There’s an air about Grégoire Billault, the new head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s New York, but not the one typically associated with persons of his stature. His relaxed demeanor and accessibility belie his sophistication in the fiercely competitive art-auction market, where he’s risen to power-player status over a 15-year career at Sotheby’s.
“Grégoire is an adept and passionate expert. His market instincts are exacting and refined. Clients swear by him,” says his boss, Co-Chair of Sotheby’s Fine Art division Amy Cappellazzo, who herself has shattered and recast the mold for business success in the art world, smashing sales records and outdated conventions along the way. After 13 years at Christie’s, Cappellazzo boldly left in 2014 to found a booming boutique art advisory firm that Sotheby’s bought for up to $85 million last January in a major auction world shake-up.
Not unlike Cappellazzo, Billault came from outside the establishment and has been the architect of his own success. His first professional art job was as a 24-year-old technician at a contemporary gallery in Paris, hanging pieces and repainting walls. In high school, some of his friends “would go to the cinema or theater, and I was going to museums,” Billault recalls. “I did my master’s on 17th-century French painting—Poussin and those guys. I discovered contemporary art very late. At university, I was big in literature, history and philosophy. I took my first course on the history of art at age 20, and that was a big wow.”
That “wow” still reverberates in Billault, 26 years and countless auctions later. “I’m like a kid in a candy store. Even talking about my work makes me smile.” Billault’s first auction in May, as the head of Contemporary Art in New York, came at a bumpy moment for both the market and the 272-year-old house, which saw its stock price fall as it cut 80 of its 1,600 employees through voluntary buyouts. The $242 million May sale, with 42 of 44 lots sold, was hailed as a major comeback for Sotheby’s.
“There were some very tough moments this year for sure,” Billault says, referring to the major layoffs at Sotheby’s. “We lost some really dear friends. At the same time, I’m a huge believer in young people and their energy, and this gave a lot of young people opportunity.”
As for the market, Billault pushed back against recent gloomy reports. “Yes, there’s less stuff for sale because people don’t feel it’s the right moment to sell. The volumes are down, but the prices are not. Are we seeing the same levels like in 2014 or 2015? No, for sure not. Do we have to be a bit more cautious? Yes. But when we arrive with the right material at the right price, the market is there big time.”
Billault has organized dozens of salesroom spectacles over the years, many featuring staggeringly valuable artwork by icons. Yet he has no particular auction day routine. “I’ve probably lost six months of life expectancy for every sale,” he says. “But I love it. I love this idea that you have to deliver on that day, at that moment, because when you sell something of that caliber, it’s not like a private sale where you can go back and forth. No. ‘It’s 7:22 and it’s lot 18 and it’s now!’ That’s a great feeling, to be pushed against a wall and there’s no escape. You have to stand for it and you have to deliver.”
Billault wears many hats: art historian, salesman, market reader, confidant and counselor. What advice does he offer clients in the throes of making big money decisions? “I’m always a long-run guy. I’m not going to sacrifice a relationship to try to grab a bid out of someone for the wrong reasons. I believe in the works I’m taking, so I’m in a position where I feel very good about pushing someone to bid. There’s definitely conviction there.”
Full of conviction, Billault seems free of covetousness. “I’m not someone who needs to own stuff,” he says. “Yes, I buy, but collecting would be a very arrogant word to use. I’m surrounded by masterpieces, so when you’re in my position, there’s a little frustration there.”
Besides, Billault has been rather busy working since moving to New York nearly five years ago, and rapidly acclimating. (He was the head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s in Paris since 2004.) “I’m very, very French, so it was a bit of a culture shock for me.” There were “a lot of challenges” for Billault, who lives in Westchester with his wife and two teenage children, who “didn’t speak a word of English” when they arrived. “But, come on, we only have one life.”
He’s also full of admiration for both artists and collectors. “Artists have the toughest job on the planet,” he says. “Every day they have to do something, to be relevant and to different. I’ve got two left hands; I can’t draw one single thing.” As for consignors, “these are the ones who make my life. Yes, I’m working for Sotheby’s, but it’s on behalf of these consignors who give me their amazing work.”
Recognizing that markets “hate uncertainty,” Billault understands the need, in uncertain times, for flexibility. With anxieties over Brexit lingering, and a sense of precariousness surrounding the U.S. Presidential election, Sotheby’s will move its fall sales, typically held in New York during the second week of November, to the week after the election, “so people will have a little time to adjust.”
As indefatigable as he is artlessly charming, Billault feels upbeat about the market and the future of his division at Sotheby’s under Cappellazzo. “Amy and I are as different as you can imagine, but that’s great; it’s part of our success so far. Amy has such confidence. I’m more hesitant. She’s afraid of absolutely nothing. I’m going to learn with her, for sure. It’s a great combo.”
On a sweltering July day in his York Avenue office surrounded by windows and Blue-Chip art, Billault has just returned from a week in which he had traveled to London, Paris, Scotland and Monaco. He is working with “private collectors, foundations, so many diverse clients—a Lebanese banker, or a Korean tycoon, or the son of a very rich guy. It’s exciting for me to be able to talk to a tech guy in Palo Alto, a very old French count or a German banker. The great thing about this work is that whether I’m talking to a 25-year-old collector or an 85-year-old collector, it’s the same conversation about what’s fantastic. And you get to be close to very special works of art, and that is always something that makes my heart beat. For sure.”