An Exclusive Interview with Liz Sterling
SVP. Head of American Art Department, Senior Specialist
by Asaf Rolef Ben-Shahar, PhD
Thank you Liz for your willingness to participate in this Interview. First, we would like to offer a belated congratulations for the new position as the head of Sotheby’s American Art Department.
Given that big changes always require time for adjustments, how do you feel your transition has been? How do you feel in your new role?
With my previous experience in the auction world, and the warm welcome I received from my colleagues at Sotheby’s, the transition into this role has been quite smooth.
Where is your professional passion? What would you be interested in achieving in your professional path?
There are a number of American Modern artists that I feel are still undervalued in the market and I would love to bring them more to the forefront as they were doing incredibly interesting work. I still believe that works by Stieglitz Circle artists – a group of talented Americans artists working in the 1910s-1940s – has yet to reach its potential. Also the Park Avenue Cubists – a group of artists working in New York in the 1920s-1940s. I’d also like to broaden the market for American Art by integrating works into other sale categories.
What does a regular day at work looks like for you?
One of the great things about this role is that no two days are alike! From travelling across the country to presiding over a sale, strategizing over business development to previewing museum exhibitions, each day is unique and somewhat unpredictable.
How do you balance Artistic integrity and curiosity with financial thinking and planning? Have you ever found yourself conflicted there? Can you share a story about it?
The intersection of art and business is at the core of this company, and being able to walk into an office where my passion is my work is a delight.
Let’s talk about the masterpiece market of the American art in 2016, where does it stand with regards to Auction results and private collections sales?
The American Art market is seeing considerable strength for big-name artists. In the last year, we sold two major works by John Singer Sargent – Poppies for $6.9 million and Staircase in Capri for $4.1 million – as well as a superb painting by Norman Rockwell, Which One? For $6.5 million.
All three of these works of art, while diverse in subject matter, achieved strong results at auction, in part due to their freshness to the market.
It seems that your American Art department has made some important achievements last year, particularly with the rare John Singer Sargent’s oil painting which was sold for $6.9M (The total auction achieved in total $27.1M). Would you share with us other special artwork which made important achievements this year?
In addition to some of the major works by John Singer Sargent and Norman Rockwell Sotheby’s sold in 2016, we were delighted to have been able to offer a Milton Avery in our Contemporary Art Evening Auction in November. Presented amongst works by some of the hottest contemporary artists, Sea & Sand Dunes, a fantastic example of the artist’s balance of realism and abstraction, achieved $3.6 million, the second highest price for the artist at auction.
How would you characterize buyers of American Art? Do they usually remain loyal to this art category, or you can see them bidding also on Chinese art or any other category?
With globalization, we’re seeing more crossover amongst our clientele. Traditional collectors of American paintings have been looking towards other categories of fine art as well as decorative art, wine, jewelry and watches, while a number of collectors previously outside of the American art space are becoming engaged. This is particularly true for top artists such as Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth and John Singer Sargent.
In 2016, we have seen a “release” of several private collections to the market, including David Bowie’s great collection of American Art, which was handled by Sotheby’s. What can you tell us about this collection? Have all the items been sold at auctions?
Our sale of David Bowie’s collection was an immense success, totaling $41.1M with 100% of lots sold and 46 new auction records set. Catapulted by the power of provenance, the sale was a true team effort, straddling numerous departments, including British Art, Contemporary Art, Impressionist & Modern Art, Contemporary African Art and 20th Century Design.