crazy. It made headlines across the world. There wasn’t a single regional newspaper that didn’t report on it.

CW: At the moment, we’re at the point of redefining everything again. And we’re experimenting, each and every one of us, which is incredibly exciting. We have yet to see if catalogs will still exist in the next year or the next two years. And furthermore: there are no more seasons; up until very recently, the seasons were set in stone. Back then the worth of an artist’s work was defined by exhibitions, by presentations and conversations in private collections, or by the artists being represented at the important biennales or at documenta. Today success can happen quite fast over social media channels. I think it’s important that we remain on the front lines — even ahead of the times.

JK: Do you think that galleries will become obsolete at some point?

CW: Quite honestly, I don’t think so, because a market without galleries would be extremely hard on the artists. One can also do all the work of representing oneself, of course, and it can lead to overnight success — but for the most part, it can lead to overnight failure. Not every artist can sell themselves. I find it hard to fathom the art market without galleries.