William Ruprecht of Sotheby’s

by Jade Shao:


“We are not just in the business of buying and selling fine art, but in the business of creating extraordinary experiences for people. We facilitate the joy and discovery in acquiring such great pieces of art.”

William Ruprecht is the CEO at Sotheby’s, the world’s fourth oldest auction house and the oldest company listed on The New York Stock Exchange with offices in 40 countries around the world. Some recently auctioned items include a sculpture by Giacometti, handed over at $104 million, an exquisite pink diamond sold for $46 million and a white jade imperial seal from the Qing Dynasty purchased at $16 million.  As the guest of honor at this week’s Master’s tea hosted by Ezra Stiles, Mr. Ruprecht discussed the emerging international art markets and the company’s new strategic global focus.

Sotheby’s is a trusted institution for a group of the world’s most powerful collectors and connoisseurs, yet the demographic makeup of this group has changed significantly over the last two decades. Twenty years ago, it was the US East Coast and Europe that made up the largest portion of art consumption, but today, the company has major buyers from 58 different countries and there is increasing demand in the markets of Asia. Ruprecht notes that, “Now, Russia, China, and the Middle East make up a large presence of the current art market. Collectors in this region have demonstrated an enormous appetite for a wide array of Sotheby’s offerings.” In fact, the auction sales in Hong Kong last year totaled 420 million, the 2nd highest in Sotheby’s history. With antique objects from the various dynasties being introduced and fine wine as a new gifting currency in China, it’s not hard to anticipate that a new era in international collecting is well underway.

Delving deeper into the underlying reason for these emerging markets, Ruprecht also points out a correlation between the acquisition of wealth and the desire to possess great art, instead of the previous possession of wealth. “Wealth creation in the world has changed greatly in the world today and it is this mass wealth creation that is changing our business,” he said.

For example, Qatar is by a large margin the most enthusiastic acquirer of art. The country’s rapid economic development and its massive import of great art could be seen as a facet of nation building as it seeks to project a sentiment of sophistication or of seeing the works of art as a currency and reservoir of wealth. One could make the argument that Sotheby’s market volatility is a reflection of the global economic health and consumer confidence. In fact, we’ve witnessed Western Europe furiously selling plundered cultural treasures, in need of immediate liquidity, while Asia rapidly imports various paintings, sculptures and baubles in an attempt to fiercely reacquire their own art.

It is beyond a doubt that the art market is changing as our global culture itself undergoes an unprecedented metamorphosis.