Showman in the salesman
Simon de Pury has several titles. The first is baron, although he prefers not to use it. The second is chairman of auction house Phillips de Pury. The third is 'mentor' on the US reality show Work of Art: The Next Great Artist, which aims to do for aspiring artists what Project Runway does for aspiring fashion designers, that is, oblige them to jump through a variety of hoops in a quest for fame.
The fourth is The Man with the Golden Gavel, which was the title of a BBC series last year in which he was shadowed in his role as auctioneer. In one scene, he sold a variety of plastic objects, including a two-metre vagina. ('Touched by the baron these plastic figures become art,' the voiceover remarked.)
And his fifth title, beloved of headline writers, is the Mick Jagger of the auction world. De Pury will be in town this week for the Hong Kong International Art Fair and will speak at Friday's Intelligence Squared Asia debate in favour of the motion 'Art Must Be Beautiful'. However, you won't see any singing or prancing from the suit-clad baron, who turns 60 in November; the Jagger comparison is based on his energy and enthusiasm.
'I feel very flattered to be compared to him,' says de Pury, speaking on the phone from New York. 'He's the ultimate showman and every time I see him, he gets better and better. So...' And he laughs, pleasantly. He is as famous for his charm (guanxi being more crucial in the auction business than gavels, golden or otherwise) as for the impressive sweep of his taste. Indeed, judging by those whom he considers great artists - Tupac Shakur, Steve Jobs, Jeff Koons - you have to ask where his boundaries lie. Forget beauty: what's his definition of ugliness?
There's a little intercontinental pause. 'That's a good question. Maybe I'll know the answer by the time of the debate. But there can be beauty in ugliness. It doesn't have to be pretty to be beautiful - in the same way music doesn't have to be syrupy to be beautiful, it's a mixture of sugar, salt and pepper. Beauty is a very subjective emotion.'
De Pury's subjective response, however, carries rather more weight than most. His enthusiasm shapes what clients want to buy: what he feels viscerally has commercial repercussions. He has, for example, championed American artist Richard Prince. Early in his career, Prince's works sold for US$30,000 to US$70,000; now they can fetch a regal US$10 million at auction. Who wouldn't want a mentor like that?
Given such power, one wonders who mentors the mentor. Phillips de Pury is planning an inaugural sale in Hong Kong (date, venue and content yet to be announced). The Swiss-born de Pury is no stranger to Asia - as a young man, he studied art in Tokyo - but given the glut of (let's be frank) derivative dross that's emerging from the mainland, how can he decide what's any good? How does he train his eye to appreciate Chinese contemporary art?
'The key is to look as much as possible, as I do with art in any part of the world, to see what moves you, what stirs your emotion,' he says. 'After a while, some stick out and you see them in an international context.'
You can't doubt his passion and his determination to remove the elitist image of auction houses, even if his point of view remains unabashedly capitalist.
'There's something quite democratic about an auction,' he muses at one point, 'because whoever pays the best price gets it.' Is that true democracy? The baron has the good grace to laugh. 'Well, you cannot choose who will be the purchaser at an auction.'
He enjoys visiting the studios of emerging artists whom he wishes to introduce at auction. 'In that sense, The Next Great Artist is completely in keeping with what I do. I have great admiration for these young artists, who normally have to create in isolation, but are being filmed continuously.'
Whether this is the way to uncover stellar creativity is surely a matter for another debate; it's hard to imagine, say, the untelevisual Vincent van Gogh making it through early casting sessions. (De Pury, good-naturedly amused by this comment, suggests there should be a version of the show that features artists from history. There's a sense of his mobile mind responding to any stimulation; perhaps this is why he also enjoys being a DJ at parties.)
'But life is a competition,' he continues. 'The people watching that programme understand what it is to judge or create a work of art, in a playful and fun way.'
His own understanding was honed after years at Sotheby's and a period as curator to another baron, Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose art collection was once the second-largest in the world, after the British royal family's.
'A blessing,' he says of that opportunity. Another landmark came in 1993, when he held a nine-day sale of the chattels of Princess Gloria Thurn und Taxis' husband in Regensburg, Germany. It was, he recalls, the custom of the castle to leave bowls of apples around, and he used to eat some in passing.
'The sale went very well and I concluded it was because of the apples,' he says. 'And so ever since, I eat an apple one hour before a sale. That's my superstition. I do get very nervous beforehand, I have to isolate myself in total silence for two or three hours. Then I quite enjoy it on the podium.'
What happens when he's obliged to sell works he doesn't like? Being a good diplomat, he won't be drawn on the names of artists whose appeal he has yet to discover, although he insists they do exist. He has a clear-eyed understanding of his role as performer.
'Your task is to obtain the best possible price. For that object, at that moment, you have to convey enthusiasm in the best possible way.'
On such occasions, beauty takes a back seat while a different form of artistry - passion twinned with pragmatism - takes over.