A Conversation with Post-War and Contemporary Art Specialist Sara Friedlander
Saturday, March 6, 2010

By Brian Appel


BRIAN APPEL: How long have you been working at Christie's?

SARA FRIEDLANDER: I started in October of 2006—about 3 ½ years.

BA: I wanted to ask you how you got into the auction business. What was your history in terms of school?

SF: I did my undergrad at Brandeis University. I studied art history because I liked the classes so much. I found them the most comprehensive. I was doing sociology for a while, but it became too political. And then I was doing creative writing but it became too literary. There was something about art that really engaged me because it was so multifaceted.

BA: This is 2000?

SF: At Brandeis. My B.A. My undergrad. And I started working at the Rose Art Museum, which is a part of Brandeis University.

So I was working at the Rose and taking art history classes. When I graduated I decided that I really wanted to stay in school. I wanted to continue looking at art but actually look at art, because in undergrad all you do is look at slides. So you never actually see anything.

BA: Did you grow up in a home where people were very art-conscious?

SF: My parents are rabbis. I grew up around objects, not of great worth, but of a sense that collecting was a noble endeavor. And that you should surround yourself with things that you love that are beautiful—that can contribute to your life. So my parents actually collected a lot of early 20th century American ceramics. Pottery. And my dad had a sort of 1920s and 1930s and 1940s photography collection. They would buy things here and there.

And then after college, I did a master's at the Sotheby's Institute in London. In Fine and Decorative arts. So I studied furniture, ceramics and paintings. And it was two years. Very academic.

BA: How did you like London?

SF: I loved being in London and I loved the academics of it, and the Sotheby’s Institute of Art is a fantastic program, but if I never see another arts and crafts stool it will be fine with me. What I did learn was how to approach an object and what it means to look at something. Really look at something.

BA: What does that mean exactly?

SF: How to learn to look at something. Well, from a very –

BA: Connoisseurship.

SF: Yes. Absolutely. Completely connoisseurship. From a very basic perspective. The first thing is materials and techniques. So what are you looking at? What are you dealing with? Who's the artist? Where does it come from? When was it made? What's it made of.

BA: As opposed to leaping to judgment.

SF: Exactly. And then certainly where does it come from? Provenance. Exhibition history. Where does it fit into the artist's oeuvre? Is it a later piece, an early piece? Is it iconic for the artist? Is it more obscure for him, her? And then condition. Is it in good shape, is it in bad shape? And then what's it worth? What would someone pay for it? And how do you decide that, and who knows that and how do you research that? So I spent a lot of time doing that and I –

BA: So you're taking the market value and you're connecting it with the aesthetics.

SF: Exactly. It's where connoisseurship meets the market.

BA: Have you always been curious about what something is worth?

SF: No.

BA: When did that come into play?

SF: In grad school. Because the institution is affiliated with the auction house, not only do you work with professors, but many of your professors have been in the auction business before. So you can't escape it.

BA: Right.

SF: What was amazing for me, and even though I wasn't so interested in knowing what the value of a repro Ming Dynasty vase was, was that you could really apply a very, academic knowledge about a piece of art and a market value to it.

BA: Kind of like erasing the boundaries between aesthetics and the market.

SF: Yes.

BA: How it fits into the culture, because the money aspect is so connected to how people value things aesthetically, right? There's a real strong connection.

SF: That's why I have a job.

So I ended up writing my dissertation on Late 19th, early 20th Century Periodical British Illustration. Poring over the British library archives in God knows where and looking at magazine pictures which have no market value, by the way. And I got really restless. And I have always loved contemporary art.

So I applied for a job as an administrator at Christie's. And I told them what I liked and I told them what I didn't like, which is just as important, and I landed a job in the Post-War and Contemporary Department as an administrator. That's where I started.

BA: And how did you segué into becoming a specialist?

SF: I took a job as an administrator so that I could learn everything I could about the business—because you cannot learn about a business unless you're in a business. So I learned what a contract is. What it means to insure a painting. How to ship a painting, how to photograph a painting, how to talk to a consigner on the telephone, the whole ins and outs of the auction business. And I learned working on this mid-season sale. This “First Open” sale [March 11, 2010 at Rockefeller Center, N.Y.].

BA: Experience alone rules in this area.

SF: And it was great because it just gave me an opportunity to do so many other things. So during the main season when there was a sale of the collection of Allan Stone, I stepped up and I, in addition to administrating that sale, began cataloging some of those works of art, which I had learned to do in grad school.

