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So Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie’s star auctioneer and global president is stepping down next year, after 38 years in the company. He has said he will be working as an independent art advisor.
His last bang of the hammer will be on 7 December in London, where he will preside over Christie’s Old Master paintings sale. And of course, Jussi was the auctioneer for the most expensive painting ever sold, Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (around 1500). Unless you have been on the moon since 2017, you will know it made a stratospheric $450.3m with fees, and went to Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, or Saudi Arabia, or the Saudi culture ministry, or some combination of the above. It has not been seen in public since.
But to get back to Jussi, I have covered many sales as a journalist and have seen him “come a long way” (insiders will recognise the expression) over the years. I recognise his other catch phrases, for example egging on bidders with: “It’s a beautiful thing” or “Thank you for your help,” as someone bows out.
Jussi wasn’t a natural showman, and in his early days as an auctioneer I hope he will forgive me for saying his…er…patience with bidders sometimes led to a few of us muttering sotto voce: “Get on with it, Jussi!”
But that was then, and as I say, he evolved to the successful auctioneer we have seen over the years. Today, as he leaves, he can boast billions of dollars in sales over his time at Christie’s.
But he is not leaving to breed rare sheep or take up paragliding (I invent). No, he is moving on, hopefully, to even bigger bucks. He said himself: “The art market continues to evolve and the extraordinary influx of buyers at the top of the market now offers me a unique opportunity to share my experience with a new generation of collectors who are keen to buy major works of art both privately and at auction.”
His decision reflects the top-heavy state of the market today. While the middle market weakens, there is ever more emphasis on the most expensive works of art. These are by a small group of artists, and indeed very specific works; Brooke Lampley, head of global fine art at Sotheby’s, recently said: “It’s not because one Magritte makes an enormous price, that all Magrittes are suddenly worth that much.”
To take just one example, Sotheby’s sold Magritte’s L’Empire des Lumières (1961), for £59.4m ($79.4m) in March 2022; it had been bought directly from the artist in 1961 and had been in the same collection ever since. But Magritte’s La Voix du Sang (1948), made one-third of that sum, $26.75m, at Christie’s New York in November 2022. And that despite coming from the incredibly storied Paul Allen collection…
Who better to guide the prospective buyer through these and other subtleties of the top end of the market than Jussi Pylkkänen? We all wish him well, and plenty of big bucks, in his new incarnation.