Cheyenne Westphal is one of the most important names in the international auction scene, working with Sotheby’s and Phillips. Raised in Baden, Germany, she began her career as an intern at Sotheby’s in 1990 and went on to become the Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art in 2016. She then transferred to Phillips in 2017 to become the International Chairwoman earning herself the title of “the most powerful woman in contemporary art”. In this article, we look at her journey in the art industry, the key artists she worked with throughout her career, and what advice she has for people interested in joining the creative arts industry.
Cheyenne, you’re the Global Chairwoman of Phillips, the third-biggest auction house in the world. How did you get that title?
“My journey did not take place overnight. I began as a Junior Specialist in Sotheby’s storied basements. In this artistic environment in the 1990s, I developed my skills. My graduate scheme, which I believe we called a Junior Specialist position, built up my French, English, and German abilities, reflecting the significance of New York, London, and Paris in the art industry. These early years were spent reviewing, cataloguing, and developing client connections, which were critical in laying the groundwork for the chapters that followed in my art career.”
So, going back to before university, what made you study the history of art? And why at St. Andrews?
“I come from a little village near Baden-Baden in Germany. My career path, as it is for the majority of us, was uncertain when I was 18. My father had a friend whose daughter would stop by and tell him about her experience studying Medieval History at St. Andrews. My father then recommended we meet for coffee one day. I liked what she said, so I decided to go to Scotland and was fortunately awarded a scholarship, which also allowed me to learn about subjects like medical history, psychology, and business. I then moved to UC Berkeley, where I was able to study contemporary art.”
I’ve noticed that you are more interested in the business aspect of art. Do you think this helped you get a job at Sotheby’s?
“During my stay at UC Berkeley, the field of Business Studies guided my path, considerably affecting my understanding of contemporary art and the enormous potential of the art market. The suggestion of graduate schemes sparked enthusiasm, like discovering a new artist like Cindy Sherman. There were multiple possibilities, but my interests were directed to the major auction houses: Christie’s and Sotheby’s. London was the hub where most my Scottish friends went, and the capital of these auction houses. Christie’s? It did not resonate with me. But with Sotheby’s, everything fell into place. My multilingual abilities in English, German, and French proved useful in interacting with and assisting clientele throughout my career. Beyond languages, the skill of social interactions and the way you close a deal were also crucial. The graduate program at Sotheby’s was incredibly competitive, which gave me a platform to absorb, learn, and progress under industry experts.”
If you could pick three moments to describe your time at Sotheby’s, what would they be and why?
“My 25-year career at Sotheby’s was full of remarkable moments. If I had to choose, it certainly would be the private sale with Damien Hirst in 2008. Sotheby’s and Damien proposed that we have an auction immediately from the studio. With its massive 220 paintings, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” began. Damien’s genius was reflected in the building’s walls, floors, and catalogues. Surprisingly, this auction coincided with the 2008 Financial Crisis and the fall of Lehman Brothers, but momentum grew, propelling the sale above the $200 million milestone. It was a monument to art’s resilience in the face of economic upheaval. This was one of our busiest days, and I recall we kept Sotheby’s open till midnight.
Another key period was in 2011, when I immersed myself in the intriguing German collection Duerckheim. Navigating Basile’s legacy, an invitation over tea, flipping through photo albums, and discovering hidden jewels was an adventure in and of itself. Another key milestone was in 1999, when I was named Head of Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Department for Europe. This change increased the frequency with which I interacted with collectors, organised auctions, and honed my leadership skills. It was an odyssey, and every moment counted.”
Let’s fast forward a bit to when you were appointed the Worldwide Head of Contemporary Art. What challenges and difficulties did you encounter?
“Not every auction at Sotheby’s exceeded expectations. Despite the grandeur and readiness, there were times when things went wrong. It is during these difficult moments that I must reflect, hold critical discussions, assess our approach, and strategise for future endeavours. Securing the perfect masterpieces, persuading a client, and outshining competition are all difficult tasks in the art business, especially with the looming uncertainty of consistent financial success. It was fundamental to respond quickly to criticism and to form solid connections with collectors. These connections served as a beacon for us, paving the route to more successful auctions and providing a continual reminder of the complexities of art and commerce.”
What made you want to leave Sotheby’s and transfer to Phillips?
“I felt that I had achieved everything I could at Sotheby’s, and it was time for a change. The current CEO of Phillips, Edward Dolman, approached me in 2017 and told me that he wanted me to join the company as Chairwoman and that, given my knowledge of 20th- and 21st-century art, I would be a fantastic candidate. He also told me about Phillips expanding to open on Park Avenue in New York in the summer of 2023 and in St. George’s Building in Hong Kong. I was thrilled to take part in their mission and left Sotheby’s. We had a very successful year at Phillips, where we managed to achieve $1.3bn in sales in 2022.”
What artists did you work with throughout your career, and how do you sell the paintings?
“One of the most crucial artists that I worked with was the postwar German artist Gerhard Ritcher, where I sold his painting ‘Abstraktes Bild’ for $46.3 million in February 2015. This helped me understand that to become an expert in selling art, you need to learn how to sell quickly and develop the skillset. When selling a painting, you need to establish its value and learn how the work relates to the media, date, literature, and historical condition it is in.
You must be confident when discussing the selling process on your own and have a strong estimate and expectation of what the art is worth. ‘You have to look at the client’s motivation to sell to maximise the strong interest in the painting. Afterward, you need to follow up with a contract that you build based on the other houses’ prices, and you ensure it is a competitive price.’ ”
What knowledge did you acquire at Sotheby’s that allowed you to excel at Phillips?
“The development of a certain skill set was always the cornerstone of my career in the art profession. In Europe, I realised that language abilities can have a significant impact on how you finish an art project and the creation of interpersonal relationships. Every transaction has a buyer and a seller at its foundation, showing the commonality of human interactions. My deal-making abilities took the stage as I ventured into the domain of art. The capacity to sell and purchase art effectively became critical, reinforcing the notion that certain abilities are universally transferrable, regardless of category or domain.
It provides tremendous adaptability, with a focus on the 20th and 21st centuries. This versatility also allows us to appear on the street in locations where we previously had no presence, demonstrating the limitless possibilities that come with competence and preparation.”
What advice do you have for people who want to pursue a career in the art industry?
“Since the late 1980s and early 1990s, the art industry has grown exponentially, which means there is an array of different job opportunities for people who want to work in the art market. This ranges from auction houses providing internships and jobs in marketing and promotion, to art magazines with editorial and writing opportunities for people who are into journalism. Several art galleries also provide jobs for people who are more business-minded, such as consulting jobs, and there are also banks that provide grants for people interested in purchasing art with opportunities to work in the art industry. This would allow you to work directly with art collectors, buyers, and even some artists which is incredibly exciting for the future.
This is why I believe the art industry has loads of open opportunities and has become a nuanced and proper big system.”