«Simon de Pury: On Photography»

Von Julieta Schildknecht


A long awaited interview became a longer than expected interview! Our readers are welcome to enjoy the world renowned swiss auctioneer and photographer, Simon de Pury, sharing his deep knowledge in an interesting and witty way.


Julieta Schildknecht: The first picture on your instagram is with Lee Mindel when you made that auction with design furniture. Remember?
Simon de Pury: Yes…


JS: I would like to point to it just as a detail, we are returning to that afterwards.

SdP: Yes, Yes!



JS: Let’s start with your great book The Auctioneer, where you write about a portrait from Ann Duong and then you speak about three of your obsessions Art, Music and Soccer and mention your Holy Trinity Pelé, Paul McCartney and Picasso. I also decided to quote your phrase “I like Pablo” as part of the title for this interview.
There is one note in your book, which I consider an important key to understanding your work, where you mention Beyeler’s words “The pretty is the enemy of the beautiful.” Going forward, I’d like to mention your answer to his question: “Is your interest in Art physical or intellectual?” which was “Purely physical.”
I thought of your answer while reading one of your articles for “The Hammer” chronicles where you write about Digital Art and all the online auctions. As a pioneer of online auctioning with the launch of dePury online, how would you define online auctioning when remembering your answer to Beyeler where you tell him that art is a physical experience?

SdP: Lets say my interest for art started probably as a child, I always enjoyed drawing and at school that was maybe the only discipline in which I was an okay pupil.



JS: But you studied painting, right?
SdP: I haven’t painted for quite some time but at school I loved drawing and painting. At that time I wanted to become an artist. Let’s say my initial interest in art started when I started drawing as a child. My parents did nothing to discourage me.



JS: How about your experience in Japan? We see in your photography a lot of Japanese influence.
SdP: Yes, I dreamed of becoming an artist. It is that dream that fuelled my interest in art generally speaking. I realise in hindsight that growing up in Basel definitely influenced my desire to be an artist, boosting my interest in art in the first place. Although Basel is relatively small, it is an art city and so interest in the arts is well- established.
First of all, the Kunstmuseum is one of my favourite museums in the world – my first exposure to really great art came with visiting the Kunstmuseum. No matter where my mother was going, she always made time to visit museums and exhibitions, therefore, I don’t recall when I first went to the museum but I am certain it was very early. The Kunstmuseum is particularly strong in 20th century art, so one has an introduction to 20th century art which is unparalleled worldwide. Certainly at the MOMA in New York you can experience 20th century art in an impressive way. However my former experience, I am sure, enhanced my fascination with art.



JS: You didn’t study History of Art but studied something else, right?
SdP: Yes, I tried to study Law for a little while but that was short lived. As you mentioned, I received advice from Ernest Beyeler and it was my mother who sent me to him. He asked me if my interest in art was intellectual or physical, so when I told him my interest was purely physical, he advised me to go into the art market as opposed to studying History of Art.
I followed his advice and to this day I am grateful, because of course when you are in the art market, you are in physical contact with works of art on a daily basis.



JS: I would like to add… You can see! and you mention many times that you are a visual person. You are an art expert. You have the eye of a photographer and you are also able to analyse the making of art due to your background. You know the art market quite well. Your book is almost like an encyclopaedia. Are you writing a second book?
SdP: In terms of the book, when I was a young man I read a book by Maurice Rheims. He was the main auctioneer in France and in the 1950’s Paris was the leading international site for auctions. English auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s only became dominant in the 1960’s and beyond.
Prior to that it was the French commissaire-priseur and the king for that was Maurice Rheims. When he retired as an auctioneer he did several things that impressed me. One of them: he had a television program, Apostrophes, he was so animated as well as keen to convey his passion for art. Those programs were quite successful at making art palatable to a wider audience as well as being very entertaining. He was very good at that. He wrote quite a few books like Pour l’amour de l’art, Le prix de l’Art, La Vie Etrange des Objets, Les collectionneurs for example but the one which resonated with me most was titled Haute curiosité. He describes, in this particular book, his life in the art world. When I read the anecdotes describing his experiences, I was mesmerised and decided that I would like to lead a similar life filled with really interesting moments and many adventures. It was an influential book to me, from the perspective of the professional life I coveted.
This is why I wanted to write a book at some stage relating to some of these anecdotes but I didn’t have the confidence in writing it myself. While I enjoy speaking and giving talks, etc, writing is a rather different exercise because it requires much more patience and discipline. I met by chance the co-writer of my book when I was introduced to William Stadiem in Los Angeles. We went on to have many Skype conversations.
At that time I was based in London, he in Los Angeles. After a while, one might feel like speaking to a psychiatrist instead of to a co-writer. He was guiding the conversations and one day he sent me the manuscript. When I read the manuscript I was in a dilemma. He is so talented and a true professional and it was about my stories and adventures. However, it was not my voice. I felt uncertain – My God, what do I do? – because it was bizarre reading my stories with a voice that wasn’t mine. I was hesitant and wondered if I should take some time off to rewrite it, skip the project or simply let it go… I decided to let it go and so the only part of the book written by me is the short introduction.
When Artnet asked me to write a regular column, I began to write shorter articles as there was a 1200 word limit, which helped me develop some writing discipline. The articles have my voice and I discovered the pleasure, in later life, of writing and maybe I will extend that to writing a book. However, I’d like to write on a widely interesting topic instead of an autobiographical book. I am not pursuing this now but on the other hand you must be cautious when you are writing things too late in life.
On the other hand, I remember reading the memoirs of one important dealer he wrote when he was 70. It was fascinating and well written. He then wrote his second memoirs when he was 90 but there, sadly, facts were mixed up and actually many of them inaccurate. One has to be aware of that danger as well.



