with Post-War and Contemporary Art Specialist
March 6, 2010
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
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
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
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.
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 –
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
BA: Have you always been curious about what
something is worth?
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
SF: It's very hard.
BA: That's a huge part of your job.
BA: Is that kind of secretive? Like how that
happens or it's –
SF: One way is to look through catalogs.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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].
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
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
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.
BA: That really has a negative impact, right? If
somebody doesn’t come forward to buy it at a
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
BA: Art is now seen more as part of the high net
worth luxury environment.
BA: In London last month a Giacometti sold
breaking the record for any work of art at
auction-- was it $104.3 million?
BA: Is that going to impact this market here in
New York? Do you think there's going to be a
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
BA: Cause I find that the catalog entries are
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.
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.
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,
BA: Let's try 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.
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
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
SF: I love that one.
BA: It was a huge one.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.