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editorials - March - April 2004

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Interview with William F. Ruprecht,
President and CEO, Sotherby's Holding, Inc.



Henry Howard-Sneyd and William F. Ruprecht.

Tuyet Nguyet—If you don't mind I would like to ask you some direct questions. I know you have worked at Sotheby's for twenty-three years. Can you tell me more about yourself and your background? Were you born in America ?

William F. Ruprecht—I was born in America in a state called Missouri in a city called St. Louis . My parents were both from the New York area but they moved to Missouri and I was born there. And my family had a small ranch in Wyoming , which is cowboy country. So as a child I grew up in the American west and Missouri . My mother was a painter and my father ran public companies in the United States . So it now feels a lot like Sotheby's is a combination of these influences because I have an artistic and visual background and a business background.
T.N.—Which university did you attend?

W.F.R.—I went to several universities. I finished at the University of Vermont . Before that I had been studying at the University of Colorado and one of my professors was Arnold Chang.

T.N.—No kidding. I just saw him recently at the Sotheby's Hong Kong auctions. He is not that old?

W.R.F.—He was about eighteen months older than me I think. He was teaching Chinese calligraphy. In 1980 when I got to Sotheby's New York I was probably one of the first people in to our current building. I was walking into my office and I looked up and saw Arnold . I said, ``I know you. You taught me Chinese painting.'' The first time we met after this course at the University of Colorado in the early 1970s, was at Sotheby's. It is so funny.

T.N.—What were your majors when you were at university?

W.F.R.—Everything you can imagine. I was always a painter, always a sculptor, always doing artistic things, but at university I studied mathematics, biology, veterinary medicine and I finished finally in sculpture and fine arts.

T.N.—You must have an artistic background to understand the scope of Sotheby's.

W.F.R.—It's an addictive place, full of wonderful people, objects and challenges.

T.N.—What made you join Sotheby's twenty-three years ago?

W.F.R.—I had been an apprentice to a furniture maker who made copies of 18th century English and American furniture. For example, if you had six chairs and you wanted twelve we could make the extra six. I was living in Vermont which is very cold and I wanted to move someplace that was warmer where there were more people. So I got a summer job at Sotheby's. I did not have a full-time job. I just got a summer job typing.

T.N.—How old were you at that time?

W.F.R.—I was twenty-three or twenty- four. I was very lucky. Then I got involved with textiles and tapestries. I know quite a bit about Persian, Turkish, Chinese fabrics, textiles and rugs. I did that for ten years.

T.N.—Wonderful, in that case you really have a very good background on Asian art.

W.F.R.—When you do textiles you need to know a bit about every culture. I know a fair amount on Chinese textile art, Central Asian textile art, European and Turkish textile art but I am not a specialist in any of those areas. You need to know about all of them in the world that I grew up in.

T.N.—That is very good and I am glad because I thought you purely had a financial background. I was wondering how you could understand the world of art and its relationship to Sotheby's. Now my heart is at ease.

W.F.R.—Sotheby's is not like other companies. It's more like a theatrical company or a university. The people are everything and they get along most of the time. Sometimes they bicker with one another, but when it comes time to have the show everybody is lined up and united.

T.N.—I think it is how it should be. Did you ever expect you would become the President and Chief Executive Officer in such a short time?

W.F.R.—No, but some complicated things happened in the history of Sotheby's and four years ago I was asked by the Board to take over the position.

T.N.—Are you a Mr Fixer? I mean when there are problems will you know how to solve them?

W.F.R.—I would think by today I have seen most any problem you can imagine. But you never know, as there is always something new in this world and you never know what the next problem or challenge will be. But I think if you are calm in general and respect the people you work with, you can get through most problems. Our clients have been wonderful.

T.N.—Very well said. How did you meet Mr Marion [former President and chief auctioneer of Sotheby Parke Bernet's Madison Avenue galleries] and how did you become friends so he would teach you to become a successful auctioneer?

W.F.R.—In those days John would teach one person or two people to be an auctioneer. For some reason, and you never know why, he decided the combination of my voice and my manner could make me an auctioneer. So what he used to do was sit in his office and have a beef sandwich and a bottle of beer and eat his lunch, and he put an auctioneer's catalogue in my hand and he would try to trip me up by putting me out of sequence with auctioneer patter. He did this once a week or so for months. We got to spend quite a lot of time together which is very nice.