JS: With your column “The Hammer” you are constantly awakening the readers interest to the big picture. Is this coming from the artist’s soul perspective or from a person writing as a journalist? There are so many narratives to a life rich in experiences. You keep the same style of your book. The column is witty, sarcastic, evolving and you accurately inform the reader about the latest art world news. This is so important not only for art collectors but for the ones producing art as well. Your perspective isn’t coming from a gate keeper but from Simon de Pury the journalist. A second book would be great.
SdP: Yes, I think that the title of Maurice Rheims’s book Haute curiosité is the basis of my interest in art and for contemporary culture in a wider sense. The curiosity that led me to my profession is as strong today as when I started. That’s the beauty of being active in the art world: you don’t get jaded, you never get bored. As I always say – Art never stops, Music never stops and there is always…motion. Creativity remains completely fascinating as it evolves alongside contemporary culture. That’s why I continue to feel very curious and follow what’s going on.



JS: Lets talk about your instagram. A profile which also includes a dialogue in pictures of your two daughters or an interesting dynamic of a father photographing his daughters. The flow of images you are posting is coming from a visual oriented person. It is your diary but you are using it also as a working tool. At one of your interviews when approaching the subject you said: “I was fascinated to be able to grasp anyone’s personality by taking just one look at their grade of images.”
Is your instagram another way of interacting with people around the world or is it also a way of beginning new endeavours like the one of Guillermo Lorca’s exhibition?
SdP: The two people who first introduced me to instagram were Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jean “Johnny” Pigozzi. Both told me: “You have to go to instagram you will see it’s amazing.” For instance, I have hardly been active on Facebook – it did not catch on with me. However when I did go to instagram with the recommendations of HUObrist and JJPigozzi, I instantly spotted something. The initial phase, like with everyone, was addicting. Since I am so visual it is the perfect medium for me. Like I said in the article you quoted earlier, you don’t need words when, so very often, images speak louder than words. You can see from someone’s choice of images what makes them tick, what excites them and what motivates them.
You can also understand their taste and aesthetics and so on. That’s what I find fascinating: you can grasp someone instantly, in the same way that you gauge a person when you meet them in person. Instagram gives you a deeper look at what makes them “tick.”
I continue to find it fascinating, especially now it has been adopted by so many users. It is the best way to inform yourself about art in terms of which exhibitions are taking place and to see what artists are producing. I follow many artists on instagram, many curators and of course photographers, musicians as well and architects.
You mentioned my two daughters but I also have three sons. Four of my children are adults. They were teenagers in the 90’s when all the wave of video games, Nintendo and Game- Boys started. That was a really important part of their youth and obviously influenced them in how they perceive things today. Whereas my youngest daughter who is 10 years old, she spends quite a bit of time with two platforms: TikTok which is about dancing and moving images as opposed to the still image. It is interesting to see the role this platform plays for her. The other app where she spends a lot of time is called Raw Blocks. It is a game where she can play with her friends wherever they are and where they move in a digital world, buying clothing for their little avatars and living in that virtual reality.
When one watches that world, one will understand how important digital art has become and how it will grow in importance once that generation becomes adults.
Future consumers won’t find it bizarre to move in a digital space nor to move in digital architecture to experience art in a digital setting. I find something very dynamic about all those artists who have created works in the digital field. The gold rush started when the first NFT by Beeple sold for 69 million US dollars at Christie’s – there is something rebellious about this whole movement because all of the big names have made it without the help of gatekeepers or curators. The other movement which experienced this was the music world when rock n’ roll or hip hop started. Initially there is something rebellious then gradually it becomes mainstream.
Regarding Guillermo Lorca’s work, I came across his work on instagram and I think that now many artists are being discovered on instagram. The art market was slower to embrace the technological revolution. I think that the music market was transformed much earlier after the LPs then CDs then downloads and now the streaming. I experience music mainly on Spotify. What was important for musicians was Youtube, where a lot of musicians got first traction and feedback. They were therefore able to build an audience and subsequently the music labels would discover their platform and begin representing them.
I think this is what happened and is happening through instagram. Some galleries and professionals are discovering artists on instagram. There are artists building a sizable audience on instagram. Galleries are contacting them via the app to start exhibiting their work or even representing them.
What struck me with Guillermo Lorca’s work was that it was totally different from anything made in contemporary art. I found something quite disturbing and kind of intriguing about the work. I contacted him through DM on instagram and got to know him – I found him really genuine and coherent. He is an obsessed young man which led me to organise this exhibition of his work in London. Now of course you depend on the algorithms of instagram to dictate whom you come across. Hence why I wondered how I came across his work on instagram? In fact, it was his girlfriend he had at that time who was a very talented singer. She had tagged me on one or two of his works and that’s how I came across his account in the first place. She made it strategically and she also tagged other professionals in the art world – that is what is transforming the market. You can track who shows an interest in your work, you can track where this interest comes from and so on. This is called Data mining and that is going to gradually have a massive impact on the art world in general.



