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Once called “Sotheby’s secret weapon” by Harper’s Bazaar, expert Cheyenne Westphal took the art world by surprise this year when she announced (along with many others) she was leaving her prestigious position of worldwide head of contemporary art at Sotheby’s to become chairwoman of Phillips. During this pivotal London fall art season, Whitewaller had to ask this high profile deal-maker about her transition, art cravings, and sales tactics.
WHITEWALLER: What do you think distinguishes Phillips from other auction houses?
CHEYENNE WESTPHAL: Phillips has taken a dynamic approach to the contemporary art market that allows it to stand apart from other auction houses. It has also taken a strong hold over the middle market by actively engaging emerging collectors
with works by artists who are new to the secondary market, often with more approachable prices. Even though Phillips offers works by blue-chip artists and art from earlier in the 20th century, its focus on contemporary art has allowed it to carefully build sales that appeal to more than a small group of mega collectors.
WW: You have organized some of the most prized and unexpected sales in the past decade, such as Damien Hirst’s “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” in 2008, and the sale of Count Christian Düerckheim’s ’60s and ’70s German art collection in 2011. What is your recipe, so to speak, for a truly compelling contemporary sale?
CW: It’s a privilege to be entrusted by a collector to sell their art. It’s critical to source incredible material to build a sale around— and then tell the story of the collection and collector leading up to the auction. A great auction needs good balance and rhythm.
It’s best to begin with a “fire cracker” start and highly desirable, well-priced lots in the beginning. Often, an auction begins with work by young artists that are very difficult to buy in the primary market and have strong potential to exceed their estimates.
This builds up momentum leading up to the important, high value work.
WW: Do you have your eye on specific works to watch out for at upcoming sales?
CW: I always keep a close eye on Phillips’ design sales in the fall. In particular, I’m fascinated by its Nordic Design sale in London. I love Scandinavian furniture from the 1960s, and I’m on the hunt for a dining table.
WW: How did your career in the art market get started?
CW: I had a breakthrough moment during my first lecture on contemporary art at UC Berkeley, where I studied under Professor Anne Wagner. One of the first slides she showed was a Film Still by Cindy Sherman and I was blown away. At that moment I knew I wanted to be in contemporary art. As soon as I graduated, I applied to Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I got a job as a graduate trainee at Sotheby’s but kept knocking on the door of the contemporary department until I eventually wore them down and got a job.
WW: Do you think Brexit will have an impact on London’s auction market?
CW: It’s important to remember that the 21st century art market is a global industry, bringing together buyers and sellers from all corners of the world.
WW: What are you looking forward to seeing at this year’s edition of Frieze London?
CW: I love Frieze and PAD for design. This year, however, I’m most excited about a new section, “The Nineties,” which will be selected by curator Nicolas Trembley. Galleries will revisit exhibitions from the 1990s and examine the lasting impact on contemporary art. I find this fascinating, as these were my early years in the art market and an exciting time.
To read more about Frieze London 2016, pick up the latest copy of Whitewaller in London this week.