T.N.—So you managed to build up a strong friendship even up to now?

W.F.R.—Absolutely. He is an avid emailer. He is on the email at five in the morning and he is also now a very good fisherman. I also love to fish so he sends me notes about the fish he caught or how things are going in Montana . He has a spectacular spot with mountains and rivers in which to fish.


William F. Ruprecht taking an auction.

T.N.—When did you conduct your first auction?

W.F.R.—It was probably in 1983 or 1984. It was Persian textiles and carpets. The first time I took an auction I was at the end of a cold flu. I remember being on the podium and I did twenty or thirty lots when I got a tickle at the back of my throat and I could not stop coughing. So there I was young and inexperienced in front of three or four hundred people coughing and then my eyes started watering. I stayed like this for about five minutes until a friend of mine who was an auctioneer came and took me out of the podium to the back to give me a drink of water because I could not continue.


I always remember this as I think it is a good thing to be in front of a bunch of people and not always be perfect. Some auctioneers like to set themselves as, shall I say, imperious. However, the very best auctioneers somehow find a way to connect to almost everybody. When you are selling at your very best you sort of know whether the person is going to bid again or not. Some people wish to be flattered or paid attention to, some people wish to be ignored and will only bid if they are ignored. You need to look at people and make a decision how they wish to be approached on that day.

T.N.—What are the necessary qualities to be an effective auctioneer?

W.F.R.—You need to have respect for the property, but you really need to be able to read people. If you can't do numbers you are probably going to be in trouble, but I have not met anybody who is so bad at numbers that they couldn't do a workmanlike job at auctioneering. The best auctioneers don't know even what words are coming out of their mouth. It is all intuitive I think and you are largely working on looking rather than being worried about what words are coming out of your mouth. For example, if I look at you and see you starting to coil and become tense then I would think that you are thinking about bidding. Then I would have to look at you, wait and acknowledge you and see whether or not you will participate.

T.N.—Very well put because I want you to know that I declare Henry Howard-Sneyd one of the very best auctioneers in Hong Kong .

W.F.R.—That's fantastic. I am very pleased as well Henry is at Sotheby's. He represents us very successfully.

T.N.—Being a successful auctioneer is what makes your best pieces realise the highest prices and he did it at your 30th anniversary Hong Kong sales. You can read about it in our January–February 2004 magazine's Saleroom News reports. In fact through these reports we have made Sotheby's and Christie's auctions better known around the world. This is one of the ways dealers and collectors refer to them. They are very important.

W.F.R.—Can I ask you a couple of questions?

T.N.—Sure.

W.F.R.—How's business?

T.N.—For my subscriptions it is very good. A lot of people do not want to travel so our subscriptions have been increasing steadily.

W.F.R.—It is probably none of my business but you said you are going to ask me direct questions. So does most of your revenue come from advertisers or subscribers?

T.N.—More revenue comes from subscribers.

W.F.R.—How do you build a subscriber base? Do you do mail or do you have to show up places and ask people to buy?

T.N.—We distribute our magazine worldwide. For example in America we have over six hundred outlets selling Arts of Asia.

W.F.R.—But that is single copy, right?

T.N.—Each outlet may carry a number of copies of the latest issue. We send over three thousand copies to America alone. And then we have over two thousand subscribers in your country. Each time when they renew their subscriptions I also write to them and ask them to please introduce Arts of Asia magazine to their friends. And they respond because they enjoy the magazine and appreciate its content of serious and valuable information on Asian art and antiques. To take out a gift subscription to the magazine is very reasonable so many of them do this. Their friends when they receive the magazine will think of them. It only costs US$70.

W.F.R.—That's cheap. How many issues do you get?

T.N.—For a US$70 gift subscription you receive six issues a year including mailing.

W.F.R.—Do you have to keep a group of writers or journalists on staff?

T.N.—No, we have so many articles being sent in to us. People who write for us have to be knowledgeable and experienced in their subject. They should be specialists and professionals. I am very pleased to tell you that for nearly thirty-four years now we have had to turn down so many articles because we only publish six issues every year. We have more articles than we can use. People want to be seen in our magazine because we have international exposure. The publicity they receive is fantastic.

W.F.R.—I think it is a terrific publication. I have read it for years.

