EVP, Chairman, Managing Director & Worldwide Co-Head of Business Development, Fine Arts
New York, New York
Past affiliations include Partner, Herrick Feinstein
JD Fordham Law School
MA Fordham University
BA Williams College
From law firm partner to fine arts leadership at Sotheby’s
On how to transition to art law as a first step to getting into the business of art
On her business role at Sotheby’s and the value of the JD degree
On taking a business job and being able to go back to law if it doesn’t work out
Listen to interview:
EXJ: With us today is Mari-Claudia Jimenez, Executive Vice President, Chairman, Managing Director and worldwide co-head of business Development, Fine Arts for Sotheby’s. Thanks for joining us. Most people, I think, know Sotheby’s as an auction house, but probably not much beyond that. If you could give us a capsule sketch of the company.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Sotheby’s is one of the two major international auction houses, and it is essentially part of a duopoly. This year we just released our results. We sold $8 billion worth of art and collectibles and luxury goods in 2022. We sell much more than art. I think if anything, people would know Sotheby’s for multimillion dollar paintings that are sold and make the news, or the occasional rare object like a dinosaur or a US Constitution. But we sell everything from those types of objects to wine, cars, jewelry, and everything in between.
EXJ: You’re heavily involved in NFTs I believe.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Yes, we have an element of our business which is a metaverse. NFTs are not quite where they used to be last year. Being that crypto is not where it once was. But yes, NFTs are also a very big part of our business.
EXJ: You went to Williams. When I think of Williams, I think of one of the best art history programs in the country. When you went there was in the back of your mind the idea that you would one day work in art in some way, shape or form?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: I think that was my intention when I became an art history major, and I went to Williams with that in mind. But I think that when you first graduate those entry level positions are a place where you really can’t make a living and you would really have to depend on either the largesse of friends and family, or you are going to be sharing an apartment in Brooklyn with ten people. I decided that maybe it would be better to do something a bit more lucrative, and that’s why I chose to go to law school, thinking that could be a good path for me and that I could keep art as a pastime.
EXJ: You did a master’s also before going to was that also in Fine Arts?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: The Master’s was in history. It was part of that period when I first graduated, when I really was unsure of what I was going to be doing. I call it a quarterlife crisis. And I really thought, you know, what should I do with myself? I had a job in public relations briefly. Then I went to get my master’s degree because I got a full scholarship to do so. And then once I was there, I enjoyed it. But I thought to myself, okay, I think law school is probably the way to go for me and the rest is history.
EXJ: When I think of law firms that specialize in art one that immediately comes to mind is Herrick Feinstein. And that’s where you started. What’s so unusual to me is you were you with this one firm your entire law firm career. You rarely see that.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: It was a wonderful thing when at Fordham Law School, as with other law schools, you have those recruiting times of year where they are recruiting for summer associate jobs. And when I discovered that Herrick was coming to campus and I read about Herrick, I thought, ‘oh my God, this can’t be’ There’s such a thing as art law’. I didn’t know that. And I suddenly realized that I could
possibly take my past life as an art history major and my current life as a law student and combine them. And I got very fortunate. I got a job as a summer associate at Herrick. I was told I could never be an art lawyer because they didn’t hire for that department. It was just impossible. I should just give up the dream. And of course, famous last words. I immediately got an opportunity as an art summer associate, and from there I was pretty much part of the group from the moment I started. So, it worked out.
EXJ: That’s terrific. But did you say that while you were interviewing you, didn’t know that Herrick had this specialty?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: I knew once I found Herrick that they were an art law firm, but I didn’t know that when I was looking for potential jobs. I was looking at Shearman & Sterling and Proskauer and Sidley and all these different firms. And then I came across Herrick and said, forget those I want this one.
EXJ: Yeah, that’s like a dream. How often do we get something that really is that on target with our backgrounds?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Exactly.