JS: How about Henry Hudson? What are the similarities to Guillermo Lorca’s case? Are you only curating his work?
SdP: Yes, Henry Hudson happened completely accidentally. I was in Dallas doing a charity auction for MTV Live and he had donated a painting to that auction. More importantly, he had come to Dallas himself and was there at the auction. We hung out there and at some stage he took my photograph with his iPhone. I saw him then working on that image on his iPad. I was intrigued by that because I was familiar with his plasticine works, particularly his plasticine jungles which are psychedelic in their innovative choice of colours. Henry Hudson is the only artist I know of who was doing these large works using entirely plasticine. I got to know him through my oldest daughter and then I visited his studio with my youngest daughter and she was, of course, fascinated by all this plasticine and how he was using it. I was also intrigued by the ceramics he does with his brother. He fires ceramics and then shapes them and gives them a special psychedelic colouring. It was a very novel way of doing ceramics. That conversation led him to photograph a number of artists, from Ed Rusha to Ai Weiwei to Sean Scully but also professionals in the art world such as Kenny Schachter and Dominic Levy or, Adam Lindemann also Rashid Johnson and Mary McCartney.
We know of course David Hockney and his iPad drawings. David Hockney was always an innovator using all these technologies. Physical paintings were hung side by side next to his iPad drawings at the Royal Academy. His iPad drawings were enlarged into big pictures during his pioneer “A Bigger Picture” exhibition in 2012.
What is interesting about Henry Hudson’s use of technology, he further transforms those iPad works (of course you can produce in infinite amounts just like photography) in an UV flat printer which allows him to print on any surface. He chose therefore for each portrait a different surface. In some cases he used wood, in others he used tiles or slate, or even garbage or dried flowers. He gives a different physicality to each of his portraits. Each one of those portraits is completely unique. Henry Hudson is using the most up to date technology in the age of NFTs and yet still creates highly physical work that is absolutely unique. A unique work is produced with the most updated technology without being infinitely reproduced.
The artist also developed an arm that can paint and draw, he is capable of executing paintings and drawings through orders given from afar – from another continent to his robot. You can see on his instagram simulations how this happens.
As a small kid, I went to Neuchatel to the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle where there is an automaton called I think Sando. He is dressed in 18th century clothes, you see him actually breathing and doing a little drawing. That automaton does drawings you can take with you. An invention from around 200 years ago way before artificial intelligence.



JS: I see him as a digital artist. When you talk about his work I see similarities between alter-egos then there are the sittings and I see similarities here from Hofmalerei and at that time, 200 years ago, those portraits could become pretty political, right? Additionally the way he works reminds me of Lucien Freud even though Henry Hudson is not using the excess of long sittings nor the excess of paint to achieve the three dimensionality on his digital drawings. Everything is digital and the tactility that Lucien Freud pursued to create a visual impact, they exist but it surfaces from digital sources. Posteriorly they become tactile and the surfaces of dried flowers, the wood or the tiles are a clear example. Am I saying something stupid?
SdP: Not at all! I am intrigued by portraiture in general because we are at a time with selfies where self-portraits are the most commonly used image on instagram and TikTok, where everybody is not photographing other people but photographing themselves, but the official portrait has nearly vanished. Prior to photography, painting was of course a way to have your portrait taken. You were commissioning artists to do portraits. The visual recollection you have from your ancestors is from their painted portraits.



