Food | The Captain’s Table

Simon de Pury’s dining boltholes

Simon de Pury is chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury, which he co-founded in 2001. Last year the company set 126 records for artists’ works at auction.

September 11 2009
Vanessa Friedman

“Personal connections are the basis of all our business; everyone who collects art has an intimate relationship with what they collect. To give something up, especially, is like giving up a child, so collectors need to know that the person they are dealing with shares their passion and will have the necessary commitment to the piece. There are few better ways to create that personal connection than over a meal.

Sharing a meal creates a bond that hundreds of hours of meetings cannot match, partly because it allows for spontaneity. As an auctioneer, you learn the importance of improvisation, of reading a mood and reacting to the moment, and often the greatest business happens almost by accident. So I see meals as an opportunity to create situations where such accidents can happen, and as often as possible – I go out to lunch every day, and often dinner too. Breakfast is too early.

What I look for is a lively environment with a great mix of people and energy. Gastronomic temples can be boring. Also, if a restaurant is overly quiet it can put too much emphasis on what you want to discuss; it’s intimidating. Meals should be fun, relaxing and entertaining – if you need discretion, you should stay in the office. I tend not to over-prepare for meals, but let my intuition work, listen and leave as much as possible to chance.

Once, for example, I was in Geneva at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues with a female collector – I had no expectations and we had a very lively conversation. At the end she said, “I love what you do and I want you to sell my collection.” I had never even considered the possibility – which is why I think she offered. There was no calculation involved.

I find it’s always more conducive to business to be in a non-business context. Though I tend to favour the same non-business contexts again and again. It’s a form of preparation to know your environment, and it makes me feel at home.

I spend a third of my time in London, a third in New York and a third around the rest of the world. Cipriani, in London and New York, both uptown [Harry Cipriani] and downtown, is a favourite. It has lots of life. I always order the same thing: beef carpaccio with extra sauce and the veal farfalle. I like private clubs in London, such as Harry’s Bar and Mark’s Club; they are personal and private, but there are lots of fun people around and you never know quite what is going to happen.

This is something you also find in Paris, at Le Voltaire and Le Stresa, which I love because it’s so small you sit one on top of another, making contact with all the people around you. Likewise, in Berlin I can go from table to table at the Grill Royal saying hello to artists, actors and curators. And at the Paris Bar, where all the artists go, I always know almost everyone there. In a way, this places me in a certain context without making an obvious point.

Of course, you have to think about the guest when you’re choosing a place. My son recently moved to London and has been introducing me to lots of new restaurants, including a great Turkish place in Dalston – I wish I could remember the name – but you couldn’t bring anyone stuffy there. Another place like that is Paper Moon in Milan, where you can’t even reserve in advance and which is really just for lunch. (Lunches in Europe go on and are full of epiphanies.)

I also had my least successful lunch at Paper Moon. At the end of the meal I gave the waiter my American Express card, but they said that they didn’t take that card. So I gave them another, and for some reason it wouldn’t go through. I then looked in my wallet and discovered I had only pounds, dollars and Swiss francs – no euros. There was a very tense moment, and my guest ended up having to pay. The bill: that’s the only part of a meal that it’s not such a good idea to leave to chance.”

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