At your service: private sales of contemporary art with Christie’s

Publisher and fashion director Caroline Issa discovers how Christie’s network of specialists, collectors and dealers can help source the works on her wish list of contemporary art

The Canadian publisher, designer and consultant Caroline Issa is one of the world’s most recognisable faces of fashion.

Her eye for style is matched with a head for business: she began her career in the world of finance and, according to a profile of her in the Daily Telegraph, ‘If Chanel made management consultants, they would look like Caroline Issa.’

In 2004, after a fortuitous meeting with its co-founder, she became CEO and fashion director of the London-based cultural magazine TANK. Fast-forward to 2021 and she has launched the online publication Because, designed her own ready-to-wear collection and devised marketing campaigns for the likes of Mulberry and De Beers.

More recently, Issa has been turning her focus on the contemporary art world, applying her instinct for colour, shape and texture to buying pieces at auction.

In the short film above, she discusses her new-found passion with Christie’s vice-chairman of 20th & 21st Century Art, Giovanna Bertazzoni, and explores how the auction house’s private sales service could offer her an alternative route to market.

‘We get to know what your interests are, your passions, and what really makes your heart beat faster’ — Giovanna Bertazzoni, vice-chairman of 20th & 21st Century Art

Issa tells Bertazzoni that she likes to champion female artists and would love to own a piece by the conceptual artist Mona Hatoum, whose work she first discovered many years ago.

‘She was showing in a gallery in Hoxton Square in London,’ says Issa. ‘I remember seeing this larger-than-life cheese grater, and I just loved her approach to these everyday objects.’ She adds that Hatoum — who, like Issa, has roots in Lebanon — is an artist who challenges her to think in new ways.

So how might she be able to acquire a work of hers through private sales?

‘With a series of conversations like this one, we get to know what your interests are, your passions, what really makes your heart beat faster, and why you want to live with a piece,’ explains Bertazzoni.

mona-hatoum-grater-divide-2002-photo-iain-dickens

Mona Hatoum, Grater Divide, 2002. Mild steel. 204 cm x variable width and depth (80¼ in x variable width and depth). © Mona Hatoum. Courtesy White Cube. Photo: Iain Dickens

The outcome is a confidential wish list, which the specialist can call on when she and her network of colleagues see other people’s private collections. The aim is to create a dialogue between the owner and the buyer that results in a discreet deal.

These individually tailored sales can be conducted outside of the seasonal auction calendar; and, because others can’t bid, you know exactly how much you are going to pay.

Bertazzoni says that Hatoum is an interesting example. Because of her rising reputation, owners of her works tend be wary of speculative buyers. ‘They are very worried about where the work — even if they are ready to sell — will end up.’

It’s her job, therefore, to mastermind an exchange that makes both sides happy.

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Christie’s has been conducting private sales since the 18th century, when the company’s founder, James Christie, brokered a deal to sell the collection of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister, to Catherine the Great of Russia. This would later form the core collection of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

In 2020, private sales accounted for a quarter of the auction house’s business, and the appetite for this bespoke approach is growing year on year.

Issa says that the service sounds like a combination of an expert personal shopper and couture fashion.

‘Precisely,’ says Bertazzoni. ‘Now let’s try to find you a Hatoum.’

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