He is the man who sold the world’s most expensive work of art, a face familiar to the millions who watch livestream auctions on their computers and phones.
In November 2017, Jussi Pylkkänen, the global president of Christie’s, was on the rostrum in New York to sell Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi.”
The ninth lot of the auction, cannily branded the “Last Leonardo” by a Christie’s marketing campaign, took 19 minutes to sell. After a protracted, gasp-inducing duel between two telephone bidders, Pylkkänen finally knocked the “Salvator Mundi” down for $450.3 million with fees, a record for any artwork, either at auction or privately.
The price obliterated the previous high: $179.4 million for Picasso’s “Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’)” at Christie’s in New York in May 2015. Pylkkänen was on the rostrum for that sale, too.
But now, at 60 and after working at Christie’s in London for 38 years, Pylkkänen is leaving the auction house to become an independent art adviser. His last appearance on the podium will be on Dec. 7, when he will lead Christie’s evening sale of old masters in London.
Pylkkänen is the Finnish-born son of a Helsinki copper trader who moved to England in the 1960s. An education at private school and Oxford University has imbued him with the glossy self-confidence needed to become a top-level auctioneer.
He joined Christie’s print department in the mid 1980s, when the auction house was a British-owned public company. Since 1998, it has been owned by the Artemis Group, founded by the French billionaire art collector and luxury magnate, François Pinault. Bricks-and-mortar branches such as Christie’s South Kensington and Christie’s Amsterdam that sold lower value art and antiques have closed. The “affordable” end of the auction house’s turnover is now dominated by online bidding for luxury goods such as handbags, jewelry and watches.
In an interview held at his fourth-floor office at Christie’s London headquarters, Pylkkänen reflected on a career in an industry that has undergone seismic cultural and technological shifts. These are edited extracts from that conversation.
In terms of career highlights, the “Salvator Mundi” sale must surely be some kind of pinnacle. Were you aware beforehand that it was likely to make such an extraordinary price?
I thought it would make $240 million. I was most confident that a work that had belonged to three kings of England — which is the way I opened the bidding — would create an incredible amount of interest. My difficulty was at $200 million, with people holding up cameras on their phones. Because that looks like a bid.
I had to pause, for two reasons. One, to give the three bidders who were still in the game the opportunity to reassess, because we’d broken the record for any work of art. But also the crowd needed to be managed. I had to politely ask them to put their telephones down so I could make sure if there were any bidders in the room, I could identify them.
My expectation was that this would make a record that would not be broken for many, many years. It will be interesting to see when it will be broken. Because of the nature of these things, it’s most likely to be at auction. And it will be for a Van Gogh, or a Jackson Pollock. It might be for a great old master picture.
Does the fact that the buyer was Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who, according to U.S. security agencies, approved the murder of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, ever give you — or Christie’s — pause for thought?
I don’t comment on the buyers. I’m sorry.
Let’s go back to the beginning. What was it like starting at Christie’s in the mid 1980s?
It was a very English business run by a very astute, but very patriarchal group of directors. It wasn’t an “international” firm. We’d only opened in America in 1976. Then, in 1987, we sold Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Everyone had a £500 bonus, and that was very meaningful.
How pivotal a change for Christie’s — and for the art world — was the acquisition by François Pinault’s Artemis Group?
He changed our business. Pinault is an art collector, and that made the difference. He understood Christie’s. He’s always been very ambitious for us to enlarge our footprint. The biggest change was when we opened in the Middle East in 2005, and then in Asia in 2012. I was president of Christie’s Europe when we opened those businesses, and have witnessed this rise in global interest. The major works of art that we sell now are dispersed in a way they weren’t in 1987.
How important has the role of luxury goods, as a sales category, become at Christie’s?
Luxury is the single biggest entry point for our new buyers. The majority of our collectors buy in four or five different fields. They might buy in luxury, but they might also look at 21st-century pictures.
To what extent has the wealthy buying luxury items replaced the middle-class collecting lower priced art and antiques?
Luxury is just a different entry point. Everybody buys jewelry, everybody buys watches, people are interested in collectors’ sneakers. It’s a lower price entry point for people who want to buy objects of value. That is now impacting the way people buy major artworks. They can do the same with a Picasso, or a Cézanne, or a de Kooning.
Location of sales is less important than it used to be, even five years ago. The buyers are very happy to buy wherever the object comes up. They send their agents, or they look online, or we give them a condition report, or they travel in person. Where the objects are is immaterial.
In your earlier years on the rostrum, it’s fair to say that not everyone in the art trade was impressed by your unhurried auctioneering style. How have your techniques as an auctioneer evolved?
In my early days, I was just serving the vendor, making sure the maximum prices were achieved, and was worried about making mistakes. It takes five to seven years for any auctioneer to feel comfortable. My style is much quicker now. You’ve got to be able to judge pace and get it right. Poise is important. If you have issues or something is unsold you have to focus on the next lot. Preparation is important. Panache is important too. It’s all the Ps.
Your sales are watched by millions online. They have become a form of popular entertainment. But to what extent does the voyeuristic spectacle of the ultrarich spending millions at auctions create the impression that art collecting is something that only the very wealthy do?
It’s a reality of the top end of the market. You have to be very wealthy to be able to buy these works. The major evening sales are very, very special events. Not everyone can play for Barcelona, but you can attend and you can watch. A lot of people come to the view. There is no entrance fee to come to our events — 80,000 came to view the Rockefeller sale in New York.
What are your thoughts on the transition from public-facing auctioneer to private art adviser. Why are you doing it now?
We live in a globalized world in which the number of buyers buying objects over $1 million has risen very, very quickly in the past decade. There’s incredible interest among the wealthy to acquire major works of art and art advisory has become a really significant part of the art market. That’s why I’m joining it.
When I first joined Christie’s, my father said to me, “I’ll give you £10,000 in two years’ time. After you’ve seen the full panorama of the art world through the lens of Christie’s, you’ll be in a position to start your own business.” I never left. But I’m leaving now, and doing exactly what he planned for me to do.
Aren’t you going to miss the limelight?
I’ve enjoyed being an auctioneer. I look back on my years at Christie’s taking those auctions with great joy. I’ve had some amazing moments. Now I look forward to being in the audience buying major works of art for great collectors or institutions. I’ll still be in the stadium.