Cheyenne Westphal hunts down and buys art for the famous auction house Sotheby’s. We talked to her in London
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The art hunter

Cheyenne Westphal hunts down and buys art for the famous auction house Sotheby’s. We talked to her in London

Thilo Komma-Pöllath

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Her most valuable possession

Belstaff, Fendi, IWC, Jimmy Choo – almost every shop window on New Bond Street at the heart of Mayfair, London’s most expensive neighborhood tells the same story: Beautiful things have their price. The merchandise is displayed as if it were an artwork. Across the street in Sotheby’s, the world-famous auction house, it’s the other way around: Art is a commodity.

We reach Cheyenne Westphal’s third-story office after passing through winding corridors, up stairways and through security doors. The pharmacist’s daughter from Baden-Baden in Germany is co-head of the contemporary art department and contributed significantly to Sotheby’s record sales of recent years. Customers as well as colleagues set great store by her honest opinions, and she is known for her expertise, her way with people and her sleuthing skills.

"It’s about making art expensive"

We find Westphal in a modest office behind a sliding door. It contains only a sofa and a small white desk with a computer on it, beside which sits a photo of her son, Jesper. Surprisingly, the walls are devoid of art. Her most valuable possession is her address book.

But why contemporary art?

The market for contemporary art is booming. The whole world is looking to buy, and despite the financial and euro crises, prices are going through the roof. How do you explain that?

Cheyenne Westphal: We’re living in a golden era – mostly because buying art has become a global phenomenon. More and more people are realizing that paintings have asset value. Buy a Lucio Fontana here tomorrow night and you can sell it for a profit in two years’ time. Most contemporary art is a valuable investment with a healthy, two-digit return.

But why contemporary art?

We are rarely able to come up with an important work by one of the Old Masters, but there are plenty of significant pieces of contemporary art coming on to the market all the time. We had three fantastic pieces by Mark Rothko from the collection of the philanthropist Bunny Mellon at the auction in New York last November. Mellon lived a quiet life in Kentucky, but collected the most incredible art. Working with such masterpieces is a tremendously enjoyable experience.

People call you the “art hunter.” What does it take to do what you do so successfully?

Expertise, knowledge of human nature, languages – and the ability to close a deal. It’s a cyclical process. The day after an auction, I think to myself: My goodness, and now I have to start all over again!? I feel like Sisyphus, climbing back up that mountain. But once we have the first 15 pictures for an auction, I know it’s going to work.

Quite a lot of sleuthing

Which artists do you keep an eye out for in particular?

Germans like Gerhard Richter, Georg Baselitz, Sigmar Polke, Anselm Kiefer, Martin Kippenberger; people like the Irish painter Francis Bacon, the English artist Lucian Freud and, of course, the American Andy Warhol. We often work with our customers over many years, helping them to get pictures appraised for insurance purposes, for instance, and taking the opportunity to talk to them about the pictures: The value has changed, might you be interested in selling? People rarely refuse to talk to me. We have a very big network and know a lot about who wants to sell what where and when. But we also do quite a lot of sleuthing.

How much of what you do is toughness, how much is female charm?

I have never acquired a picture because someone liked my smile. Some customers are difficult, of course, and then you do have to be able to hold your own.

The legendary New York gallerist Larry Gagosian is one of your rivals. They say he doesn’t pull any punches …

Things can get a little rough, but we’ve never had a shouting match. If a customer prefers to work with Mr. Gagosian, I can feel peeved, but there’s not much I can do about it. Art dealing is a risky business, and you cannot make customers false promises.

The art world is a commercial world

You dropped out of business school to study art history. Does putting a price tag on art sometimes bother you?

No., to put it bluntly (laughs). The art world is a commercial world. It’s about making art expensive. If I didn’t like doing that, I would have gone to work at a museum.

Shouldn’t art be available to everyone, and not just to those who can afford it?

We are all only part-owners of art. Really great art almost always ends up in a museum.

How much is Sotheby's commission?

Our buyer’s commission is clearly defined, non-negotiable and calculated on a sliding scale according to the hammer price. Our commission on a picture that costs one million pounds starts at 25 percent and goes down as the sales price goes up, but no further than 12 percent.

What is so fascinating about the art trade?

Art is something that prevails. Gagosian once said to me that he would never hire anyone wasn’t interested in collecting art themselves. It has to be in your blood, and you have to want to own it yourself in order to be able to sell it for a good price.

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