EXJ: Tell us a little bit about what your current job is at Sotheby’s? You have a lot of titles. What’s the focus of your work?2
MJ: Even though I am a lawyer, I do not practice law at Sotheby’s. I do keep up my CLE and all of that. I would never give that up. And I do think that being a lawyer is incredibly important to what I do, but I’m now on the business side. So, what I do as head of business development globally, as well as managing director and co-head of our global fine Arts division, is I work on all the major estate collections and other major collections that are coming to market. The reason for that being the majority of those collections involve lawyers, they involve fiduciaries, and they involve people who are centers of influence and centers of power in that decision making process, who have
similar backgrounds to me. And as a result, it makes me sort of uniquely attuned to be able to understand their methodology, their process, what they’re looking to do on behalf of their clients. And so, I’m basically the one who tends to lead most of the large estate or collections type business. And those types of collections, which can be billion-dollar art collections, are the ones that really drive the art market because the market thrives on what we call the three D’s death debt and divorce. Sadly, all three of those involve lawyers, so there’s inevitably always someone for me to interface with.
EXJ: So. it’s pretty much the fiduciary on the other side. It may be a lawyer, it may be someone who works at a family office?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Most of the time. there’s an estate situation and the family members are very often not decision makers–sometimes they are and they are the executors of a particular estate–so for the most part, you’re always dealing with some professional fiduciary of some sort who is playing a very important role. And given my background and as a lawyer, in many cases, I know them already because they were on the other side of the table from me on different transactions or litigations. And in other cases, there are people who are well-known now in the industry because they tend to be the go to fiduciaries or advisors or lawyers that a lot of wealthy collectors use.
EXJ: Just jumping back to your firm background for a second, one thing that stood out in my mind among all of the many sales you’ve been involved with was the Gustav Klimt sale to the Neue Galerie of the Adele Bloch-Bauer portrait. That was your transaction.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Correct.
EXJ: Her portrait sold for the highest amount ever paid for a painting up until that time. How did that come about?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: When I was at Herrick, we represented the Neue Galerie, which is a museum of Austrian and German art that was founded by Ronald Lauder. And it was always Ronald Lauder’s dream to have landmark pieces of Austrian and German expressionist art in that museum. And he has for a very long time been a huge supporter of Nazi
looted art restitution claims. He had an organization called the Institute for Art Recovery that would work with potential claimants to significant artworks to try to help them with financial assistance in lawyers. He did not work with this particular family. But when the family of Maria Altmann, who was a woman whose family was persecuted during the Holocaust and who lost a very significant art collection, sought the return of this painting from the Austrian government he was very interested in her being successful because inevitably, as often happens when you have a $100 Million plus painting being returned to you, it’s very difficult for you to keep it. So inevitably the works get sold.
Mr. Lauder was looking to purchase that work. So, when she was successful, we got a phone call and immediately jumped into action to start to negotiate the potential sale of that picture to the Neue Galerie.
EXJ: Wow, and If I’m remembering there’s a documentary based on the painting and the tracking down of the painting?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Yes. And there’s also a movie with Helen Mirren called The Woman in Gold. And that movie specifically references Herrick. There is a scene where this character, who’s playing Ronald Lauder, has a meeting with Helen Mirren, who plays Mrs. Altmann, and he says to her, ‘You know, I really need you to be successful. You have this young lawyer who’s just family friend. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I have some real lawyers that I can introduce you to. Why don’t you use them?’ And she said, ‘No, I’m going to stick with my kid’. And in the end, she did stick with him, and she was very successful.
EXJ: That’s wonderful. So, you’re at Herrick and obviously Sotheby’s is a client, but how does the actual move come about mentally? You say to yourself, you know, I’m going to take a big step now. I’m going to go from practicing law, which I’ve done my entire life, to the business side? Could you walk me through your thinking?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Well, interestingly, Sotheby’s actually wasn’t a client. Sotheby’s was essentially another counterparty. So, when we would work with clients who were selling significant collections, we had to go to both Sotheby’s and our rival, Christie’s. I spent a lot of time getting to know all of the senior executives and specialists at both auction houses just by virtue of the many times that we came to them as lawyers who were decision makers and bringing them big pieces of business.
