Swellboy on… auctioneers’ memoirs

A sudden surge of saleroom reminiscences gives our man lots to think about

The recently published Going Once: 250 Years of Culture, Taste and Collecting at Christie’s
The recently published Going Once: 250 Years of Culture, Taste and Collecting at Christie’s

Isn’t it always the way? You wait ages for an auctioneer’s memoirs and then along come two at once – well, three, if you count the book celebrating the 250th anniversary of Christie’s that Phaidon published in October.

The Going Once entry on Bond memorabilia
The Going Once entry on Bond memorabilia

The other day I tottered into one of Simon de Pury’s many book launches. Simon has now gone into private practice, but he still helps out chums like Leonardo DiCaprio for charity auctions and, having seen him in action, it is easy to determine why he is in demand on the celebrity auction circuit. He can work up enthusiasm on any subject – I have seen him run a successful charity auction in a room full of people so disinclined to raise their arms to bid that they were either (a) armless or (b) dead or (c) both. How he coaxed the cash out of them I will never know.  

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In his book, The Auctioneer, also published in October, he offers insights into the epic era of auctions, when the salerooms were bestrode by colossi of the stature of Peter Wilson and Maurice Rheims. He compares his time on the front desk to “the bouncers at Régine’s in Paris or later Studio 54 in New York”. He is certainly not above enhancing his trade with a bit of shiny celebrity glamour; there cannot be many people who have their PR photos taken by Helmut Newton and get Juergen Teller in to rev up the quality of the photography in their jewellery catalogues.

Reclining Nude by Amedeo Modigliani, which Christie’s sold for more than $170m in 2015
Reclining Nude by Amedeo Modigliani, which Christie’s sold for more than $170m in 2015

There is also a jewellery anecdote in Lord Hindlip’s memoirs, An Auctioneer’s Lot, which came out on December 1. Among the many fascinating tales he tells is of how a gang of club- and shotgun-wielding “desperados” stormed into Christie’s King Street during the viewing of a jewellery sale.

The record-breaking Elizabeth Taylor jewellery auction
The record-breaking Elizabeth Taylor jewellery auction

Lord Hindlip is a former chairman of Christie’s and a born raconteur; to listen to him is to be transported back to the 24ct golden age of the jet set. During the 1960s he was setting up the New York branch of the auction house. He recalls it as an exhilarating time. “For a poor boy coming from London who had only ever seen a van Gogh in a museum, it was amazing to discover there were van Goghs the length of Park Avenue and there were still a large number of absolutely superb paintings by van Gogh, which you could acquire. They were very expensive but they were there, and they’re not now.”

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As well as finding Park Avenue paved with post-impressionists, Hindlip was a dab hand at dealing with the plutocrats of the day and found that it was necessary to be as handy on skis as he was with a gavel. “It was no good trying to get to see Agnelli in his office, or Stavros [Niarchos] in his office,” he once told me. “You wanted to go and see them when they were at play – take a chance and go to St Moritz, then get in the ski lift up to the Corviglia Club – because you were much more likely to sell them a picture in St Moritz than you were if you tried to take it to their office because there they’re working, they’re making money. When they’re on holiday, they’re spending it.” Sound advice indeed, and the sort of thing that I could have done with being told by my careers officer at school.

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