And then when my colleague, Lock Kresler left to work in the London office there was a position open. Lock now runs the afternoon sale in London.

BA: I see.

SF: So he left and I stepped into his place.

BA: How did that happen? You asked to do that?

SF: Oh yeah, I pushed for it. You have to push for everything in this business. No one's going to give you anything. And for a while I was doing both. I was cataloging.

BA: What exactly is cataloging?

SF: Cataloging is the most important part of the art business. It helps collectors, buyers and bidders know what they are bidding on. To catalog is to record something, so you are making a note, a text about the piece. So that means measuring it and all those things before that I talked about. Research, exhibition history, provenance, often talking to—if the artist is still alive—the artist or the gallery that deals with the artist or the foundation or estate that represents the artist. Expertise. Because I know a little bit about a lot. I don't know a lot about a little bit. And there are people who—their entire life is Sam Francis or Richard Diebenkorn.

BA: As a colleague recently told me, the scholarship, research and writing are among the principal tools of the auction house specialist.

SF: Yes. My relationship with those art professionals are extremely important. And then you put all of that information into a system and it's recorded forever. I'm writing art history. Sort of an amazing thing.

BA: When you say put into—are you talking about the computer system?

SF: Yes. And from cataloging you really learn because you see everything. What's good, what's not so good, maybe it's been up at auction before, what it sold for at auction, what it didn't sell for at auction.

BA: Whereas if you're working in the primary market you'd be concerned with just that one group of artists –

SF: [Interposing] Right.

BA: - that they represent, whereas here you're fielding –

SF: Everything.

BA: Isn't it overwhelming?

SF: I work all the time—especially during deadline. It's endless, but it's a privilege.

BA: Absolutely. How does your own sensibility--in terms of what you like and dislike personally factor in all of this?

SF: If people ask me I'll be very upfront. But it's not about me it’s about the object, and the artist and the market and where the particular work fits in.

BA: Are you dealing with the actual consigner?

SF: Yes. .

BA: How do you hook up with a consigner? Do they contact you or do you contact them?

SF: Well, sometimes they contact us, but a lot of my job is going after business—and looking for people who have great things.

BA: And how do you find out which people have great things?

SF: It's very hard.

BA: That's a huge part of your job.

SF: Yes.

BA: Is that kind of secretive? Like how that happens or it's –

SF: One way is to look through catalogs.

BA: Provenance.

SF: Provenance. Exactly.

BA: So a big part of your job is to create relationships with collectors and—what's the word I'm looking for? You're not pressuring them at all.

SF: No, I'm guiding them and answering them. I make myself completely available. So even if somebody's looking at something at Sotheby's I go and I look at it and I look at the condition. I think every good specialist does this.

BA: Go to all the different auction houses—their previews?

SF: And primary dealers. I've been running around the Armory and the ADAA all week. You have to. Sure, there'll be a one-off client who I work with on one painting, but my best clients are those that buy and sell constantly.

BA: Repeat business.

SF: And who look to me for advice and knowledge about the market and about artists.

BA: Is that what most collectors do? They buy and sell by themselves?

SF: Depends on who they are. Some people are buyers, some people are sellers, some people do both.

BA: How do you come up with—I mean, in the catalog it has a low and high estimate, which is really important because it functions as a guide for potential buyers. And then there's the secret….

SF: Reserve.

BA: The secret reserve. Can you talk about how you are able to estimate its value and also how you come up with a secret reserve?

SF: There are always three kinds of estimates. There's the estimate the auction house wants, there's the estimate that the client-consigner wants, and there's the estimate that the buyer wants.

Our strategy at Christie’s is to provide conservative estimates in order to attract the greatest depth of bidding in the room, on the phone and through Christie’s Live.

The consigner would like the estimate higher than we advise because legally the reserve cannot exceed the low-end of the auction estimate. So if I think a piece is going to sell better at $80,000 because psychologically $80,000 feels better than $100,000, but a consigner doesn't want to be out $20,000. That's where you have to have a discussion about what the best estimate is going to be.

And we base that off of what things have sold for recently, not only in the secondary market, but in the primary market too.

BA: So the more history that a piece has, the easier it is to come up with those prices.

SF: There's not one market. Every artist has his or her own art market. So when we talk about the art market it’s important to recognize every artist has their own results—and they change and they fluctuate based on different moments in the world.

BA: The specificity of each artist..

SF: Look, we could talk right now about the art market for Damien Hirst and we could talk about the art market for Susan Rothenberg. They're going to be two very separate conversations. And that's true of every artist.

BA: Each artist has its own formula--a little science and a little magic.