JS: All however perfectly painted meaning physical disabilities were removed or people were painted with impeccable features according to that time’s requested beauty standards.
SdP: Yes but what we understand as great portraiture isn’t something flattering, actual portraiture isn’t limited to showing the external appearance of the sitter. Lucien Freud is one of the greatest artists I deeply love and his portraits show the inner personality of the sitter. The viewer can clearly see if the person is tortured in his mind. Through his work you can really understand the sitter’s inner personality.
One of the greatest portrait artists of all time was Goya. When you look at portraits that Goya made, you wonder, how did he get away with commissions? Lucien Freud wasn’t doing portrait commissions, he was choosing the people that he wanted to portrait. One couldn’t give Lucien Freud a portrait assignment whereas Goya was the court painter of the Spanish King. Anyone at the Spanish court could have a portrait done by Goya. It is so close to caricature in some cases, it is so fierce, sometimes biting. Caricatures offend sitters and one wonders how he managed these commissions.
Normally if you want to have your portrait made, you want it to be flattering, you want to look better than in real life, you want to look younger than you are in real life and so on. What fascinates me are those Apps used on instagram. You see many women who take selfies without a single wrinkle and these gadgets allow them to retouch them all. If you want to be less fat you can use an App that allows you to be less fat. If you want to be taller there is an App that allows you to be taller and if you want to have less pockets under your eyes there is an App for that too. One can really try to recreate themselves to look much better and more perfect than one is in real life. These are interesting tools but if you want to look beyond someone’s external appearance, that’s when you need great portraiture.
A great portrait artist can use any technique, they don’t have to paint, they can be a photographer. I love the portraits by Helmut Newton and I also love the portraits taken by his wife, June Newton.



JS: Before approaching Helmut Newton’s work, I would like to ask you since you are also making great portraits, how many portraits have you made of all the people you meet? The one I don’t forget is the one you made from Christo at the Serpentine Gallery. Are you publishing at some point your portraits?

SdP: Well, you see, all of these portraits that you refer to are on instagram, I made them with my iPhone so I don’t know if one could publish them on paper. It is a matter of pixelation but I think it is possible. You can’t enlarge them too much. I have always been fascinated by photographing artists in front of their work. In my portraits I don’t want them next to their work but what I want is to photograph them in their work. They populate one of their works. Luckily through my occupation I get to visit many studios and I always try to photograph the artist in front of their work so they become a part of it. For instance, yesterday I went to Antibes to visit a young artist called César Piette and I photographed him in front of one of his self-portraits. I will probably post it later on today. I don’t know how many I have done but it’s probably around 200 or 220 portraits. Some artists I photograph every time I see them in front of their work.



JS: I would like to interrupt you and insist on your portraits. Are you also making portraits of your family when you spend time with them at Val deTravers? Are you using only your iPhone or are you also using a camera to photograph those moments?
SdP: In fact I am only using my iPhone because I am not very tech savvy and if I refined the camera I would not know how to use it. I recently bought a really beautiful and expensive Leica and I had to write an article for LUX magazine. I thought all I needed was to look through the viewfinder and focus the camera on my chosen subject. The images came out disastrously because I was simply unable or too dumb to use the camera properly. Back then, when I started doing a lot of photography, there were the iPhone predecessors, Canon was manufacturing little phones which were the size of a pack of cigarettes. Since I am constantly travelling, I loved carrying that little camera in my pocket. Once Apple started improving the quality of their iPhone cameras, I dropped that Canon gadget and I started using mainly my iPhone.

I love photographing my family but I don’t photograph my family in a formal way. The photographs happen in an informal way whereas for the portraits of the artists, I always ask them to pose in front of their paintings. They are not casual shots. There is a difference between the family shots and those more formal shots.



JS: If you like Eric Fishel would portrait people what details would you enhance to characterise your portraits?
SdP: I don’t know, when I ask the artists to pose it takes me a split second to photograph them. Most people feel embarrassed at posing properly so I try to be as quick and as fast as possible. I don’t take 50 frames and then choose the best, I take maybe 3 or 4 photographs and that’s all. It is a very quick moment and I am not sure if I am able to catch the inner side of people in such a quick snapshot. However I still do like these portraits because, as I said, I try to have the sitter’s head and body completely surrounded by their own work. My aim is to capture them in the context of their own universe.



JS: In the context of family colours, one can admire Linda McCartney’s family Polaroids. Could we make a parallel to the colours of her photographs when comparing the photographs of her daughter Mary McCartney?
SdP: Well, how did I meet Mary McCartney – I initially organised an exhibition from her mother. Linda McCartney is a fantastic photographer and I love her work! Taschen published that beautiful book “Life in Photographs,” we had some of her photographs made into large sizes and even when enlarged they didn’t lose any of their intimacy. There was something very moving about that body of work. The family pictures she took were so touching when you saw her children, whether it was Mary, her sister or her brother. Subsequently when I saw the photographs by Mary, which have some common traces to her mother’s photography… She also catches moments which are completely unexpected that I as a photographer would never focus on. You can see what inspires her work, there is something equally touching and moving in Mary’s photography. I also organised an exhibition of her work in London. I love her photography as well. I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Linda McCartney who left us far too early.
The beauty of contemporary art is that when you love the work of an artist you can try to know the artists themselves. I have never been disappointed. It’s fascinating to me that when I love the work of an artist I always like the person behind the work.



