Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Oliver Barker

The auctioneer compares notes on the past, present and future

Oliver Barker

February 03 2012
Oliver Barker

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

My job at Sotheby’s requires me to travel overseas a lot, but whenever I’m in London, as I am now in the run-up to a major auction season, my wife and I do the school run together and take our two boys, Cassius and Jago, who are four and six years old, to their school in Notting Hill. We all pile into our Fiat 500 – the most ingenious metropolitan car – and off we go.

On arrival in the office, the first thing is to sit down with my PA, Cathriona, to run through my diary for the day. I’m a confirmed list-maker, so we go over the various exciting projects currently in progress, ranging from proposals for major potential consignments to insurance valuations, and how the interest in our Contemporary sale is growing. This is a moment when it’s important to let consignors know how the response to our catalogue has been. Thankfully, there’s been a very positive reaction.

Today is my best friend’s birthday, so I call him to wish him all the very best, before going into a pre-sale interest meeting. This is when the Contemporary department gets together to gauge pre-sale interest in our catalogue and we think proactively about who we can contact to interest in our offerings. We also seize this valuable time to review the results of our press call the day before. They were great, with picture and text pieces in many of the key papers, and it’s all down to our great press team.

Today I’m grabbing lunch at Sake No Hana on St James’s Street with an art advisor whose speciality is Old Master drawings. We have a fascinating chat about the past, present and future of the art market, review the successes of 2011 and muse over where the market is heading.

It’s really useful for us to compare notes, given our different backgrounds and rôles within the same world. His client will be flying into London briefly on Monday, so we work together strategically to provide him with as much detailed information as possible to allow him and his client to make sound acquisition decisions. Fostering trust and establishing key long-term relationships is vital in this business, and as a people person I really enjoy these activities.

Rushing back to the office, next up is a teleconference with senior colleagues in New York to discuss what’s in the pipeline for our New York May sale and to establish follow up with those who may sell with us in the future. The auction business is very cyclical, but the journey to our sales is different every time, meaning a great deal of variety on a day-to-day basis.

Back in the office, I have a meeting with the Modern and Post-War British Art department to brainstorm creative ways of developing this thriving market. It’s seen huge growth over the past couple of years and we’ve witnessed some truly spectacular prices achieved in the field; the landmark sale last summer of the Evill/Frost Collection set the Lucian Freud work on paper record of £2.6m for his Beach Scene with a Boat. I’ve developed keen expertise in the market for 20th-century British art, so I enjoy this discussion a lot, but there’s always more to do.

I’m literally never without my BlackBerry, and while I’m really disciplined about using it only intermittently when I’m with the family, it’s never far away. The truth is, when I’m out of the family domain, I’m completely reliant on it, and all its different functions, to facilitate my role in this pictorially driven business.

So when we’re also pulling together with our European, Asian and American counterparts to business-get for the next big round of sales in May in New York, I’m able to connect with Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of Contemporary Art in NY and Anthony Grant, senior international specialist, who’s in San Francisco right now. I’ve been able to touch base with them about a couple of spectacular works I’ve recently had the privilege of seeing.

In the evening I have two private views to attend, one of which is an exhibition of the last paintings the American abstract expressionist artist Joan Mitchell did while living close to Giverny in France, where Claude Monet was based before her. The exhibition is at Hauser & Wirth, a gallery I have huge admiration for, due to the quality and diversity of its programme and the beauty of its exhibition spaces.

Finally, I meet my wife for a reception hosted by my old boarding prep school. They’re drumming up business for future students and the first person I come across is my old gym teacher, whom I haven’t seen in 30 years. Time flies.

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