So, during that process, I got to know a particular executive who basically recruited me to go to Sotheby’s, and I really didn’t want to do it right away. It took me a lot of time to think about it. And., I think that if I hadn’t had the connectivity to the fiduciaries and the lawyers in the way that I do, I might not have done it at all because I was very reticent to not think of myself as a lawyer. And to this day, my business card still says Esq. which many of my colleagues think is amusing because they don’t think of me that way anymore. But I don’t want to give that up. But it was a transition for me. We’re trained for so many years to be lawyers. Everything about our persona is as a lawyer. And I think that now it’s interesting to think of myself as a businessperson first and as a lawyer second.
EXJ: So, you get recruited over there. Is that just a phone call? Hey, you know, we’re thinking maybe you should come join us… How long before you actually make the move?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: The call came, and then I got a couple more calls because I kept being like, I don’t know, I’m not sure. And then after the third or fourth call, I thought, okay, how many times are you going to be offered a senior position at an auction house. That sounds kind of like a dream. How could I possibly continue to say no? And I did a lot of soul searching about it and thought, you know, I could always go back to being a lawyer. I think being a lawyer is such an important part of who I am that I will never lose that. So why don’t I try this out and see if it’s something that I like. And so, from first phone call to the time I started at Sotheby’s was probably about nine months or so.
EXJ: That’s an important point about the ability to go back if things don’t work out. Some lawyers that we’ve been speaking to have the feeling that if I make a move to business, I can’t get back. And we’ve interviewed a lot of people, and everyone pretty much has a similar story to yours where they are comfortable that if they go, and for whatever reason they don’t like it, they can always fall back on that training. That’s not going to go anywhere. That’s always there.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: I think that the more you’ve practiced, the more that’s true. If you were to go into the business side of things straight from law school, for example, like if you never practiced in any way, shape or form, I think it would be very difficult for you to ever be a lawyer again at that point because you missed the training, you missed the formative part of like what it actually is to be a lawyer. As we know, law school isn’t being a lawyer, so having gone through everything that I did, I think it was 12 or 13 years in practice and being a partner by the time I left, I felt I was already there.
I had gotten to the point that everyone in their professional careers aspires to be in. If you’re a lawyer at a firm, which is you rise from summer associate to associate to partner. And that was magnificent. And it was a wonderful place to be, and I loved it. A lot of lawyers have gripes about being lawyers. I didn’t. I wasn’t disenchanted in any way with my legal career. This was just a further frontier for me because I felt like I had achieved everything that I could achieve, and I guess I am a competitive and ambitious person. And I thought, What’s the next thing? This has gotten easy.
EXJ: Did you get any pushback from family? How can you do that? You’ve been a partner, you’re a lawyer. Now you’re going to not be a lawyer?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: My husband was very supportive. I think that my family, my parents, were a little bit more traditional about it, well, you’re a lawyer…You know, like a lawyer is the best thing you could be. But I think when they realized that this was an important job and that I wasn’t going to ever stop being a lawyer, they felt very happy about it.
EXJ: So those are the legal skills. If you could talk a little bit about how the legal skills translated into making you a successful businessperson. What is it about legal training that serves as such a good foundation for business of any type?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: For me, it’s the critical thinking and sort of the logical way of seeing and, problem solving that law school really prepares you for in a way that I don’t think anything else does. And my husband is also a lawyer. So, I often say to him, isn’t it amazing how though we went to different law schools and have totally different careers—he’s in finance–we just have a commonality of how we approach a problem because of that training.
I think that’s really it. I kind of always look at things from a problem-solving perspective, a solution-oriented perspective, which is of course, what our clients ask us as lawyers to do. I tackle everything that way, which is, okay, let’s get the facts, let’s figure out how we fix this problem, what are our potential variables, what are the risks and what are the rewards? And that’s something that I don’t think I would ever have been able to do as clearly and succinctly as I do now. And I’m in a creative industry, so the majority of my colleagues are not people who think like me. When I was at Herrick everyone pretty much thought like I did. I find that in a creative industry I’m quite unique. Like the way I think about things is quite different. I think that to be a kind of square person in a very creative world is really a benefit.