JS: That’s how you met Helmut Newton, right? You saw his work at Vogue and you decided to meet him?

SdP: Yes, yes. There is one photograph in particular that ignited my passion for his work: a photograph he made of Charlotte Rampling sitting nude at the edge of a table at Hotel Nord-Pinus. I love that image so much! Each time I was seeing any image in Vogue that I loved, it was from Helmut Newton or Guy Bourdin. I wanted to know Helmut and I wanted to find the pretext to meet him. So I organised a lecture series where I invited Karl Lagerfeld or Anthony Burgess or Jeff Koons, as an artist that’s how I got to know Helmut and his wife June, having fallen in love with her work too.




JS: A series of lectures you organised at Sotheby’s in Geneva and that was the beginning of a best friend’s friendship, right?
SdP: With Helmut, yes. I visited him after this event took place in Monaco where he was living. I loved his sense of humour. He became a very dear friend, he and his wife. He became a true friend. You are privileged in life if you can count five people as your close friends. You can only see if people are true friends when you go through difficulties of mindset. I have gone through some difficulties of course and in those moments he was there and he was amazing. I really worshiped him as an artist, as a person but also his friendship, because he had this gift for friendship.




JS: …and then you made his book Sumo?
SdP: No, his book was made by Benedikt Taschen. This is a time when I got to know Benedikt Taschen better. He is one of my oldest friends to this day. I then helped with the promotion of Helmut Newton’s book.
We organised a charity auction where the copy #1 of the Sumo book – a book that June Newton edited with Helmut’s best work – was signed by every person photographed.. I sold that book at the auction. It became the most expensive book of the 20th century. That book is a cult book because it was published in an extra-large format. It was the first XXL book ever published at that time. Taschen revolutionised the entire art book market. Subsequently Taschen published a smaller version of the book for Helmut’s 100th anniversary. Helmut Newton’s mid size book was launched with a stand designed by Philippe Starck. It is one of the most successful books in the history of TASCHEN books. Benedikt Taschen was a pioneer and a real close friend of Helmut Newton and he also published the memoirs of June Newton.
You know, when I was a kid, art books were outrageously expensive. Usually at the occasion of confirmation, as a boy you can choose if you want golden cufflinks or a golden signet ring. At the age of 15, for my confirmation at the French Protestant Church in Basel, I didn’t want either but I asked my parents to give me the catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s early works published by Pierre Daix. That catalogue at that time was as expensive as golden cufflinks or a signet ring. The first time I saw a TASCHEN book was in a bookstore where they also had a catalogue raisonné of Soutine. When I checked the price I was confused and thought there was a mistake. Two beautiful volumes so beautifully produced couldn’t be so inexpensive. I bought it on the spot and then I realised it wasn’t a mistake – TASCHEN revolutionised the whole market of art books. They became much more accessible to a wider audience by far less expensive prices.



JS: According to your Biography four of your five favourite books are Sthendal’s “The Red and the Black”; Alain Fournier’s “Le Grand Mournier”; Walter Isaacson “Steve Jobs” besides the Catalogue raisonné from Picasso’s early works by Pierre Daix… all of them have something in common: a prelude to action. These writings are quite goal orienting. They are engaging and they have involving narratives of coming across new endeavours.
For Helmut Newton’s 100th birthday you organised an exhibition with hundred seminal works and curated this show with his friends as well on instagram. Did you interview them or did they give statements by their own initiative?
SdP: Yes, I have a very short attention span and I think a lot of people are the same! I wanted this to be snippets of conversation and I asked many of Helmut Newton’s friends just to say something personal about him in two or three words. They had complete carte blanche to say whatever they wanted. I was quite touched by the testimonies and statements that were given. There was a lot of humour in some of them. For instance Grace Coddington said every time she saw Helmut he would say “I would like to make your portrait in the nude before it’s too late.” For whatever reason she kept postponing it. One day he saw her and said “It’s too late now.” It is interesting to observe the way she relates to this story. I love the humour and the way she tells it – this was the way we made our homage to Helmut Newton.




JS: Mario Testino: you made four exhibitions of his work and the last one in Dubai, right?