SF: Totally.

That's why it's so frustrating. In the press everything is, the art market, the art world, but it's not true. One has to think about an artist as a living breathing person who, whether they're making art for ten years or making art for 80 years, they’ve had a career of some sort. And different works have sold at different times to different people.

BA: Right. Right.

SF: We have a very interesting exhibition right now at Haunch of Venison. Which you should check out after this [“Your History Is Not Our History”; 5 March-1 May].

BA: Definitely.

SF: It is so interesting to see these artists who, in the 1980s were really hot and then they sort of faded although some of them have been doing extremely well recently. And what's amazing about the Haunch show is that they relate them to each other. .

BA: Julian Schnabel and the New York Neo-Expressionists…

SF: Malcolm Morley. Eric Fischl, Richard Prince, David Salle –

BA: Is there a Basquiat?

SF: Yes. Basquiat. Early Jeff Koons.

BA: Right. The basketball. The floating basketball…

SF: Not the “Equilibrium”, but the bronze life jacket. And the Hoover vacuum cleaners which I’m sort of obsessed with.

BA: Okay. And Haunch of Venison is one of their anchors in the primary market?

SF: I think the relationship between Christie’s and Haunch of Venison is ultimately, a very smart move because in addition to representing a very interesting roster of artists and holding very scholarly exhibitions—HOV just exhibited a retrospective of Tom Wesselmann works on paper and steel-cut drawings—which the artist himself, before his death, had actually curated and now we have this show curated by Richard Phillips and David Salle, the artists.

They also have a whole other sort of client service sector to offer to our clients. This offers all sorts of advantages to those who would rather sell privately and it’s become a very successful part of our business.

BA: And if nothing happens the art piece itself hasn't got the kibosh on it - - and really impacts it negatively.

SF: Correct.

BA: That really has a negative impact, right? If somebody doesn’t come forward to buy it at a public auction…

SF: I don't think so. Just look at catalogs from the 1990s and even ten years ago, less than ten years ago. The pieces that passed—amazing works by Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein—things didn't sell for one reason or another. They ‘burned’. Would I know twenty collectors who would pay top dollar for them now? Yes. So –

BA: What does ‘burned’ mean?

SF: Well, that's what you just said—the kibosh—‘burned’ at auction.

BA: I see. Okay.
An associate was looking at some really old art magazines from the 1970s and 90% of those names that were ‘hot’ at that time no longer exist.

SF: Ninety percent? Really, you think?

BA: Right. And you realize how very few artists continue to build a body of work and go on to create art history...

SF: Yes. But that's going to increase because there are more artists making art right now than there ever have been before.

BA: Why do you think that is?

SF: Well, I think a lot of it comes from the “me” generation. You know, people believing that they can do anything, they can be anything, which was not true in my parents' generation. Technology has made it easier for artists to promote their work and for collectors to become more educated. If you go on Christies.com, for example you can zoom in alternative views of objects, see what has sold, read condition reports…

BA: Art is now seen more as part of the high net worth luxury environment.

SF: Correct.

BA: In London last month a Giacometti sold breaking the record for any work of art at auction-- was it $104.3 million?

SF: Right.

BA: Is that going to impact this market here in New York? Do you think there's going to be a trickle-down effect?

SF: It was a very good sign for the market that there were people out there who were willing to spend that kind of money on a work of art. I mean, it brings a certain stake in confidence into the market..

BA: What about the catalog entries? Do you participate in writing the entries?

SF: We have an entire team, some people in London and some people in New York who write the essays.

BA: Really?

SF: Yes.

BA: Cause I find that the catalog entries are superlative.

SF: Oh, well thank you.

BA: They really are.

SF: Oh, that's good to hear.

BA: And a lot of it is original. And how does that happen? I mean, how do you best sell an artwork with text?

SF: You don't. You don't is the real answer. I think having text in a catalog— to a seasoned collector makes no difference. They're going to buy it based on if they like it.

BA: We were talking earlier about connoisseurship and you pointed out that when you were in school you were seeing everything through slides. But when you started working at Christie's you were actually looking at them live and in the flesh. Maybe it's an obvious question, but how does that difference affect your connoisseurship skills? Most people look at art through reproduction because the majority of people don't live in New York or L.A. or London.

SF: Right.

BA: I remember when I was growing up there was a lot of buzz about Andy Warhol, but I had never seen an Andy Warhol until I was 22 years of age because I grew up in Winnipeg [Canada]. Nobody got to see Andy Warhol in Winnipeg. And my whole experience of Andy Warhol was looking at him through reproduction. And then when I actually saw an Andy Warhol--it totally reinvented how I felt about the artist.