T.N.—Really?

W.F.R.—Absolutely. Henry for years has been telling me that he wants to advertise more in your magazine, but I would not let him.

T.N.—Now that you have met me you really should not do that.

W.F.R.—I have long arms, but not long enough to completely grab the purse.

T.N.—Also exposure on our online website is very good. We have at least thirty-five thousand hits every month and we sell a lot of back issues and subscriptions through the Internet. But most of all we have so many outlets and bookstores. Arts of Asia is the only specialist Asian art magazine that truly has international distribution. We are now even in China .

W.F.R.—Whom do you compete with in China ?

T.N.—From what we know in China we are the first and only English-language Asian art magazine being distributed.

W.F.R.—Are there lots of art magazines in China ?

T.N.—There are a few but they do not have the same level of content and information. They tend to focus an awful lot on the people. Our nearest competition only prints around four thousand copies. You should also look at the quality of our publication. We are printing on both sides coated real art paper ordered from Japan .

W.F.R.—We need to have a talk about your paper quality. It is so good. I'm not sure you need to have quite this quality. I know it is very good. Do you print here?

T.N.—We print in Hong Kong . My son Robin spends three days and three nights at the factory supervising the printing and quality control. Take a look at our September–October 2003 National Museum of Indonesia issue. It is unique. The Director of this museum instructed her staff to bring out each piece for us to photograph their collection. We had to go there and spend seven days to take the photographs to produce this special number.

W.R.F.—Actually, you did very well.

T.N.—It took seven working days. We had one photographer with two assistants and eight security guards from the museum. Just to remove the glass case around the stone sculpture exhibit for the cover picture took six men. We have very good relations with the museum and wrote about their collections over twenty-five years ago. I also know many of the important collectors in Indonesia and even encouraged them to come to bid at auction in Hong Kong . Henry has also given a talk to the members at the Oriental Ceramics Society of Indonesia . I know Dr Handojo Susanto, the Chairman of that society, and I was working to make that happen.

W.R.F.—I have to ask you another question. What do we need to do to be better?

T.N.—Do you mean at Sotheby's?

W.F.R.—Yes, tell me what we should be doing that we are not doing?

T.N.—I think the first thing you need to do is spend more money in your publicity. For example many of my richer friends forget about your jewellery sales. Nowadays you don't advertise your jewellery sales, which is a pity. I really mean it. We have a smaller budget than you but we also advertise and do publicity. Once or twice a year we send out one thousand copies to special names and addresses, which take time to prepare. Those are the people we have been told are interested in Asian art. That is direct publicity and usually the response has been good. This is what we have been doing, but you need to have a budget to do that. We also travel and we meet people. We give a lot of free advice and people introduce us to their collector friends. At Sotheby's I think your budget for publicity is too small.

W.F.R.—Well I asked.

T.N.—Your budget is too small. You even combine a number of important sales into one advertisement. People hardly see it. People are busy these days. You know they are attracted by lovely subjects in the advertisements and want to see more. This encourages collectors to bid at auctions.

W.F.R.—And if I could do anything in my business that could help your publication what would you like us to do, other than taking twenty pages of advertisements in your magazine?

T.N.—No, you do not need to do that.

W.F.R.—But what could we do to help your business?

T.N.—I would like to do more direct marketing. If you have the list of people you would like us to send a complimentary magazine we will be very happy to do it.

W.R.F.—Well, we might be able to cooperate in some way.

T.N.—Sure, I will be very happy to do that worldwide.

W.R.F—Clearly people who buy Chinese snuff bottles, paintings, porcelain and furniture for example, will have an interest in your publication.

T.N.—We are also introducing new subjects in our magazine. In our November–December 2003 Australian Museums issue we published an article on contemporary Aboriginal painting. Tim Klingender, the expert at Sotheby's Australia, also wrote a Saleroom News report for us on his best ever sale in this field. We can certainly do some cooperation with you. Now in China people react very favourably to our magazine because it is available at the bookstores of major hotels, airports and museums. This is how we also get new subscribers. The auction houses and galleries also have to count on us to help create new collectors. If we have one hundred new subscribers a few of them will become collectors. Often when we publish special museum issues they can order over one thousand extra copies for sale in the museum shops and to give to important donors and members. Even contributors sometimes buy hundreds of copies to give to friends and collectors. That is a great way to promote the magazine to the right people.