SdP: That’s right. I did one exhibition in New York, two exhibitions in London and one in Dubai. A special building was created for the one in Dubai. The building was taken down after the exhibition was finished.
I think Mario Testino is a very important photographer who photographed beauty and his group images are exceptional. There aren’t many photographers adept to make group images nor able to show a group of individuals with such quality. I love the English group portraits which I think are titled Conversation Piece.
There is a 1974 film by Luchino Visconti called Conversation Piece with Burt Lancaster as the main character playing the collector of 18th century group portraits. Fast forward I think that this artist captured group dynamics better than Mario Testino. This is one aspect of the originality and the genius of the artist. Another aspect is how upbeat and positive one feels after watching his work. The fashion images are always upbeat. Over the last two to three years he has traveled the world and has done absolutely fascinating work, some of which has not been shown nor yet seen. This recent work has a completely different aspect to his fashion photography but it is equally strong and powerful. I do admire his work.
The beauty of photography, in spite of being a medium like any other, for an artist it expresses their vision. I do, therefore, consider photographers as artists in the same category as painters, musicians, designers, architects, etc.



JS: Based on this comment, what style of photography are you collecting?
SdP: I love all types of photography but I am interested in photographers like Albert Renger-Patzsch, his still-life and photography of nature and trees. He was very influential – in a way he prefigured the school of German photographers who then conquered the world. When you think of (Andreas) Gursky or Thomas Ruff who became extremely influential, some of that work goes back to Renger-Patzsch, perhaps consciously or unconsciously. I love his work and obviously we already discussed some of the photographers that I also love. Another photographer is Jurgen Teller because Jurgen Teller’s pictures look like snapshots without any special effect, without any special lighting; he doesn’t need any production team setting up the shot. It is a casual shot.


JS: Every time I see his work I think of Umberto Ecco’s book on Beauty. I see the beauty of ugliness when he is photographing.
SdP: Yes, I mean I love his creativity. I worked with him when I was chairman of Phillips.
I was usually always bored by the jewellery of auction catalogues because it was always the same jewellery catalogues. I wasn’t getting a kick from seeing those photographs of jewellery. Whereas I always had a kick when looking at design and contemporary art catalogues or even masters catalogues. I then decided to make those jewellery catalogues more fun. I sent him the jewellery that would be in our next sale and I gave him Carte Blanche to do that catalogue. He photographed members of his family wearing that jewellery and he created a pizza box in which the jewellery catalogue was presented. I think on the cover of the catalogue was his mother and on the back was his uncle. I got a lot of criticism because people felt you cannot use children to show jewellery even though they were his own. It was done in a totally decent way. I loved his irreverent way of showing highly precious objects in a pizza box. The second time I worked with him was when we sold contemporary art from Gloria von Thurn and Taxis collection and he went to Regensburg to photograph her inside her castle. That series of photographs I think are some of the best photographs that were done of her. I love the entire series.




JS: These are all examples that show that you like collaborating with photographers also when you are also curating their shows, right?
SdP: I think in the age of instagram, each one of us is an artist, each one of us is a curator, each one of us is a photographer and each one of us is an editor. This is, in a way, the job that editors do. The greatest editors are the ones who work with the greatest artists and the greatest photographers. If you take people like Franca Sozzani and her sister Carla Sozzani, both sisters were equally brilliant. Franca Sozzani was the editor of Italian Vogue and her sister Carla Sozzani was a gallerist who created 10 Corso Como Store complex in Milano. I think that Franca Sozzani was a true artist in her choice of photographers she worked with as well as through the assignments she gave them. For example, when you build a house, in order to have a great house you need a great architect but you also need a great patron. The best results are based on the exchange between the two. I think the best works of an artist are often based on the exchange between the dealer and the artist. Andy Warhol, for instance, did the camouflage series because Bruno Bischofberger asked him to make works based on camouflage.
I love the documentary made by Franca Sozzani’s son, Francesco Carrozzini. His documentary shows the way she worked with photographers. It was extremely well done.



JS: Why did you decide to create a special structure for photography at your auction house?
SdP: There is this extremely famous German saying “Not bringt Erfindung” so, when I ended up being the sole owner of Phillips, I didn’t have the financial means to take on the big houses nor to compete directly with them. I decided then to focus on three areas that the other houses weren’t really focusing on. One was cutting edge contemporary art – really focusing on contemporary art produced over the last 20 years; the other one was design and the third one was photography. Those were the three areas I totally focused on and it came together in a very strong curve of development. It was a necessity that made me focus but also a passion. I was always interested in photography, I was always interested in design and I was always interested in cutting edge contemporary art. However it was the first time in my life that I was able to completely focus on those areas instead of dealing with a more classical art. Of course I love art of all periods and all civilisations. Art isn’t limited to those areas.



