Arts & Giving | Diary of a Somebody

Oliver Barker

The auctioneer reflects on fine dining and working with Damien Hirst

Oliver Barker

February 04 2012
Oliver Barker

Day: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

At 8.30am I speak to a major consignor who is at the airport on his way to Geneva. We discuss an important painting he is selling in our Contemporary Art Evening Sale on February 15. He’s owned it since 1989 and it has been a highly coveted part of his collection, so it took a great deal of effort for him to entrust it to us to sell. My hands-on style means I always like to give my clients a blow-by-blow account of how their works are being received.

Shortly after the school run, my wife Vanessa and I visit an architect’s office to meet with the project manager for the conversion we’re planning at home. On this project it’s great to have the chance to work alongside Vanessa, a freelance fashion stylist, who previously worked as fashion director of Glamour magazine and also worked at Vogue. She has great visual and creative awareness, and this input will be crucial to the final look and feel of the extension.

Back at the office in Bond Street, I spend quality time in the galleries showing highlights of the sales to important clients who’ve dropped in. I take a call from a major collector who plans to come in next Tuesday to view a painting privately. Creating these bespoke opportunities is often a crucial way of helping a client make a decision about a purchase. Sometimes, after the view has closed to the public for the day, we allow serious clients to take a work home to see it in situ and decide whether it truly works in that space.

In this case, the client has asked for a “condition report”, so we will be working with a well-known conservator for his expert opinion. Conservators, frame makers and other seasoned professionals add to the tapestry that makes up the art world, and their expertise in their respective fields is awe-inspiring.

Soon afterwards, I head to a business lunch with a female collector who has a number of projects on the go. She also has a deep interest in the Tate, an institution close to my heart and so critical to the cultural fabric of London. Over lunch we discuss paintings and works of art that might complement her New York apartment.

We are at Scott’s on Mount Street, which is without doubt one of my favourite restaurants in London. As with all Richard Caring’s restaurants, the food is superlative and perfect for business entertaining. Scott’s certainly does live up to its claim to offer the “finest oysters, fish and crustacea”. I go for the crab on a bed of risotto, but pass on pudding because I’m on a hiatus from caffeine, alcohol and other indulgences while training for my Brecon Beacons cycle.

Marketing has become increasingly important to our activities, and as frustrated artists, my colleagues and I are often central to the design of any marketing materials. A new brochure dedicated to British Art entitled Best of British lands on my desk, and I’m delighted with the outcome. Given that this is Olympic year, alongside the athletics, London is flying the flag by putting on an outstanding Cultural Olympiad. Highlights will include a much-anticipated mid-career retrospective at Tate Modern for Damien Hirst. I’m really excited for Damien. His close working relationship with Sotheby’s has been the highlight of my career, and I’m expecting the exhibition to be a big success.

My relationship with Damien goes back to 2003. When travelling on the Number 94 bus into work, I spotted the fixtures and fittings of Pharmacy restaurant being removed and placed in storage. I couldn’t get the idea of an auction sale of the décor – all designed by Hirst and from this iconic celebrity hangout – out of my head. So I called Damien, proposed it, and the rest is history. The auction made £11.1m, three times the estimate, and earned me my first “white gloves” – an auctioneers’ tradition, whereby a pair of white gloves is brought to the auctioneer on the rostrum immediately after the final hammer comes down on the last lot of a sale in which everything has sold.

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