Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Déjà vu All Over Again

Phillips de Pury & Co. has worked hard to cultivate its image as a younger, hipper version of Sotheby’s or Christie’s. They’re pushing the envelope, breaking new ground. Like any pioneering course of action, this one entails certain risks.

All summer they’ve been hyping their October 1st auction of hip-hop jewelry. Every week would bring a new press release telling us how cool it was that Tupak Shakur’s historic bling was coming up for sale. A part of the proceeds was even going to charity! It was as cheeky and innovative a move as attempting to auction little-known Diane Arbus sideshow photos. And as risky.

This week Phillips de Pury & Co. announced it was canceling the hip-hop jewelry auction. The reasons they gave sounded as fishy as the story of the White Knight buyer who was supposed to be buying the Arbus/Hubert’s archive.

In a September 19th article, the Village Voice sneered, “Ha ha ha ha! The long-awaited Phillips de Pury bling – ahem; ‘Hip Hop’s crown jewels’ – auction, originally scheduled for October 1, has been postponed to March of next year in order to ‘Accommodate Strong Market Interest in Works,’ which surely translates into something like ‘to accommodate strong rapper interest in keeping all the world’s gold to themselves,’ or ‘to accommodate the sudden extreme poverty of the dudes who would otherwise be ironically bidding on Diddy’s vintage Bad Boy chain.’ Presumably there aren’t a lot of hedge fund dudes looking for that ‘CRUNK AIN’T DEAD’ trophy piece for the condo they can no longer afford.”

A pattern seems to be establishing itself. Phillips tries something creative and risky. If it works they reap the publicity (as well as the profits). If it looks like it’s not going to fly they yank the sale and leave the ensuing mess to their lawyers and PR people to sort out.

Perhaps such behavior is simply an unfortunate byproduct of the auction gallery’s culture of youthful exuberance. The seemingly arbitrary cancellations make for exciting news, and Phillips has thus far managed to escape without much public relations damage. But Bob Langmuir has already felt the painful consequences of Phillips’ capricious conduct in a way that people like Biz Markie, Notorious B.I.G., or P. Diddy probably never will.