A Conversation with Roni Gilat-Baharaff

Reut Barnea
October 17, 2019

"The Israeli art scene is very interesting and multi-layered," says Roni Gilat-Baharaff, Managing Director of Christie's Israel and International Senior Director at Christie's. "Life here is complicated, and it generates artistic energy which you rarely see elsewhere. The local art market, on the other hand, is not very sophisticated yet, it is based mainly on contemporary Israeli art. In the public sphere, eventhough there are excellent Museums, there is not much funding for the arts.

In the past, it was more common to find paintings in private homes, by Israeli artists such as Yosl Bergner, Reuven Rubin, Lea Nikel for example, or by members of the Jewish School of Paris in private homes; today it seems that it is less common to support Israeli artists."


Why do you think that is?

"I think that today we consume images constantly. We are connected to mobile phones, to the computer, to our screens all day long. Perhaps young people today have less of a need to come home and see an image on the walls. Perhaps they don't perceive paintings or photographs as something that you purchase, because they are used to seeing images in digital form, or maybe the new generation of collectors has not settled yet. There are a lot of open questions in this field."

Gilat-Baharaff heads the Israeli branch of the international auction house. Concurrently, she is a member of the advisory board to the Israel Discount Bank Art Collection, a member of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design executive board, and collaborates on a regular basis with Israel's two prominent museums—Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

Until 2008 Christie's held auctions in Israel. Today its local chapter focuses on assisting clients with inquiries, assist in buying or selling in its auctions throughout the world. "We are the contact people between clients who wish to value, purchase or sell an art work and are not physically present in London or New York. Sometimes it is harder to do so remotely. We invite international experts in various fields to Israel, or send images of objects to specialists abroad, who value the art works and suggest a sale strategy."


Where is the Israeli market today in comparison to the international market?

"One cannot discuss the international market as a single unit, because it is vast and multilayered. It has expanded considerably in recent decades. Whereas in the past, auctions drew in insiders, those who already engaged in the field, or dedicated collectors, today there are many more clients who are engaged in buying and selling at auction. There is growth in the numbers of new clients. The auctions categories have changed and evolved, diversified, and there are new areas of collecting. Collecting trends have changed.  For example, a relatively new auction category for us are Handbags. Christie's holds auctions of Handbags in London, Hong Kong, and New York. In July 2019, there was an auction related to the Lunar Landing. The new millennium was a changing point for the art market. In the past, the leading artists in auctions were well known Impressionist and Modern artists such as Van Gogh or Monet. Nowadays Post War and Contemporary Art leads the art market. 20th century artists such as Martin Kippenberger or Louise Bourgeois became house hold names. High prices are achieved for works by artists from the 1950s onward, such as American Pop artists or the Abstract Expressionists artists. Contemporary artists such as Kaws and Banksy feature prominently in media.

Another significant change in the new millennium is connectivity. The Internet enables us to follow and engage, anyone, whether in India or Tel Aviv, can view a given image, study an exhibition or bid online in an auction in Hong Kong. There has also been a great change in the art world consumption habits as the status and number of international art fairs increase, contributing to the new, accelerated dynamics in the market."


Why are works sold for such astronomical prices, as happened recently with the Hockney painting sold for $90 million or da Vinci's Salvator Mundi that sold for $450 million?

"In recent years, we see new price records, which sometimes surprise us too. It means that more people have the financial abilities and interest in the field; there are more clients willing to spend their money in the art market. The strong results encourage collectors to sell masterpieces. The media and the collectors follow this activity in the market's high end closely; they enjoy witnessing the price records broken time and again. These are the stories that we follow on the news, most transactions are at the lower price brackets."


What is happening in the Israeli market in this respect?

"On the local market, it seems that fewer people are making transactions in general. It is a smaller and more restricted market in terms of its activity than the international market. When an art work by established artists such as Moshe Gershuni or Raffi Lavie is offered for sale, fewer collectors will compete on it in Israel, in comparison to a work by an artist of a similar generation and standing in New York.

As art lovers based in Israel, it is our duty to be more involved, to encourage people to engage with local art. This does not necessarily mean to buying or owning. It is important to visit exhibitions or artists in their studios, to see the graduate exhibitions staged by the art schools, attend lectures. You don't have to invest money to get a return. If we don't support the art scene, we can't expect the international art community to take an interest in Israeli art. There are still those who think that art is for the rich only, and that's a misconception. Love of art, an interest in art, is something that should be encouraged in our educational system, in schools, in the public sphere. Sadly, it is not a top priority in Israel at present, so we can't expect it to be a high priority in people's homes. It's regrettable the Israeli art is not an integral part of the education system. We have a responsibility to give local art and culture our support. There are commercial organizations that support local art on a regular basis, such as Israel Discount Bank, which is the only corporate art collection to have been consistently active since the 1960s. We have great museums and art schools. It's wonderful to see rich and diversified programs in the smaller museums too, in Herzliya, Petach Tikva, Ashdod, etc. I am fascinated by Israeli art. At Christie's, we don’t have auctions of Israeli art in Israel, but we do support many initiatives by local museums and other Israeli institutions."


What do you think about New Media? Video? Performance?

"Israeli artists seem to engage in New Media more than artists elsewhere in the world, but it is still a tougher field to sell on the art market. It can be difficult to exhibit at a home environment, it sometimes requires extensive space, often a public space. Often the technology changes. If you bought a video on DVD ten years ago, you won’t be able to play it today, and if you purchased a neon work, you may find that it is impossible to replace the bulbs because they are no longer being manufactured. It's a groundbreaking field, but it is still challenging in terms of selling. Video, installation and performance art have in common the ability of creating powerful immersive art space, this might not be for everyone."


How do you explain the fact that Israeli artists create more in New Media?

"We are a young country. We have the Bible and the 20th century, not much visual culture in between. We don't have the important painting traditions, architecture and traditional art academies of Europe; art studies have existed here only since the establishment of Bezalel Academy in 1906. We’ve entered art in the middle, as it were, so there is a lot of freedom. You may have compared it to the concept of "Start-up Nation"; since Israelis don't have inhibitions from the past, it is easier for us to change as we go along. This is one of the things that make Israeli art particularly interesting. It is highly charged, politically as well as personally, and these are themes which are less profoundly addressed abroad."


In what would you recommend art collectors to invest today?

"We don't usually discuss investments. Investment is a problematic term. As someone who works in an auction house, I regard myself as an advisor and art specialist. When someone wants to purchase a certain work of art, I would primarily tell him to look at the art work: Who is the artist? When was the work created? Has it been restored? What were similar works sold for in recent years? What is its artistic content? It is up to the buyer to decide. For some, the top price would be $500, and for others—$5,000, and I won’t tell someone 'you should buy now for $5,000 because next year it will be worth $10,000.' I can't predict the future. I can recommend up-and-coming artists who I admire, or tell a client that he is bidding too high. The first thing a buyer must consider is whether he will fall in love with the object. In any event, I will always tell a collector who approaches me to buy the best quality work within his budget, regardless of whether it is a print, a photograph, a video, or a painting."

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