JS: Your previews at Phillips were great happenings in terms of photography. They were huge exhibitions beautifully made and beautifully curated. You had people working with you that are highly capable and collectors or just viewers killing themselves to have your catalogues – specially the photography catalogues. There are events that exist after being influenced by your photography department at Phillips. The fair “Photo London” is one of those key photography venues in London.
How do you feel about that?
SdP: I was with Phillips for 12 years between 2001 and 2012. At the beginning I was struck by how my friends, even professionals, were always forgetting when an artwork had been sold if it had been sold by Sotheby’s or Christie’s because the Catalogues were all the same sizes and it was hard to remember, especially when they all looked alike. I wanted us to be completely different. We changed the format of the catalogue. It was much larger and it was of course much more expensive to produce these catalogues.



JS: Were you inspired by artists catalogues?
SdP: I must say I simply felt the urge to show artwork on a large page, as I found it to look much better than when you see it as a small illustration. I wanted to have one competitive advantage… We were David against Goliath and therefore I had to find something that would make a difference.

I am very proud because we did produce one of the most beautiful catalogues of auction houses made at the time. However even the Head of Finance at Phillips thought they were a bit ridiculous in terms of prices. They thought it was so expensive to produce and at the time I financed those catalogues myself because I really wanted to have the best. Of course when the other auction houses started producing similar lavish catalogues, and when they were becoming more popular, when the top collectors would receive those huge packages which were sent with a courier, then I think it had run its course.
Now in the digital age, I think it’s a great thing that houses have stopped producing those mega catalogues, something which was certainly accelerated during the pandemic. From the environmental point of view, it’s not a great thing to produce such lavish catalogues and then distribute them all over the world. Of course the auction houses had to drastically reduce all costs but now you can track catalogues online with beautiful photographs on your iPhone or iPad. Now it’s a different game but you want the artworks that you present to look as enticing and tempting as possible. Of course nothing will ever replace physical contact with the artwork. When you see a beautiful image of the work, and then when you see the actual work, sometimes you can be disappointed because it’s not as good as the actual image. You imagine it from the photograph or vice-versa. When you see the physical work it looks much better than it looked in the catalogue or at the iPad.



JS: You mention some role models that made a difference in your career. There are many people that worked for you or with you – not only at Phillips but at other auction houses who became exponentials in the art world. When they talk about you they do it with great respect. One of them is a friend of mine.
SdP: I am grateful to people like Ernst Beyeler whom we already mentioned but also to people like Peter Wilson who was Chairman at Sotheby’s and someone I really revered. Most of what we see happening in the art market today is still a result of his vision back then. The other person who also played a big role in my youth was Baron Thyssen who gave me the chance when I was 27 to become the curator of his collection. Indeed it has been a very enriching experience to spend time with him. Now I have been around for so long (in the art world for so long) obviously I have seen many young people start in the art world and I guess that is one of the advantages. There are indeed quite a few people that are either at Sotheby’s or at Phillips…Of course when I was an art dealer I had the chance to meet all of them… people who have made wonderful careers and it is wonderful to follow them and see how they progress and develop in their lives. I think that is one of the most gratifying experiences.



JS: Could you talk about your Waldorf Astoria new premises art curation? Were you invited by the architects? How did this happen?
SdP: This also happened purely by chance. I think it was shortly after my book The Auctioneer was launched. The people who bought the Waldorf Astoria contacted me and asked me if I would be prepared to help them find some artworks with the refurbishment of the hotel. They worked with the acclaimed french decorators Jean-Louis Deniot and Pierre- Yves Rochon. The Waldorf Astoria is one of the most beautiful art deco landmarks in New York. There were many constraints in the choice of the work because it had to match the architecture of the landmark and the designer’s new project. Of course there were budgetary constraints because for a hotel project you cannot invest the same way as a private collector would. I enjoyed the process very much. I find most hotels when they start or when they are later refurbished, from an account purpose every year the value amortises. Ten years later the hotel owner starts from scratch again. Whatever you lose with your initial investment, you don’t lose with the artwork which most likely will gain value ten years later.

My favourite hotels and restaurants are places where you are surrounded by art and design. In Zurich there is the Kronenhalle or in Saint Paul de Vence, La Colombe d’Or Hotel. It’s a dream. There are some places in the world which change constantly and certain places that never change. Those are the places where the magic is immune and protected. You can of course create a 21st Century version of that. There is Patty McNally who created the Chateau Côste in the Provence. She filled the hotel with artworks, not only indoors, but also around the entire landscape. She created a parcour which one can discover on a walk or by bicycle. The artworks create experiences which go far beyond just being in a restaurant or just being in a five star hotel. That is what gives soul to a place. In the end, there are only a few places with true souls. Art can give a space a soul.



JS: You are a nomad and a jet-setter. You mentioned that the artworks were also a way to remind home to the guests.
SdP: Yes, I mean with the pandemic people have spent a considerable amount of time in their homes than ever before and this had a direct impact on the market. People want to surround themselves with great art to look at and they want to have great design, great furniture and great art. I am told that the furniture market, in general, not only on the collector’s end but throughout – is booming. If you spend so much time in hotels it is important to be pleased at what you are looking at. I think if it gives you the illusion that you are at home, that makes a hotel much more interesting. The best hotels keep their staff for years. When you return to the hotel, it is as if you would be returning to your own family.


