In a character study of the top three New York auction houses, Phillips might be considered the adventurous younger sibling, carving out a market for cutting-edge contemporary work, more willing than its larger kin to cross departmental boundaries between photography, contemporary art, and design. “Overall, we are a smaller company than our competitors,” says Vanessa Hallett, senior director and worldwide head of photographs at Phillips, “which allows us to easily cross-market with departments.”
For ten years, the last five as worldwide head of photographs, Hallett has guided the department with a drive that landed her on Art+Auction’s influential Power 100 list in 2011. In the April sales last year, Phillips overall total, $7 million, exceeded that of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. “I like introducing photographers like Alex Prager and Ruud van Empel to the secondary market,” says Hallett, adding that it’s also undeniably satisfying to set records, like Helmut Newton’s triptych, Walking Women, Paris, 1981, which sold last season for $905,000. “It’s kind of a thrill to know that people appreciate the things you’ve dedicated your life to,” she says.
Hallett is a Manhattan native whose mother, a lawyer, regularly took her to exhibitions and museums. “I think she pushed me to pursue the career that she never had in the arts,” she says. Upon graduating from Colgate University, where she earned a BA in art history and studio art, she took a job at the Peabody Essex Museum, giving tours about the Salem Witch Trials, among other things. “I loved working with the public,” says Hallett, “but I missed the business side of the industry.”
So she moved back to New York to study fine and decorative arts at Sotheby’s Institute of Arts, where she explored everything from colonial furniture to contemporary art. That led to a job in client services at Sotheby’s. “I worked with many departments,” she says, “and I realized that photography collectors were really intelligent, kind people, who were generous with information. It pushed me even further to pursue the field.”
Hallett calls herself “a true generalist… I love the classics, and I am really excited by contemporary work as well.” One highlight was working with fashion photographer Steven Meisel to organize his first touring selling exhibition, Role Play, in 2014. Another: working with the Art Institute of Chicago to oversee the deaccessioning of rare photographs from its collection, which sold in October of 2014 for $6.7 million.
This fall is setting up to be a busy period for her: in addition to preparing for the auctions, Hallett is preparing for the birth of her second child, due in December. (She and her husband, Joseph Hallett, have an almost two-year-old.) And there are clients to visit, catalogues to prepare, and art fairs to attend. “I wish I could attend more,” she says. “My philosophy is, as long as the fairs are adding to the education in the field, it’s fantastic. Seeing is learning, and the first step in developing your knowledge is just looking.”