Born into a family of master antique specialists, Alex Rotter has always been a fan of American culture as well as a great admirer of contemporary art. In 2008 he was named head of Sotheby’s New York contemporary art department. Thanks to his guidance, the department has had many breakthroughs including the launch of S2, a retail gallery dedicated to contemporary art that is now a global Sotheby’s franchise and which set a new record sale of contemporary art in Doha in 2013. Rotter currently holds the position of co-head of contemporary art worldwide at Sotheby’s, which recently saw record-setting sales of works by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami and Martin Kippenberger, some of Rotter’s favorite artists. The Noble Barbarian recently had a chance to speak with Rotter and get to know the man behind the hammer.
How did you come about working in the art world?
Well, I am the grandson of an antique dealer and the son of an antique dealer, so I am the third generation of the art trade. As a young man growing up I wasn’t really sure about arts as a trade, but it always surrounded me. So I guess it was in my blood.
You were born and raised in Vienna, a city known for its classicism. Yet your focus is in contemporary art. What makes contemporary art so attractive to you?
Growing up in Europe makes it easier to become interested in art since you are continuously exposed to art from throughout the centuries. In Vienna, you’re exposed to classicism, gothic cathedrals, renaissance paintings, baroque churches, etc. Everything is there for you to see. It’s almost like making your way through art history. I went to university and studied art, all the way from 1000 B.C. through the 20th century where art history, at least when I studied it, stopped because one would not study contemporary art at university. But the deeper I looked, the more I was interested in modern art. The more time I spent with modern art, the further I got into it and I ended up with art that was happening around me. When I finished university, I opened a gallery in Vienna that focused on young artists who were my age, because that was what I had access to. That type of art was happening at the moment and I felt that this was extremely interesting and I wanted to be a part of it.
Are we in a very exciting time for contemporary art?
I feel that in general it is always an exciting time for contemporary art. But we will know in 50 years how exciting this time truly was for contemporary art because if the art is really as good as we all hope, it will have an impact. You can say there are more artists that we know about, more art events, more galleries, and more museums now. There are more exciting things happening around contemporary art, and more people are engaged in the understanding of it or at least the acceptance of contemporary art which has not always been the case. Traditionally, art has always been for the elite. It is opening up to everyone and I think that is a wonderful thing.
"Traditionally, art has always been for the elite. It is opening up to everyone and I think that is a wonderful thing."
Sotheby’s is legendary. What makes Sotheby’s stand out in today’s competitive art market?
On one hand Sotheby's is a very traditional company that is 300 years old which adds legitimacy because there is no one out there that has the same vintage as we do or understands the art business like Sotheby’s does—you can say it is in the DNA of Sotheby’s to understand the art business. It is also a very large marketplace where we are lucky enough to have our clients turn to, and therefore we get exposed to an enormous amount of art and an enormous amount of new people who come into the world to experience it and want to own art. We are an extremely good first stop and, hopefully, last stop for activity around the art world. In addition, one of the things we have that not even our direct competitor has is that we are a publicly traded company, a real company but with real people and real experts, and for us expertise was always the first ranking model and mantra which we try to live by.
What’s a typical day in your life at Sotheby’s?
Well, it depends on the day but a lot of my work has to do with looking at works of art, pricing them for either appraisal, or pricing them for sale. My day also involves a lot around meeting people and talking to them about the artwork they want to buy, sell or just want to live with. There is a part of the day where it is all about research; we go into our library and evaluate what is most important, how relevant it is. There is also price research that we do online with the help of websites or old catalogs where we look at pricing lists. My personal job has a lot to do with management—I have a team of over 30 people that I need to direct. Another big part of my job is traveling to meet people, look at art, and go to museum openings and meeting collectors. Sometimes I get on a plane in the morning, go somewhere for lunch, go somewhere for dinner, visit an art collection, do the same thing the next day and then come back home.
You orchestrated Sotheby’s highest grossing sale of all time in November 2013 for contemporary art. The evening sale totaled $381 million. That’s an ego booster! Tell us more about that historical evening.
It was an exciting evening. When I started in the contemporary art department our evening sales were at $30 million and in the last 15 years they have grown ten-fold, which is amazing. This particular evening was special because it had several wonderful pieces that added up to this large sum of money. It is a great statement to have this kind of money, but for me it was more about the success of the sale, how many pieces we sold offering things that people liked and really wanted to own. This evening was special because afterwards we could say, “Wow, this is the largest sale we have ever done.” But I am planning to break it again!
Personally, I have never been to an art auction. It seems thrilling! What would you say are your favorite things about participating in an auction as an auctioneer and as a potential buyer?
As an auctioneer it is very exciting. There are two places you can be on the selling side when you are in the auction house. You can be the actual auctioneer on the rostrum and hold the hammer, which is a very adrenaline-pumping exercise and nerve-racking when the room is full. Then you have online bids and telephone bids, which you have to be really focused for. It is wonderful to see how to properly time a bid right, get the right person or to wait for someone to give another bid, tease them a little bit until you get another bid out of them. It is definitely exciting to do, but then the work comes down to looking at the result and having lots of pieces sold. Another part of the job is being on the phone with one of the big clients and bidding on their behalf. When auctions are exciting, they are one of the most surreal things you can imagine.
"When auctions are exciting, they are one of the most surreal things you can imagine."
If you see something you like, are you allowed to buy it before anyone else?
No, unfortunately I cannot or else I would be buying a lot. The rules are pretty strict. I cannot bid in my own sales and if I want to participate in a different type of sale I can only do it by handing in a bid that would be then read during the auction, and only then if I don’t have any non-public information.
I’m going to be presumptuous and assume you must have enviable art collection yourself. What are some of your most prized collections on a personal as well as art historical level?
I love our art collection—my wife and I have been collecting since we could afford to collect, so to speak. One of my prized pieces is a Cindy Sherman large scale photograph that I love very much which is in our dining room. It’ s one of those wild creepy images of hers and it’s funny because my kids try to interpret it every time they walk into the dining room and figure out what it is.
I was lucky enough to go to a preview of Jeff Koons’s retrospective at The Whitney Museum and hear him speak. He truly is an interesting character. I read how “Hanging Heart” was incredibly difficult to install in Sotheby’s—he did the same thing at The Whitney. Koons is literally always making a grand entrance. What makes him so important to you and the art world?
I think that Jeff has developed a vocabulary that is really unique, and in contemporary art it can be all about that type of communication. He found a place where people can identify his work or that his work is an expression very much of our time. Jeff figured out a way to make things a huge studio production very much like in the way of a renaissance old master—to work his ideas into perfection and not give up until he achieves what he wants. Some of his projects like “Hanging Heart” or “Play-doh” that you saw at The Whitney Museum are never ending projects because it is almost impossible to get them done in the way he wants them to be done, but somehow he achieves it. This striving for perfection in sculpture, material and the continuous play with the spectator or the admirer is fascinating. His achievement to the contemporary art world is that he pushes boundaries in everything he touches.
Any new things you can tell us coming up for Sotheby’s?
I am happy to talk about the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon, very famous Americans who collected contemporary art works including Rothko, Diebenkorn and other artists throughout their career. We are lucky enough that we are selling the estate this November in our contemporary sale. It is comprised of two portions—one of it is approximately 40 pieces of contemporary and modern art that we are selling, including two Rothkos, one at $15-21 million and another at $20-30 million. The sale also includes an ongoing segment selling a lot of the furniture, which takes place two weeks later. This is probably the most exciting thing in all auction houses to come up this season.