JS: Why do you like photographing textures and shapes?
SdP: I don’t know why but I am obsessed with textures and patterns and it is so easy to take a photograph with your iPhone. It is a visual diary of what pleases you, what excites you visually.



JS: I would like you to please talk about your Rolls-Royce short film and your favourite film “Blow-Up” from Michelangelo Antonioni.
SdP: I think Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” is a masterwork in the history of cinema. When I first saw it it was like a visual shock. I watched it not that long ago and it was still just as great. For me great art is timeless, it never gives the feeling of being dated. Antonioni’s film was never dated. It is a classical piece which I think approaches the life of a photographer inspired by David Bailey who lived a dream life. He was married to Catherine Deneuve. Through his work he was always surrounded by beautiful women of his time. Jane Birkin’s first appearance in a film was in Blow-Up. I love Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. She has a short scene in the film. It is an absolutely powerful film. The music was great. It was Herbie Hancock, a man who always explored new jazz venues, who composed it.
I did an auction for Rolls-Royce just before the pandemic for a charity for a hospital in London dealing with children’s allergies. The charity organised the auction that took place just before the pandemic in Goodwood inside the Rolls-Royce factory. We were having dinner where the cars were being assembled. I always imagined the inside of a car factory as that place where you have oil on the floor, tires and tools all over, just like a garage. Goodwood is impeccable. Everything is spotless. It was so impressive to see how those cars are being put together – I was absolutely fascinated.
As for the main car that I was supposed to sell during that night – the buyer was able to have his car painted to match the colour of his eyes by Marc Quinn. Marc Quinn does those paintings of your iris. As you know each eye is different. The eye paintings are powerful and impressive. The buyer bought this car and had Marc Quinn paint the car according to his iris. That event allowed me to meet the people at Rolls Royce. They are very interested in art. They are sponsors at Fondation Beyeler in Basel, they sponsor the Serpentine Galleries in London and so on. When they contacted me to ask whether I would be prepared for a Pierre Resnais Clip for their website, I accepted it. I am not sure if the clip will be on air.



JS: Can you talk about your Gallery “Caratsch, de Pury and Luxembourg”?
SdP: Yes, I always loved the Löwenbrau Areal in Zurich. There was a magnificent space at that Areal and I had the chance to open a Gallery there. Being now 50 years in the art world, I experienced it from all different angles as a curator, museum director, an auctioneer, but prior to that time I have never seen it from the angle of a gallerist. It was very tempting to do that and I opened it together with Daniela Luxembourg and Andrea Caratsch. We opened that space but the real estate owner wanted to build a tower there and we kept refusing to move out because we had made wonderful exhibitions there. Eventually they made an offer we could not refuse and we gladly accepted since we all had our main activities outside of that Gallery. Once we no longer could keep the Gallery in that space, we decided to end it. It was a wonderful time.



JS: You launched important contemporary artists in that space and you were pioneers in the art world.
SdP: Yes, we made fantastic exhibitions. We had a great show of Fontana, of Alberto Burri and several incredible exhibitions of John Armleder. We had a tattoo parlour inside the gallery, we did shows of Not Vital, of George Condo and so on. Really quite exciting. It was something I enjoyed but you see the art world is constantly evolving and it was great at that time.



JS: How about Sam Francis and your swiss honesty?
SdP: My very first job was at Gallery Kornfeld in Bern and Gary Kornfeld was representing Sam Francis. In the early 70s there was an exhibition that Sam Francis was going to do and he showed up three weeks prior to his opening without having any painting to exhibit. He locked himself in a space next to the Gallery and during three weeks, he feverishly painted day and night on all size canvases and paper. He was in a trance. The first time I saw his work was at the Kunstmuseum in Basel. It was two very large important works that at some stage were hanged permanently. They are no longer hanging there but that was my first encounter with his work. I love his work. I think he is a great artist.



JS: Sometimes I see your work and it reminds me of Rodchenko.
SdP: That’s interesting. In 1988, I was privileged to organise the first big international auction in Moscow for Sotheby’s. The Minister of Culture brought us in contact with Rodchenko’s heirs as well as with several of the pioneers of the Abstract movement. We had at that auction, wonderful works by Rodchenko but also by Stepanova and Udaltsova. It is interesting to see many female artists in the Russian avant garde movement. It is a very important moment in 20th century art. We had one work of Rodchenko’s which is one of my favourite works: a black painted canvas with just a white line almost in Z format. Absolute masterwork. It was bought by a Russian collector. Yes, I always loved Rodchenko as a painter and as a photographer.