Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Oliver Barker

The auctioneer on a major preview and an unexpected encounter

Oliver Barker

February 02 2012
Oliver Barker

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Taking precedence this morning is the press preview for the highlights of our Contemporary, Impressionist & Modern Art sales, which are taking place in London over the next fortnight. Twice a year we have these major auctions, in February and June, and showcase the greatest art around. For two weeks, Sotheby’s is turned into the best free museum in town.

The press preview kicks off at 10.30am. All the paintings and sculptures by internationally renowned artists have been rushed back to London from as far afield as New York, Doha and Hong Kong, where we’ve staged very well received previews. The department and technicians pull together in a Herculean effort to make everything look its very best for the press and the public.

Photographers from all the main papers and agencies get to take pictures of Gustav Klimt’s Lakeshore with Birches of 1901, a painting which Sotheby’s is privileged to be putting on view for the first time in a century. It’s estimated to sell for between £6m and £8m, and is on public view prior to its auction next Wednesday. This is really a major market moment, and working with pictures of this quality is one of the privileges of my job.

I spend quality time speaking with some important news correspondents and film crews, among which was an interview with German national television channel ZDF about a stunning group of abstract works by arguably the most important living painter, Gerhard Richter. The artist’s recent major Tate retrospective, not to mention his record price of £12.9m, set at Sotheby’s in New York last November, has contributed to raising his international profile even further. Collectors from around the world are drawn to his works, and we have five sublime and varied examples coming up for sale on February 15. We pride ourselves on our expertise in this artist’s work, and my great colleague, Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of Contemporary Art Sotheby’s Europe, and I have brought each of these works in for sale from expectant vendors.

I have to confess that the unexpected highlight of my morning – day, even – is chatting with Tottenham Hotspur’s now-legendary midfielder Scott Parker. He passes by Sotheby’s, and I manage to get an introduction, while he gets a sneak preview of the art on view. I’ve supported Spurs since 1981 and follow them religiously. I was at White Hart Lane on Tuesday night when we beat Wigan, so to have been able to compare notes with Scott Parker about the match was a rare and truly sublime treat. (I really hope he was as chuffed to see the art as I was to have met him.)

A number of meetings follow after lunch, delicately balanced by running down to our galleries to catch a group of major clients who are in early to preview our sales. It’s great to finally arrive at the time when the art is on view, and the months of preparation that go into our major auctions are coming to fruition. Our Contemporary Art catalogue has been well-received, and there’s a tangible buzz about the works we have on offer.

I know I have a hectic two weeks ahead of me, so I head home at 6.45pm to say goodnight to my two sons, before an hour’s workout on my bike rollers, preparing for a cycling sportif I’m doing in June in the Brecon Beacons. I participated in the Etape du Tour in France last year and I find cycling a great spiritual cleanser after a full-on day at work. My wife laughs as my cycling shorts go on and reminds me that I’m joining the legions of MAMILS (middle-aged men in lycra).

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