The thrill of making art history, tips for first-time bidders and more from a Christie’s veteran of nearly 35 years
Auctions are moments of art history taking place. Having been a part of many, the most memorable sale I have witnessed has got to be the Van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ in 1987. It was an amazing experience; nobody had ever seen a work of art sell for over £10 million before, so for it to achieve a hammer price of £22,500,000 was extraordinary. It was also very profitable for the staff because we all got an extra £500 bonus! It was really there that we saw the big change in the art market and the first ‘mega’ lot auction.
There’s a lot of discussion about the current state of the art market. The press speculates endlessly about a softening in the post-war and contemporary art market. But, as we saw in our sales in February — and in New York recently — the excitement and demand is still there. You can’t predict what’s going to happen.
You can tell when a sale is going well. I have been involved in a number of major sales over the past 30 years. You certainly get a feel for when it’s going to be a success — the mounting hubbub in the room, the excitement of the staff on the telephones and then the silence and held breaths as the auctioneer steps into the rostrum. However, more often now clients enjoy the convenience of bidding online or on the telephone, and at times with fewer people in the room it is not so easy to sense.
Van Gogh’s Still Life: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers goes to auction at Christie’s on 30 March 1987. The painting sold for £22,500,000, setting the record price for any work of art
I joined Christie’s in an unusual way. I started in 1982, and didn’t really know who or what it was. I was just about to be thrown out of school, and one day the phone rang in the classroom: ‘Finch, Christie’s are on the look out for a post boy’. I had my interview in my school uniform. Mum and Dad were very confused when Christie’s called to say, ‘Can Nick start on Monday?’ As far as they knew, I was doing my exams. I really thought I’d only be here for six months. Delivering post to some may not be the most glamorous of jobs, but it was a unique opportunity to get a feel for the business and meet some exceptional and talented colleagues. You suddenly get caught up in it — just being in the building becomes addictive, and here we are nearly 35 years later.
The first bid can seem daunting. If you’ve never been to an auction, go to the saleroom and get a feel for it — or watch one of our sales online. Speak to Christie’s staff, too — we’ll be pleased to help. Don’t think that if you accidentally touch your ear or raise your eyebrow we’re going to take a bid off you. We’re trained to read body language, and will wait for you to raise your paddle clearly and make eye contact.
Most people I speak to regret what they didn’t buy. Have a price in mind, and allow yourself to go one bid over. There’s nothing worse than setting your limit at £500, and finding another bidder has done the same — in the auction world, if they bid first, they’ve got it. Always go plus one!
Nick Finch presides over a wine auction in Hong Kong
Hong Kong is an electric city. I’m based in London, but follow sales around the globe — from New York in May, to Geneva, Milan, Paris, Hong Kong, Zurich, Amsterdam and Dubai, finishing in Mumbai in December. Hong Kong has an amazing energy that has always stuck with me. It’s the first city I travelled to with Christie’s — it’s great to see it celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
We’re an emotional business. Our clients are constantly re-evaluating their bids or making last-minute decisions to participate. In the build-up to each sale our amazing bid departments work under immense pressure to have everything organised correctly and in place. When the auctioneer gets in their rostrum the ‘book’ needs to be complete, the telephone bidders have their bids, and everything has to be smooth and controlled. Making that moment happen is one of the most demanding parts of the job — although it is also one of the most enjoyable. It’s incredibly special to be part of that buzz. Auctions can be exhilarating — it’s pure theatre at times.
When I first joined, there were hardly any female auctioneers. One of the most rewarding aspects of my role is being part of the training and development of our auctioneers. I may be biased, but I truly believe we now have the best in the business — both male and female.
I do get asked to value people’s grandmother’s teapots. Christie’s becomes more than a job. When people ask where you work, they always have something they’d like you to take a look at. But that’s another thing that keeps me here — that sense that I work somewhere special.
If I could own one work of art, it would be that Van Gogh. It was such a moment in auction history and, during its long view, I got to know so much about it. I loved living with it every day until it was sold — and I currently have the right space for it on the wall at home.