artistic tearaway

The art of selling art, by Germany's biggest dealer Cheyenne Westphal

Cheyenne at Phillips, London 2017
A window onto the art scene. Source: Sotheby’s, Monika Hoefler

Cheyenne Westphal has been making waves in the art world for years, but it was earlier this year when her team broke records.

In March, Phillipps sold “Helter Skelter I,” by Mark Bradford, for the highest-ever auction price for a piece by a living African American artist. His work suggests urban LA with all its grit and color; its title is a reference to Charles Manson’s vision of a race war between blacks and whites. The 32-foot piece is lined with cracks Mr. Bradford created by tearing up pictures.

A native German, Ms. Westphal and her team bought the painting from tennis star John McEnroe for 7.2 million pounds and sold it to LA’s Broad Contemporary Art museum for a final sum of 8.7 million pounds, or $11.75 million.

That makes her an important part of the strategy for London-based Phillips, the auctioneer where she is co-chair. Phillips is currently fighting to steal market share from art dealers Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the rival titans who have divvied up the industry for the last half century.

Record sales such as this one are partly due to contacts, such as Ms. Westphal’s connection to Mr. McEnroe. She knew the former tennis star collected art and owned the picture by Mr. Bradford. What also helped the sale is the high demand for Mr. Bradford’s work, she told business magazine WirtschaftsWoche.

Such remarkable sales require a lot of behind-the-scenes preparation. Keeping close to collectors translates into timing, patience, and hours on the phone, Ms. Westphal said. She estimates that maintaining her network makes up 80 percent of her job.

You're looking at 98 million pounds worth of art. Source: Phillips

Then there’s the timing. The same evening when Mr. Bradford’s work changed hands, the Phillips auction made a record 98 million pounds, largely due to another major sale: Picasso’s “La Dormeuse” for 42 million pounds. The timing of the the auction was strategic, held a week ahead of a major exhibition of the artist’s works at London’s Tate Modern, Ms. Westphal explained.

Born in the German spa town Baden-Baden near the Black Forest, Ms. Westphal garnered her knowledge of the industry partly at the University of California in Berkeley and at St. Andrews in Scotland. She is passionate about modern art and loves German painters such as Gerhard Richter, as well as international artists such as Damien Hirst.

Before Phillips, she spent fifteen years running Sotheby’s modern art department and spent 25 years at the company. With Phillips, she covers not only modern art but also jewelry, watches and design. And she’s busy developing a digital strategy, as well as growing the auctioneer’s business in Hong Kong, New York and London. It’s a full-time gig, especially since the way people view works of art, and collect art, keeps changing, with online sales becoming increasingly common. But whether online or in person, even after 27 years in the business, she gets a thrill out of each auction, Ms. Westphal said.

Lin Freitag writes about politics for WirtschaftsWoche, our sister magazine. To contact the author:

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