What Happened to Haunch of Venison? Christie's Surprise Move Leaves Questions

What Happened to Haunch of Venison? Christie's Surprise Move Leaves Questions
(Photography: Peter Mallet)

LONDON — That Haunch of Venison will stop representing artists has come as a surprise to many — not least to the gallery staff, blissfully unaware of the plan until just hours before it was announced. A source close to the gallery has described them as being “in a state of shock” following the bombshell.

Auction house Christie’s, which has owned the gallery since 2007, has decided that Haunch of Venison will concentrate exclusively on the secondary market. In the proposed reorganization, the gallery’s headquarters in London will operate as an exhibition space for the auction house’s private sales arm. The gallery in Fitzrovia, as well as the New York branch in Chelsea, will close down after the end of their current exhibitions.

“Private sales at Christie’s have been growing exponentially and the decision was made that’s where the focus should be,” the gallery’s international director Emilio Steinberger told Bloomberg, shortly after the news was broken by art market newsletter Baer Faxt.

In the UK, employment laws mean that the restructuring is at consultation stage. This will last a month, after which the staff will be formerly informed of their fate. The 21 employees (in both London and New York) currently listed on the Haunch of Venison website, and potentially more, are likely to be seriously affected. While some may find new positions at the auction house, others “will not come under the Christie’s umbrella,” said Steinberger.

“I had no sense this was going to happen whatsoever,” said painter Justin Mortimer, who joined the gallery’s roster only 14 months ago, told ARTINFO UK. “Everyone is hung out high and dry.” He added that the Haunch team had been “very supportive” as soon as they found out.  

The shock provoked by the news suggests a major disconnect between the gallery staff and Christie’s senior management. By many accounts, Haunch of Venison was on the up. The grand reopening of the original space in September 2011, as well as the launch of a second gallery North of Oxford Street last March, sent a confident message. So did the move in New York from the gallery’s Rockefeller Center HQ to Yvon Lambert’s former space in Chelsea. Haunch of Venison, it seemed, was finally finding its feet, having at long last overcome the prejudice against its unholy marriage to Christie’s. Why, then, decide to terminate it so abruptly?

One of the most plausible explanations is that Christie’s simply felt the operation would be more lucrative if scaled down and dedicated to private sales — a part of the business which has surged in the last few years. ARTINFO’s Rachel Corbett reported that insiders have suggested Christie’s owner François Pinault had never intended the gallery to be a permanent venture. Some whisper that it was used to attract important estates such as Tom Wesselmann’s, represented by Haunch of Venison since 2009. Others have claimed that the French collector was very hands-on, starting to represent artists or taking them off the roster on a whim. None of these speculations can be verified, but the gossip is nonetheless indicative of a deep-seated malaise.

One thing is certain: When Haunch of Venison’s founders Harry Blain and Graham Southern sold the gallery to Christie’s, they effectively sounded its death knell. If the partners didn’t know it at the time, they quickly found out. They first stayed on to run the gallery, but left in 2010 to launch a new venture, BlainSouthern. Several artists, including Bill Viola and Matt Collishaw, followed them. “I'm looking forward to getting back to working more closely with the artists,” Blain said back then. “A large organization sometimes pulls you away from that.”

From its creation in 2002 to its acquisition by Christie’s in 2007, Haunch of Venison had enjoyed a gilt-edged reputation. The secondary market was said to be a healthy part of the business, which also had the gallery working with the likes of Keith Tyson, Damien Hirst, and Zhang Huan. But the art world never forgave the gallery its new owner. Haunch of Venison had shown at Frieze Art Fair since the event’s creation in 2003, but was turned down in 2007 — the equivalent of losing the industry’s seal of approval. Subsequently, the gallery was barred entry from most major art fairs, having to make do with lesser events such as Art Stage Singapore and Expo Chicago.

Haunch of Venison did find an outlet at TEFAF Maastricht, and yesterday a fair spokesman told ARTINFO UK that “as far as we are aware, they will exhibit this year.” But this is very unlikely. In a statement seen by ARTINFO UK, the gallery announced it would not exhibit at TEFAF, nor at the soon-to-be-launched Art13 London.

The end of Haunch of Venison as a primary market gallery confirms how uneasy the relationship between galleries and auction houses is — although some can work out. The purchase in 2006 of old masters specialist Noortman by Sotheby’s was beneficial both for the allegedly heavily indebted gallery, and the auction house, which supposedly gained “a critical foothold in the art-fair business,” our own art market expert Judd Tully wrote in 2011But things get more complicated when dealing with contemporary art. In the same article, Tully reminds us that Sotheby’s bought a 50 percent stake in Deitch Projects in 1997, only to later sell it back to Jeffrey Deitch

“It’s not the business of the auction houses to manage and nurture artists’ careers,” art advisor Michael Frahm told ARTINFO UK, “and I think with this move, Christie’s has clearly decided to focus on their core business.” In 2012, Christie’s private sales made £631.1m, up 26 percent from the previous year — a staggering 16 percent of global sales. Sometimes, being a successful gallery just isn’t enough. “What worries me,” concludes artist Mortimer, “is that part of the art world is rubbing their hands, saying: ‘I f*cking told you so’.”

Additional reporting by Julia Halperin, Shane Ferro, and Rachel Corbett