Jussi Pylkkänen wields the gavel at Christie’s
By Tyyne Pennanen in London
“Seven-point two million, and it’s yours, Isabelle”, says Jussi Pylkkänen in flawless English, and bangs the gavel on the table. Picasso’s Tête de femme, dating back to 1963, has changed owners.
On sale at the evening sale at the Christie’s auction house are impressionist, modern, and surrealist paintings. Collectors sit in the auditorium as dealers speak into their telephones on the side. They shout to the collectors who want to keep their names out of the public eye, or who were just not able to show up in person.
Pylkkänen’s eyes scan the room, where there are hundreds of people. An auctioneer needs to have a sharp eye. Someone might make a bid simply by raising a pencil to his chin.
The next day, a satisfied man sits in his office.
The previous evening Pylkkänen sold nearly EUR 88 million worth of art, which is four times as much money as the combined ticket sales and subsidies of the Ateneum, Kiasma, and Sinebrichoff art museums in Helsinki in a single year. “Yesterday evening you witnessed a turning point in the art market. We even exceeded our own estimate.”
Pylkkänen would seem to be right. Later on the day of the interview, Sotheby’s, the main competitor of Christie's, sets an all-time auction record: a bronze statue by Alberto Giacometti is sold for about EUR 75 million. After a one-year slump, the art market is on the rise again.
Pylkkänen says that the past three or four years have brought a new generation of collectors onto the market. They are successful people in the global economy from different parts of the world - bankers, oligarchs, and oil men.
“Our generation is quite wealthy, and buying art has become respectable. Today, those aged between 45 and 55 are selling off their companies and buying art. The generation of our parents were more concerned about their investments.”
Pylkkänen also sees collecting art to be a safe investment; works by Picasso keep their value.
As money flows into art, artists, curators, and experts frequent exhibitions and sales events around the world. Pylkkänen might be in Washington one day, Abu Dhabi the next, and later, in Moscow.
“Working at Christie’s means working in the core of the art market. This is the bourse for art. I work with gallery owners, organise loans of works of art to museums, and give insurance companies estimates on the value of different works.”
But how did this best-kept secret of Finland emerge to the top of the international art market?
Pylkkänen picks up a Mannerheim DVD next to a portrait of Winston Churchill, and wipes invisible dust from the top of it.
It has been ten years since he last visited Finland. Pylkkänen’s parents moved to London in the early 1960s, and he has lived all of his life in England, and prefers to speak English.
He got his first contact with cultural circles through his grandfather Olavi Veistäjä, the head of the cultural department of the Tampere newspaper Aamulehti. Pylkkänen’s father Matti Pylkkänen also had art as a hobby. “I decided already when I was young to take a career that I could enjoy.”
He joined Christie’s back in the late 1980s. The biggest change that has taken place during his career has been the increased internationalisation of the business.
“When I started at Christie’s, my supervisors felt that it is not possible for someone with a Finnish name to make a career in a British company. If we got a letter from Europe, it was seen as a problem. Too difficult to deal with. You would have to fly somewhere.” Over 20 years later he has risen to the upper echelons of the company, and only one in four of those working at the London office are British.
“The art world today is completely global. Especially in modern art, nationality is of no consideration.”
Consequently, Pylkkänen is surprised that there are not more Finns on the international art scene. Older Finnish art is not very well known around the world.
“For instance, nobody knows who Hugo Simberg or Akseli Gallen-Kallela are. When the London National Gallery bought Gallen-Kallela’s Keitele, it paid 300,000 pounds for it. That’s nothing”. The last time that Finnish art was prominently on display in London was in 1986. At that time, the Hayward Gallery had an exhibition called Dreams of a Summer Night with paintings from the Nordic Countries from the late 19th and early 20th century. “It raised much interest.”
Pylkkänen feels that the lack of notoriety is unfortunate, especially for younger Finnish artists. He feels that they should be encouraged to establish ties with the international market.
“Finland’s Ministry of Culture should organise a large exhibition in London with the British Department for Culture, Media & Sport in order to get names of young artists onto the map.”
There might even be a dealer ready to help.
“Here I am, your contact in the world”, Pylkkänen says, spreading his arms. “I would be ready to use my influence. If the Finnish Minister of Culture wants to contact me, I would be glad to help.”
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 23.2.2010
TYYNE PENNANEN / Helsingin Sanomat