What I’ve learned: Harry Williams-Bulkeley, Head of Silver

As he prepares to mark his 28th year with Christie’s, our Head of Silver reflects on the importance of great mentors, his most memorable finds, and why he’s never conducted an auction


Harry Williams-Bulkeley examines a silver candlestick in a warehouse

Arthur Grimwade, who joined Christie’s in 1932, was an incredible influence on me. By the time I started in 1990 he had retired, but he would still pop in once a month to see what we had. He wrote the great book on London silversmiths, but even in his late eighties he would say, ‘I’m still learning now’, and that’s what’s so wonderful about this job. You realise you never learn everything, there’s always something new, something to excite you and surprise you around the corner.

I started out hoovering the only frescoed saleroom in the company. I worked as a porter in the Rome office one summer, between school and university. It was lovely — my Italian was terrible, but I will never forget the word for vacuum cleaner: aspirapolvere.

In September I will have been at Christie’s for 28 years. After university I applied for the internship scheme and worked for six weeks on reception at King Street. There was always a great flow of people coming in for valuations. It was the time before the internet and it was difficult to take photographs of things. People would often wrap something in a bit of old newspaper, put it in a shopping bag and pop into Christie’s.

The buzz of the auction house was infectious. I loved the clients, the people and the objects. Suddenly, I realised what it was that I really wanted to do. I applied for the graduate trainee scheme and ended up in the Silver department.

Heraldry is incredibly important with silver. Hallmarks tell you who made the object, where it was made and when it was made, but the coat of arms will tell you for whom it was made. It’s the final cherry on the cake that leads you to the full story.

I love the detective work of looking through old inventories and sale catalogues. I’m very lucky because almost all English country houses and many continental ones have silver collections, so I get the chance to go on lots of valuations. One of my most memorable trips was to the Hohenzollern Castle just south of Stuttgart, which is like something out of a fairytale and where the royal Prussian silver collection was stored.

A lot has changed since the 1990s, but what really defines us today is the collection sale. In the past, if a collection was being sold, the constituent parts would be split up between the departments. Now we keep it all together to tell the story behind it. We try to bring that spirit of curation to our various owner sales as well.

I have never conducted an auction. My great fear of selling something to myself has prevented me from doing that. I prefer to leave it to people who are very good at it while I look after buyers on the telephone and the vendors in the room.

One of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever sold is a silver tureen in the shape of a turtle. It was by Paul de Lamerie, the greatest silversmith of the 18th century, and was thought to have been lost. I was down in the basement of a country house on a valuation when the owner came down and said, ‘The office is on the telephone for you’, and it was Anthony Phillips, our International Head of Silver at the time, saying it had been found.

‘I love seeing the passion that drives collectors, and the excitement when you show them something they’ve been in search of for years’

So we flew out to Bordeaux the next week to see it, and were given the best lunch I have ever had in my whole life. The tureen was absolutely spot on, an amazing thing. It was sold by Christie’s in the 1920s and spent the war in a bank vault in Sweden. It had been bought by the Swedish Ambassador but his daughter had married a Bordeaux winemaker, so that’s how it had ended up on this 90-year-old lady’s sideboard.

The good thing about silver is that it tends to bounce. Thankfully I’ve never dropped anything.

It’s extraordinary how some people react to beautiful works of art. I love seeing the passion that drives collectors, and the excitement when you show them something they’ve been in search of for years. Not to mention the excitement when they all battle against each other in the auction room.

Some people are actually relieved when they discover something is not particularly valuable. It means they can enjoy it as a great object without worrying about how much it might be worth.

A lot of people ask me how often they should clean their silver. My answer is once or twice a year to keep it well. If you treat it carefully or use it regularly, it shouldn’t tarnish.

Silver is good for you. It has antibacterial properties, that’s why you get dressings with silver woven into them.

You must never assume something is what it is just because it says it is. My job makes me look at everything with fresh eyes; with every object that comes in, you question it, you research it.

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content