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Interviews

Mari-Claudia Jiménez: A Lawyer’s Lawyer at Sotheby’s

By Anthony Calnek

W hen Mari-Claudia Jiménez came to Sotheby’s in 2016 as Senior Vice President and Managing Director of Trusts and Estates & Valuations, it was the first professional move the high-powered lawyer had made after more than a decade at Herrick Feinstein LLP, the firm renowned for its art and cultural property practices. At Herrick, Jiménez worked on many transactions that captured world-wide attention, including the sale to the Neue Galerie of Gustav Klimt’s Adele Block-Bauer I, at the time the most expensive painting ever sold (she represented the buyer), and the restitution of five Malevich masterpieces worth hundreds of millions, two of which were sold at Sotheby’s (Jiménez represented the sellers).

Mari-Claudia-portrait
Mari-Claudia Jiménez

At Sotheby’s, the energetic Jiménez has brought her creativity, lawyer’s work ethic and ready smile to several high-profile auctions, including the $108 million sale of masterworks from the collection of billionaire businessman Morton Mandel, and the estate of legendary figures like Barbara and Frank Sinatra. Recently promoted to Chairman, Jiménez has reimagined her department, rechristening it the Fiduciary Client Group and broadening its focus beyond estates to providing strategic guidance for fiduciaries at all stages of their client’s art collections.

Just after the gavel came down on the successful Sinatra sale – a runaway success in which more than 1,000 bidders from over 30 countries vied for amateur paintings by Frank and diamonds owned by Barbara, among other highlights – I checked in with Mari-Claudia to find out more about her vision for the group.

Barbara-and-Frank-Sinatra
BARBARA AND FRANK SINATRA. COURTESY OF THE ESTATE OF BARBARA SINATRA.

Q. At Herrick Feinstein, you often found yourself representing clients in a negotiation with Sotheby’s, and now you are on the other side of that equation. What has the move been like?

A. My goal has always been to put the interests of my clients first, and since I have spent more than a decade looking at things from the client’s perspective, now that I am at Sotheby’s I’m finding that I can actually do much more for them from inside the auction house by helping convey this client and fiduciary viewpoint to my colleagues during the business getting process. It’s often surprising to see the kinds of things that can make or break a deal for a client- as it’s not always the obvious—terms, estimates—that are the deciding factor. Fiduciaries have a very distinct viewpoint when they are working with a collector and are assisting them with long term planning around their collection. Having been in their shoes, it’s really important to stress that our team is focused on being the partner and advocate for all fiduciaries who work with Sotheby’s. We understand the goals they are trying to achieve and we will work with our specialist colleagues to make sure those goals are met. Now that I am on the inside and am privy to the inner workings of the auction house, I am always amazed by how talented our colleagues are and how dedicated they are to delivering on their promises. Here’s a good example: this past November we sold a painting by Egon Schiele for $25 million, which followed a very complex route to auction. It was an amazing restitution case that took several years, and it so happened that I had worked with Lucian Simmons on it while I was at Herrick, as I was representing the heirs of the Jewish woman who had originally owned the painting but lost it during World War II. It was such an emotionally charged history, and having continued to be involved with the painting once I arrived at Sotheby’s, I saw how sensitively and expertly the Sotheby’s team told the family’s story and how they crafted a narrative around them and the painting that brought the painting’s importance to life. This narrative was the key to the family achieving an extraordinary price for the work and all of us were overjoyed for the family that the sale was such a success.

Q. Why have you rechristened the department the Fiduciary Client Group?
A. When people hear “Trusts and Estates” they tend to think we are only interested in a client after they have died. But we can be so helpful during the entire lifecycle of a collector. Once he or she acquires a collection of value, it makes sense to understand all of the financial and legal implications of owning art, and we work with fiduciaries to help create a sale or planning strategy that can look ahead for years or even decades.

Q. Many departments here work with clients over the course of decades. What sets the Fiduciary Client Group apart?
A. The primary difference is that we don’t work with individual collectors, but rather with their lawyers, bankers, family offices, or other fiduciaries – the professionals who have a very wide view of their client’s needs, and know how their art collections fit into the context of their larger holdings.

Q. In legal practice, you worked with several auction houses. What is different about the Fiduciary Client Group at Sotheby’s?
A. We are primarily lawyers, and so we speak the same language and anticipate the issues that are important to fiduciaries. I don’t know of any other auction house that can say that.

Q. Are there other differences between Sotheby’s and its competitors that should be of particular interest to fiduciaries?
A. Yes, there are several, most notably that we are the only auction house that is a publicly traded corporation. Sotheby’s has to adhere to the highest standards of accountability and transparency – there’s no funny business going on here. But there are also differences in style and approach. Sotheby’s is particularly committed to storytelling, and through its digital channels has brought it to a level altogether higher than any other auction house. That’s important in our world, because when we are selling an estate, we are also telling the story behind the collector. Just this past season, we essentially created biographical videos and articles about Barbara and Frank Sinatra, Robin Williams, Pierre Bergé, and Nelson and Happy Rockefeller. I’ve been especially impressed with how sensitive my Sotheby’s colleagues are to the multidimensional needs of the heirs, and how powerfully and respectfully those stories are told. When that’s done correctly, buyers become enraptured and that’s when we see auction after auction exceeding the high estimates.

Q. What’s the best way for a fiduciary to reach out to you and your group?
A. We would love to hear from you! You can find the complete contact list for the international team by clicking here. Feel free to email or call any of us. If you’ve never come to Sotheby’s, we’ll happily give you a tour of any exhibition or take you to a live auction. We also host focused panel discussions during the year. And every single person who reads this far should take a moment to sign up for our monthly email newsletter!

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