“It took a long time just to brush it out gently with a special gloss so it wouldn’t frizz,” he said. Although he has styled countless wigs, this was a first for him. “The way the hair falls can change the shape of a face, even a sculpture,” he added. “We wanted to make her look like a goddess.”
That a celebrity hairdresser had been called in to the Phillips auction house to style a sculpture did not faze Simon de Pury, the chairman of Phillips. “Philippe is a great personality,” he said, adding that during his years at Christie’s Mr. Ségalot never conformed to the profile of his more staid and often corporate colleagues. “I remember when Christie’s held the Pink Party, Philippe greeted guests wearing a long Pink Panther tail hanging from his jacket,” he said. “The thing about Philippe is that he is actually very professional, but there is always an element of fun in everything he does.”
Ever since the Mercury Group, a Russian retailing giant, bought the controlling stake in the company two years ago, Phillips has been striving to become more creative, holding theme auctions like BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) as a way to capitalize on emerging markets. It is also opening up sleek new salesrooms, first in London and now on Park Avenue. But this auction in particular, Mr. de Pury said, “could be a game changer for us.” Every season it is generally Phillips that trails far behind Sotheby’s and Christie’s both in the amount of art it is able to sell and in the calendar of a relentless week of back-to-back auctions in New York every May and November. But this season it reserved Monday night, kicking off the contemporary art season.
“Phillips is trying to be innovative,” said Adam Lindemann, a New York collector and author of the 2006 book “Collecting Contemporary.” “Philippe has a quick Rolodex and good relationships. He’s going to work it.”
It will also be a sale with significantly higher prices. Since Mr. de Pury, a former chairman of Sotheby’s in Europe, first became involved with Phillips a decade ago, the company has never sold more than about $59 million worth of art in an evening auction. The low estimates for the 33 works Mr. Ségalot has culled for his auction add up to about $80 million.
And while nobody at either Sotheby’s or Christie’s would speak for attribution, saying it was ungentlemanly to badmouth the competition, there is a lot of resentment about Mr. Ségalot sweeping back into the business and amping up the competition in a season when the economy is still shaky. “It’s always easy to do it once,” one auction house expert quipped.
Organizing a sale — convincing collectors to sell their prized artworks, producing the catalog and then finding buyers — in just three months is a nail-biting exercise for any pro and in Mr. Ségalot’s case something he hardly needs to be doing. Operating from small offices in New York and Paris, the French-born Mr. Ségalot, along with his two partners — Franck Giraud, a former director of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department, and Lionel Pissarro, a great-grandson of the artist Camille Pissarro — quietly sell millions of dollars of art every year to many of the world’s richest collectors.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Yet setting challenges for himself is a kind of drug for Mr. Ségalot. “I used to enjoy what I did at Christie’s, and the idea of doing it again, just once more, got me excited,” he said in his heavy French accent and genuine, though relentlessly enthusiastic, manner. “My business today is very private. We don’t talk about our clients or our deals, and this is a way to tell the world what we do.” That Phillips is the underdog in the cutthroat world of auctions was also appealing. “That added to the challenge,” he admitted. “I liked the idea that I could change the picture for this small company.”
Ever the discreet dealer, he refuses to say where the 33 works in his sale are coming from, although rumors are swirling that he got some things directly from artists and others from his usual roster of clients, like Stefan Edlis, the Chicago collector, and Mr. Lindemann. He is even thought to have persuaded François Pinault, owner of Christie’s, to give him an artwork or two to sell.
The sale itself is very much a reflection of Mr. Ségalot’s taste. “I don’t want it to look like an auction but like a private collection,” he said. Mr. Cattelan’s sculpture is one of an edition of three and an artist’s proof. In 2003, before the marriage started to sour, Mr. Brant commissioned the artist to do a work for his vast collection. Looking at all his art trophies — Warhols and Basquiats and Richard Princes — Mr. Cattelan was inspired to create something that embodied Mr. Brant’s trophy wife. But there were strings attached: “I wanted other men to be able to share her,” Mr. Cattelan said; hence the edition of sculptures. Mr. Ségalot estimates that this particular one should fetch $1.5 million to $2 million.
Also for sale will be a careful mix of artists that rarely come to auction, like Robert Morris, Lee Lozano and Mr. Buren, as well as some emerging ones like Matthew Day Jackson. There will also be work by big names like Mr. Murakami, whose “Miss ko2,” one of the Japanese artist’s sculptures of a fantastical waitress (it stands more than eight feet tall) is expected to bring $4 million to $6 million.
But the biggest star of all is “Men in Her Life,” a 1962 Warhol painting based on an image of Elizabeth Taylor when she was between husbands that may sell for around $50 million. Mr. Ségalot pried the Warhol out of the private collection of the Mugrabi family, Manhattan dealers known for their vast holdings of Warhols. “My father was adamantly opposed to selling this painting, but Philippe was so convincing,” said Alberto Mugrabi, referring to his father, Jose. “Philippe can do things nobody else can. He’s crazy, but good crazy.”
Alberto Mugrabi has followed Mr. Ségalot’s career from the beginning. During the five years he spent at Christie’s Mr. Ségalot earned a reputation for getting record prices for artists like Charles Ray, Mr. Murakami, Mr. Koons and Felix Gonzalez-Torres by cleverly promoting them and having an impeccable sense of timing. He was the first to put contemporary furniture by designers like Marc Newson into fine art auctions. In 2000 he enlisted three art students from Bard College to install one of his sales at Christie’s. “I was too close to it,” he recalled. “I wanted young, talented kids to look at the art from a fresh perspective, so I gave them the run of the galleries.”
Since the company Giraud, Pissarro, Ségalot was founded in 2002, Mr. Ségalot has been involved in yet more record-breaking deals. Two years ago the firm pulled off what experts say is the world’s biggest private art transaction, selling $400 million worth of art on behalf of the heirs of the legendary dealer Ileana Sonnabend, to help cover their estate taxes. The dealers are said to have placed works by Mr. Koons, Lichtenstein, Twombly and Warhol in the collections of some of their best clients, among them Mr. Pinault; Sammy Ofer, the Israeli shipping magnate; and Carlos Slim Helú, the Mexican telecommunications billionaire. (Again, Mr. Ségalot refused to discuss these details.)
Nor will Mr. de Pury say who may follow Mr. Ségalot and organize Phillips’s next contemporary art auction. Among the names being bandied about are Sam Keller, the former director of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach who is now director of the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, and even Mr. Brant, who has an art foundation in Greenwich, Conn.
“Everybody will bring something different to it,” said Mr. Ségalot said. Meanwhile, being something of a control freak, he is racing around seeing the catalog off to the printer, following through on last-minute details for the sale and chatting up clients. “I can’t sleep anymore,” he confessed. “I’m too excited.”