Cristian Albu with Adrian Ghenie’s Self-Portrait in 1945, 2014. Oil on canvas. 78⅞ x 55 in (200.2 x 140 cm). Estimate £1,200,000-1,800,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art

What I’ve learned: Cristian Albu, International Director of Post-War and Contemporary Art

The senior specialist talks about growing up in communist Romania, struggling to master the art of auctioneering, and why he believes Albrecht Dürer ‘invented’ Instagram

All art is contemporary art. The Old Masters were contemporary art in the 16th century. The Impressionists were contemporary in the 1880s. There are no voids between artists, no gaps between the art of the Renaissance and the art of now. It is a story of links, bridges and connections. In art, everything is fluid.

I grew up in Romania, under Nicolae Ceaușescu’s joyless communist regime. As a child I went to church every Sunday, because it was like a shelter — a place where the secret police could not listen in, where you could be with your hopes and fears. The icons that I saw in church were my start in art.

I am very proud of my origins. Once a year I take a group of friends to my home country. I show them the Palace of Parliament, which is the second biggest administrative building in the world after the Pentagon, and was also the residence of the megalomaniac Ceaușescu. Then we go to see the painted monasteries of Bucovina, which are adorned with icons both inside and out. Everybody is astounded when they see them.

Albrecht Dürer invented Instagram. What I mean is, Dürer came up with the idea of the self-image (I realised this when I put together a Christie’s exhibition, Reflections on the Self ). He was obsessed with his own portrait, with promoting himself through images of himself. I collect prints by young contemporary artists, but one day I would love to buy a Dürer, because that would anchor my collection. It would show where the rest of it came from.

Great artists are magpies, thieves of ideas. They look at other artists and they take a curve or a line or a colour. Take Malevich, reinventing 20th-century art with his black cross. That black cross is a straight steal from the vestments of the Russian Orthodox priests.

I love the interaction with artists that comes with my job. One good thing about working in the contemporary market is that the artists are still alive. There is so much that you can learn from dialogue or simply from listening. Every day I feel that I am at school.

‘I am in awe of the people who can run an auction. You have to be able to hold and humour the room’ — Cristian Albu

It’s extraordinary the way that art can shape a destiny. I’ll tell you a story. It’s August 1968. The USSR invades Czechoslovakia, and Ceaușescu is the only communist leader to oppose the incursion. The US sees this split in the bloc as an opportunity, and decides to fight communism through art. In November 1968, they send an exhibition of American Abstract Expressionism to Romania, a kind of convoy made up of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, Clyfford Still and others. Fast-forward to 1995: in Cluj, a young artist comes across the catalogue for the American show. It is an epiphany: he decides that this is his calling. That artist was Adrian Ghenie, a man who is truly telling the story of the human spirit — because of one small chess move in the Cold War, a generation before.

I got goosebumps when we were about to sell a private collection that had belonged to Princess Titi von Fürstenburg. I was looking at the literature and I saw that a Rothko from that collection had been in Romania. It was there in black and white: ‘exhibited in Bucharest in 1968’. Somehow it made me believe that the strange travelling American exhibition was a real event, not just a myth.

Subscribe to Christie’s Magazine

Every issue delivered to your door

I always imagined that being an auctioneer was an easy job. But I took the course to become an auctioneer — I even started taking vocal coaching lessons — and I have to say that I have never done anything so difficult in my life. I am in awe of the people who can run an auction. You have to be able to hold and humour the room, you have to be able to juggle the figures on the hoof, you need to command respect, and use your body like some kind of mannerist actor. It remains an art that I haven’t mastered.

A collection allows a person to dream. Francis Bacon said that we have to fill the empty space between birth and death with something, and a collection is an undertaking that can do that. It is a way of creating a universe in your own image. So I make no judgement when I meet people who are not interested in art — so long as they are passionate about something.

Hieronymus Bosch is a favourite artist of mine. He depicts a world of horror, but there is an element of the comic in there. In that sense, it is two steps from the Garden of Earthly Delights  to a work such as Ghenie’s Nickelodeon. Both are very dark, but that’s why I like them. I come from Transylvania, after all.