SF: And what's so interesting right now with everything being online, you know, all of our sales are online.

BA: Right.

SF: You know, some people buy things without even seeing them in person.

BA: Seems crazy.

SF: Dealers, collectors, auction houses, we’re all online. Though it's hard to price a work of art without seeing it in person. And often when we're given works of art to price as Jpegs I will, nine times out of ten want to see it in person. You know, you have to—especially if it's of great value. You can't price a Rothko from a computer.

BA: So true. Who are your favorite artists?

SF: Oh, impossible question. Living, dead, male, female?

BA: Let's try living.

SF: Living.

BA: And male or female.

SF: Living male or a female.

BA: If money was not an object and availability was not an issue what would you like to have in your living room right now?

SF: I love Malcolm Morley. He's an artist that is represented by Sperone Westwater in New York. An artist who has been painting and exploring the possibility of paint and sculpture since the late fifties. An artist who was sort of loosely grouped with the photorealist school and has come on to do really amazing things.

BA: Who else? Living.

SF: Living.

BA: What about female?

SF: Well, as a woman studies major I am a huge believer in female artists and think overall they are tremendously undervalued in the marketplace.

I love many of the women of the “Pictures Generation” school. Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Barbara Kruger, Louise Lawler. I would love a Louise Lawler.

BA: I know - - Kruger and - - .

SF: She’s featured on our back cover [on the “First Open” catalog]. There's also a wonderful piece in the show at Haunch of Venison. She's been doing really well lately. I love Barbara Kruger's work. I love Sherrie Levine's work. If I could have a Cindy Sherman film still I would like sell my body and soul. I think she is one of the most amazing artists-

BA: I saw Sherman’s “Untitled (Film Still #50)”— the one where she's sitting on a couch with that leopard trim outfit and the African art in the background.

SF: I love that one.

BA: It was a huge one.

SF: Indeed.

BA: Did you see it at the –

SF: She—at the fair [Armory]. Yes. They actually bought it from us.

BA: Are you kidding?

SF: No. That's the largest size that Cindy ever did.

BA: And that's in an edition of three, right?

SF: Yes. She started with the 8 by 10s which was the original film still size.

BA: Right.

SF: So that's the size I'd want the most because that's the-

BA: The authentic original...

SF: The authentic one--

BA: And there's ten in that edition.

SF: In that edition. Then she did the 30 by 40s size because people wanted them bigger.

BA: Right.

SF: Her contribution to photography, to conceptual art, to performance art, I mean, she's in a league of her own.

BA: Absolutely. As R. Prince would say: “The best of my generation”.

SF: And the “Pictures Generation” at the Metropolitan Museum—did you see that show?

BA: I did.

SF: Brilliant show. .

BA: Has there been an artist you initially fell in love with and then over time and repeated viewings found not as interesting, and, conversely, has there been an artist you didn’t have strong feelings for and then grew to love?

SF: Sure. Though I've always been definite in my tastes.

BA: Do you collect yourself?

SF: I've been really interested in outsider art lately. Robert Manley, who you know--

BA: Hey, a friend.

SF: … took me to the Outsider Art Fair. So that was my most recent purchase —a Lee Godie—who was a homeless woman making art in Chicago. And she was fascinated by the well-to-do and would sort of troll department stores and fancy places in Chicago and would sell her work on the steps of the Art Institute. And depending on how she was feeling one day, she would either sell you a painting for five dollars or ask for $20,000.

BA: Oh, I was going to ask you, are there any particular books that you've read on art that have really been of great interest?

SF: Michael Crichton wrote the first catalog of Jasper Johns work which I'm reading right now,

BA: Isn't he a fiction writer?

SF: Absolutely. He wrote “Jurassic Park” and “E.R”. But he was a great friend of Johns’ who asked him to write the catalog for his Whitney exhibition in the late 1970s.

Marcia Tucker wrote a memoir called “A Short Life Of Trouble: Forty Years In The Art World”. She was the first female curator at the Whitney and the founder of The New Museum which is now on Bowery. That’s a really interesting portrait of the art world in the 1960s and 1970s. And there's a biography on Basquiat by Phoebe Hoban—it's called “Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art” and a really interesting portrayal of the art scene in the 1980s.

I read a lot. You have to read all the time. I read Jerry Saltz and of course Roberta Smith.

BA: Did you know they’re husband and wife?

SF: Of course! How I’d love to be a fly on the wall in their living room.

[End transcript]


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