Move over Asia, next art market boom will be on US west coast, says ex-Christie’s CEO who launched its China auctions

Steven Murphy points to Silicon Valley titans’ developing taste for art and, in the week Christie’s opens in Beverly Hills, predicts market there will take off once enough art businesses see it as integral to their performance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 April, 2017, 8:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 April, 2017, 5:20pm

Steven Murphy, who stepped down as auctioneer Christie’s chief executive officer in 2014, was one of many international dealers attending Art Basel Hong Kong this year to take advantage of the strong growth in demand for art in East Asia.

Now head of his own art consultancy, the London-based American observed that attendance at this year’s contemporary art fair proved Hong Kong was now firmly on the map of the art world’s jet set – representatives from a record 78 international art institutions attended the fair, according to Art Basel. But Murphy is also watching keenly watching an emerging market on the other side of the Pacific ocean.

“The next big boom is going to be the west coast USA. The trajectory of what’s happened here in Asia shows that the market potential has always been here. It just took enterprises to see Asia as a coherent, integrated part of their businesses. The same will happen on the west coast,” he says.

San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle are hardly “emerging” in the usual sense of the word, but they have often been perceived as culturally impecunious compared with cities on the US east coast. But that has gradually changed as more institutions – such as The Broad in Los Angeles and the reopened San Francisco Museum of Modern Art – enrich the visual arts landscape and more art sellers have opened offices there.

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On the auctions side, for example, Sotheby’s last year hired the Los Angeles director of Gagosian Gallery to boost its west coast auctions business, and Christie’s is opening its Beverly Hills office on April 20 shortly after closing its South Kensington branch in London.

“The person in charge of California lived in New York when I was at Christie’s,” says Murphy. The art market’s growth in Asia has taught businesses they have to commit to a permanent presence in a new market if they are to succeed. “It is my hope that the next major art fair will be in Los Angeles to close the circle for global art collectors,” he adds.

The west coast – home to Silicon Valley and popular with Asian investors – boasts some of the wealthiest entrepreneurs and fastest growing companies in the world. Still, Murphy preaches patience; dealers should not be disappointed if sales there do not shoot up overnight, he says, since to his knowledge internet billionaires are only just starting to collect art.

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Murphy made investments at Christie’s that did not deliver immediate returns. He negotiated for the auction house to carry out its first independent sale in China in 2013 and the company started taking over large, historic mansions as its local shop windows – expensive endeavours given that much of the Chinese market remains out of reach for foreign auction houses. They are barred from selling any artwork made before 1949 to prevent the export of cultural relics.

Murphy’s unexpected departure from Christie’s in 2014 coincided with that of William Ruprecht’s from the helm at Sotheby’s, and their departures were taken as a signal an era of costly competition and narrowing margins in the industry had ended. Still, the former Christie’s CEO argues that adopting such a high profile was necessary to lure Chinese buyers to Christie’s auctions all over the world.

“What’s truly exciting about the art market is that the business is in transition, just as the publishing and music industries [were] with the [growth of the] internet. Since 2010 we’ve had the iPad and that’s the start of true globalisation of the art world,” he said. “Now, individuals can buy anywhere.”