Just yesterday Dr Stephen Markel, the Director at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called me and said how very proud they were of our January–February 2004 issue featuring on the cover his museum's Japanese netsuke from the Raymond and Frances Bushell Collection. The reason why I wanted to do this is because I went to the museum's Japanese Pavilion two times and very few people seemed to go there. So I said I wanted to make publicity so people around the world will visit. Since we have been doing the promotion more people are already going there. Through our efforts the dealers have been talking about it. Because that issue will be printed and distributed around the world more people will make the effort to see the collection.

W.F.R.—That is terrific.

T.N.—When we write about something people read it. Our magazine is not one of those you throw away. It is a reference book and people learn from the articles.

W.F.R.—Yes, I know.

T.N.—Our in-house Saleroom News reports about your successful Hong Kong 30th anniversary sales will bring more people who want to place their collections for sale at Sotheby's. I am absolutely certain about that. After reading the article and if they are thinking of selling their collections they will definitely think of Henry and give him a call. It does help. Every day we have people coming to our offices to read through the back issues as well as the auction and dealer catalogues we have on display. We have a place for them to sit down and they even take down notes. We are providing services to the auction houses and art dealers that nobody in the world is doing.

W.F.R.—Do you reprint the magazine?

T.N.—No, we never reprint. This has been my principle because I want people to treasure our magazine. Some of our readers have every copy of the magazine in their libraries.

W.F.R.—I didn't know people do that. It is wonderful to have a magazine which people collect.

T.N.—I want to show you this earlier 1971 issue of Arts of Asia where you can see the first Sotheby's London Saleroom News report written by Mr John K.T. Ma. I want you to see that our association with Sotheby's dates back a long way.

W.F.R.—That's impressive.

T.N.—And you need our magazine and our collector readers. Every day we produce new subscribers and those new subscribers may be a good potential buyer.

W.F.R.—I have an idea I want to talk to Henry about, because I think I can help you get more new clients.

T.N.—Yes, please do. I would love to discuss your ideas with Henry.

W.F.R.—We will figure it out.

T.N.—You will not regret it if you advertise your sales more in our magazine. You will receive millions of dollars in return because the majority of our subscribers are wealthy. I really mean it. I have a few more questions. Now that I realise you have been exposed to Asian art through your experience in textiles and rugs during your twenty-three years at Sotheby's including four years as President and CEO, what are your plans to make the company more successful?

W.F.R.—As you know the last four years have first been about finishing some difficult times where the whole business and industry was in a very challenging position. We have finished all of that.

T.N.—Are the difficult times over?

W.F.R.—Well they were over in the large part, but it is really only in the last three months that the art market broadly has really changed. Starting in September we have seen significant stronger prices in almost every collecting category in Italy , France , London , Hong Kong and New York . We have been seeing a lot stronger interest in many different fields. Frankly the strength of the bidding has truly surprised us. So we think we are looking at a different business and a different level of sales to what we have seen in the last three years. That is very good news because it will allow us to invest again in the future of the business. For the last several years our investments were largely related to keeping our staff together and to keeping the organisation feeling there is a strong future because we had some very difficult challenges. But we survived that and our staff did stay together and now we are looking to build and broaden our reach in a number of different parts of the world. But the most exciting part of the world right now without question is right here.

T.N.—You believe so?

W.F.R.—Oh yes, absolutely.

T.N.—So what are your plans to promote Sotheby's Holdings, Inc?

W.F.R.—You have seen me twenty minutes after I have arrived in Hong Kong, so I think it is best for me to say that I am here to listen and learn rather than to give pronouncements. Over the next year or two years I expect to be here a number of times and I will have a more coherent view of where we will want to be. But I think Henry will be leading our efforts in the region and I am here as much as anything to support him as opposed to redirect or change the directions he is pursuing. I think he has a very good feeling for the Asian market and we are confident in his leadership.

T.N.—You plan to visit this part of the world more often. Is this your first visit to Hong Kong ?

W.F.R.—Yes it is.

T.N.—From here where are you going to?

W.F.R.—I am going to Beijing and Shanghai .

T.N.—You should really go to Beijing and Shanghai . Will Henry be taking you?

W.F.R.—Yes. I will have a very intense tour!