EXJ: I would think that’s tremendous. What you’re talking about is issue spotting which everyone learns to do in law school. But the ability to use that not just to find problems, but to find, as you said, solutions and making this ‘positive issue spotting’, if you will. Looking at a situation here’s everything that can go right. Here are the opportunities we have.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Exactly. lawyers get a bad rap sometimes for their perception of risk and for being very risk averse by nature. But I was never one of those lawyers who was like a nervous Nelly. I was always very pragmatic in the way that I thought about things. And while I, of course, perceived the risk, I thought, okay, got it, this is a possibility. But, you know, I understand that most people aren’t going to want to sign 177-page contract with every possible eventuality spelled out.so let’s see how we make this commercial and also protect ourselves from the risks that are most likely. This, as opposed to the you know, if you get hit by lightning on a Tuesday in front of Saks Fifth Avenue.
EXJ: What’s the best route to move into the business of art if you’re in law school? It looks like it is the route you followed. What are other ways of getting into this if you’re a 3L or a young lawyer and you don’t work for a firm that that has an art law department? I don’t know, work nights at galleries and try to network in some way?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: As you can imagine, I get a lot of emails and calls from aspiring art lawyers out there because it’s such a unique and rare path that I ended up taking, but one that people think is cool. I think that the best thing to do, if you can, is go to a firm that has an art law practice. There are pretty much two sizable firms in the United States that have art law practices and a lot of little boutique firms.
But it’s very difficult to do that. So, the next best thing is to try to be either a tax lawyer or a trusts & estates lawyer, because those are the two areas where you tend to be assisting clients with the possible sale or purchase of art. It is inevitably those types of lawyers that we deal with the most at Sotheby’s besides art lawyers. So, if you’re in one of those types of practices at a major firm, inevitably you will have an ultra-high net worth client with a Picasso or a significant collection. And that’s going to be how you can sort of wet your feet a bit. But I think ultimately, other than that, knowing about art, as you said going to galleries, spending time in museums, being aware of art news.
Because if you are someone who’s aware of the art world, knows about the art world has an aptitude and you come across that art client, then you’re the right person. More so than partners or associates who don’t really know what the client is talking about. So that’s really the best thing to be. Put yourself in the right place at the right time with the right skill set.
EXJ: That makes a lot of sense.
EXJ: One last question for you. Another thing that we’re doing at ex judicata is creating courses that provide critical knowledge that most attorneys who want to move to business should have but don’t have. The most obvious being an understanding of basic financial statements and accounting principles. What is a Balance Sheet? What is a P&L? etc.
We just finished filming our first asynchronous course: Financial Fluency for Attorneys Moving to Business being led by the Notre Dame Law School professor who literally wrote the book: “Accounting for Lawyers” used at over 100 US law schools.
Can you talk a little bit about the importance of understanding ‘the numbers’ if you will if you aspire to a career in business?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: I think that’s crucial. Honestly, it’s a really important point for me. It was something that I picked up only when I became a partner and was exposed to the financial dealings of the firm, reading our firm budgets and things of that nature. I had to learn about all that. I’ve always thought of lawyers as people who by nature are not math people. That’s why we became lawyers. You know, we’re more on the other side of things. We’re not bankers. So, I do think that it is important to have an understanding financial analysis. A kind of ‘Business School for Dummies’ would help.
EXJ: Things like pocket MBA. Those kinds of things.
EXJ: Are there any other subjects which come to mind that you think maybe are not covered enough in law school that one might want to learn more about?
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: I think that some of the more pragmatic soft skills lawyers just need to learn on the job. You know, how to work with a client, how to be persuasive when you’re trying to sell yourself, what’s your elevator pitch? All these things that I started to learn more about when I became a partner as I transitioned from doing the work to trying to get business and bringing in opportunities. And then it became about selling myself, not just the product that I was producing.
EXJ: I think we’re good. Great. Thank you.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Wonderful. thank you so much. I’m happy to always chat about things You can tell. I still love being a lawyer, so I’m always happy to talk about law things and with law publications.
EXJ: And it’s a nice balance because most of the people we interview were truly unhappy until they left practicing law.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Yes, hated what they were doing. I was actually a very happy lawyer, so that was a good thing for me.
EXJ: Mari- Claudia, thank you again.
Mari-Claudia Jimenez: Thank you. And let me know if you need any follow up for anything else that can be helpful.
EXJ: I appreciate it.