HAUNCH of Venison—an art gallery owned by an auction house—is a weird beast. When Christie’s acquired the firm in 2007, many doubted the health of this unconventional alliance of the primary and secondary market. Now that Haunch’s founders, Harry Blain and Graham Southern, have announced that they are leaving the gallery, skepticism may reach a new high.
The primary market offers work as it emerges from artists’ studios—that is, it’s for sale for the first time. The best primary dealers or “gallerists” tend to be quirky mavericks with such a good “eye” that they have their names over the door. They pay more attention to supply, so it’s paramount that they understand and nurture artists. Few are team players with a flair for corporate politics. The secondary market, by contrast, involves the resale of art objects, either through private dealers or auction houses. These traders focus on demand, and so have little contact with artists. Moreover, unlike primary gallerists, traders rarely opt to sell a work at a lower price to a museum in the interests of developing an artist’s career. High prices are an end in themselves for an auction house.
So what of the relationship between Christie’s and Haunch of Venison?
Christie's will retain the brand name and reposition Haunch as purely a primary-focused gallery, with any secondary-market activities taken over by Christie’s post-war and contemporary department. In London, Haunch will abandon its huge gallery spaces behind the Royal Academy in Burlington Gardens when its lease ends in 18 months, and return to Haunch of Venison Yard, its original home, which is currently being renovated. Word has it that Haunch NY will also leave its high-rise premises in Rockefeller Centre, because the connotations of the location are “too secondary market”, and set up shop alongside other primary galleries in Chelsea.
Messrs Blain and Southern launched Haunch of Venison in 2002. Mr Blain had been running his gallery, Blains Fine Art, for ten years. Southern had been a director of the Anthony d'Offay Gallery and, before that, head of Christie's post-war and contemporary department in Britain. The pair was quick to pick up well-known artists who lacked representation in Britain, such as Bill Viola, Richard Long, Jorge Pardo, and recruit younger artists on the rise, including Anton Henning and Nathan Coley, a Turner Prize nominee. Despite these successes, Haunch was perhaps most respected for its secondary-market trade.
Christie's bought Haunch in February 2007. François Pinault, Christie's owner and a big collector, is said to have been very keen on the acquisition, as he had become a client and close friend of Mr Blain. Under the original deal, Haunch was meant to be the channel for all of Christie's private-client business as well as the focus of its primary trade. The bulk of an auction house’s art sales are public; the work goes on the block before an audience. But auction houses also broker the sale of works behind-the-scenes in what they call “private treaty” deals.
The Christie’s take-over both strengthened and weakened Haunch’s trading base. On the one hand, it gave the relatively small start-up access to Christie’s database and global client list. On the other hand, Haunch was kicked out of art fairs such as Frieze, and lost some artists, such as Keith Tyson, a Turner Prize winner, who claimed to be uncomfortable being represented by a gallery owned by an auction house.
Haunch of Venison may have suffered more than some other galleries during the downturn. In 2007, Haunch's revenue in Britain, its biggest market by far, was £66m ($105.6m) and profit was £1.6m. In 2008 the crash in sales and a subsequent write-down in the value of their art inventory meant a £1.8m loss in a year when Mr Blain was paid £1.2m. In 2009 Haunch paid a £2m down payment for the three-year lease of its grand Burlington Gardens space. The total rental fee was £4.25m, a whopping price, considering that the Royal Academy bought the building in 2001 for a mere £5m.
Insiders variously cite company politics, turf wars and information withholding—rather than overspending—for the divorce of Messrs Blain and Southern from Christie's. Tellingly, Haunch's new directors have been recruited from within the company. In Britain Matthew Carey-Williams will become the gallery's director, having previously left Haunch for Christie's. In America Emilio Steinberger, who recently brought the Tom Wesselman estate to the gallery, and Barrett White, formerly of L& M Arts Inc, will take the most senior roles. Ben Tufnell, who joined Haunch of Venison from Tate in 2006, will continue as director of exhibitions.
Sotheby's and Christie's have taken very different approaches to the primary market. While Christie's acquired Haunch, Sotheby's went public with the one-off primary auction, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, which sold work by Damien Hirst straight out of his studio (some of it not even finished) for record-breaking prices in September 2008, just as Lehman Brothers went under and the financial crisis got going in earnest. Though the sale made headlines, many wonder how much money Sotheby’s actually made from it. Some speculate that Mr Hirst enjoyed a cut of the buyer’s premium (in addition to the hammer price). The auction house also offered such favourable payment terms that some buyers may still be paying for the work. A senior Sotheby’s specialist admits that the auction was exceedingly high risk. Indeed, it might not have been a success if it had taken place a week later.
While Haunch of Venison has never officially represented Mr Hirst in London, the gallery has done a strong behind-the-scenes trade in his work. This business culminated in the recent opening of an exhibition by Mr Hirst and Michael Joo, an American artist, in Haunch's Berlin space (pictured above). The Berlin space is a relatively minor outpost of the Haunch brand whose destiny is still up in the air.
“Auction houses have been around for a long time, but it seems like they are struggling to know exactly what their role should be,” observed Mr Hirst in an interview with The Economist at the opening. When asked specifically about the relationship between Christie's and Haunch of Venison, he replied, “They seem to get on each others nerves. I can't see that there are any benefits to us.” Mr Hirst points to an absence of synergy, which may be a matter of personalities or may be endemic to the business model. Perhaps it’s significant that a “haunch” is a piece of meat rather close to the buttocks, when what most organisations really need is another “arm” or, better yet, a “wing”.
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