T.N.—You will have a wonderful time, but no matter how busy you are you must allow two days for sightseeing. You must go to the Temple of Heaven , the palace and the museums.

W.F.R.—My schedule is largely prepared by Henry this time and I will swap notes with you at the end of the trip.

T.N.—I first visited Beijing in the winter of 1965. We were one of the first capitalist families to go to Beijing at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. We have been lucky and have been able to return many times since then and that is one of the reasons why we understand Chinese culture very well. I am glad to hear you plan to focus more on this part of the world. Do you believe there is going to be an increase in economic growth here?

W.F.R.—The growth in this part of the world is unlike anything in any other part of the world.

T.N.—Even more so than in Europe and America ?

W.F.R.—Not even close.

T.N.—So you are confident?

W.F.R.—I think there may be good days and there may be bad days. China has every possibility to do extraordinarily well in the next twenty years. I am not the first to say that I think it will be China 's century.

T.N.—I do tend to agree with you. Now, my son Michael collects paintings by American Modernist artists. Do you know anything about this area?

W.F.R.—A little bit.

T.N.—I wrote down that he likes Stuart Davis, Alfred Maurer and Albert Bloch.

W.F.R.—I know Stuart Davis very well. Stuart Davis is a very important American painter from the first half of the 20th century. His pictures can sell for many million US dollars.

T.N.—I didn't know.

W.F.R.—If he wants to sell the paintings just tell him to bring them to me and I will take care of him.

T.N.—His collection also includes the American self-taught artists William Hawkins, Sam Doyle, Minnie Evans, William Blaney and S.L. Jones. Many of these artists are Afro-American.

W.F.R.—My god, what is he doing in this part of the world collecting American paintings?

T.N.—He lives in New York City and has a wonderful apartment on Park Avenue .

W.F.R.—What type of business does he do?

T.N.—He is in finance. He used to work for Arts of Asia and fifteen years ago he married an American girl from Boston . He made some money and was therefore able to collect these American artists.

W.F.R.—Does he work for himself or one of the big financial institutions?

T.N.—Now he works for himself. So he has more time to collect American art.

W.F.R.—Do you come to New York to visit him?

T.N.—Normally a minimum of once a year, but he comes to see us at least two times a year. He has two beautiful daughters. Are you planning to bring any of those well-known Impressionist paintings to this part of the world, not for auction but to view and educate people?

W.F.R.—I think we need to bring more art to Asia . I am not confident Impressionist art is the best choice. It may be more contemporary things we should be bringing.

T.N.—What do you mean by contemporary?

W.F.R.—Things from the 20th century as opposed to things from the 19th century. I think we do need to bring works of art here from different cultures. Increasingly there is a real interest in people buying.

T.N.—Do you subscribe to the magazine?

W.F.R.—I am not your subscriber but I get handed your magazine every time it comes out.

T.N.—How come?

W.F.R.—I get about two hundred magazines every month and it is handed to me by my colleagues who get everything, but I always look at it. I look at every single issue and it is a pleasure.

T.N.—Can I ask you how old you are?

W.F.R.—I am getting old enough to lose count. I will be forty-eight in a couple of weeks.

T.N.—Amazing, you have already achieved so much. That means you were only forty-four when you became President of Sotheby's. I have to ask you what is the key to being a successful executive?

W.F.R.—I think it is important to just show up on time and work hard. Just keep working. You make much of your own luck. You cannot predict the future and sometimes things happen outside your control, but if you work hard and have friends, it helps you get along in this world.

T.N.—How do you view integrity?

W.F.R.—If people don't trust you, particularly in our line of work, you don't have a business. You can build up a reputation and blow it up in a day. Don't do it.

T.N.—That is beautifully put. Here is my final question. Though still a Director at Sotheby's I understand Mr Taubman is retired and left the business to his son whom I have met and is a very nice man. In fact he even asked his young son to give me two kisses. How is your relationship with Mr Taubman?

W.F.R.—I have a lot of respect for Mr Taubman (Sr.), and I work regularly with Bobby Taubman his son, who is on our Board. He is smart, talented, and has helped our business.

T.N.—Do you think Mr Taubman wants to sell his shares in Sotheby's?

W.F.R.—Ask Mr Taubman! But we are working very well together at this point.
 
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