What I’ve learned: Elizabeth Seigel, Head of Private and Iconic Collections, New York

Managing Private & Iconic Collections, the single-owner sales of prominent figures that incorporate every facet of Christie’s, Elizabeth Seigel helps tell the story of diverse collectors through their objects

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Standing face-to-face with a Rembrandt masterpiece showed me the power of working at an auction house. I received my master’s degree through Christie’s Education in London, so that was my introduction to the auction house. I had never set foot inside Christie’s galleries until I attended a preview of Old Masters paintings. I remember being so daunted by stepping into the auction rooms and seeing the incredible works of art on display. 

One of the specialists invited us up to the Old Masters private viewing room. It was only myself and two other classmates, and there before us was Rembrandt’s Portrait of a man with arms akimbo (1658) and Raphael’s Head of a muse, the star lots of the season. I instantly understood what it was like to work in the auction world, serving as the temporary guardians of masterpieces with which you are able to form intimate bonds, and I was hooked from that moment on. 

Working in Private & Iconic Collections is an exciting opportunity to balance the core of what Christie’s does and sells. Our lifeblood is collections, whether they are the blockbuster sales like The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller or those of a more intimate scale. For me, the goal is to find a story that we can tell particularly well through the works of art themselves. 

A collection sale is a biography in objects. The first single-owner sale I worked on was the collection of American art dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth in 2015. It was a true collector's collection, which ran the gamut from million-dollar pieces of Chinese huanghuali furniture and Chinese paintings, to English furniture and important Southeast Asian bronzes. Having this sale as an introduction to the world of Collection sales taught me the importance of storytelling, and the ability to tell the history of the collector through their belongings. 

Choosing the first lot of a live auction is so important. You want to pick something that captures the idea of the collection and sets the stage for a successful sale. In the case of Mr. Ellsworth, we led with a superb figure of a seated gilt-bronze bear that had pride of place on his desk. For those who knew him, this was instantly recognisable as an icon of the collection, and set the stage for the treasures to follow.

Iconic figures bring an undeniable X factor to sales. The Collection of André Leon Talley, for example, was the estate of the larger-than-life Vogue editor and writer, and it did tremendously well. We find that items that are intrinsically tied to the cultural figure tend to best against estimate. Looking at his collection, there were so many wonderful examples of his iconic style. 

Our goal is to always price things without taking provenance into consideration. The estimates you see in a given catalogue are what those lots would be worth if they belonged to you or me because we don’t know how much the bidding fervour will add to a final price. So, for instance, we might estimate a set of Louis Vuitton trunks at $3,000 to $4,000. We could never predict, however, that when they were André Leon Talley’s and had his initials on them, they would soar to almost $95,000. That’s the power of a name and what a collection can do. 

My favourite type of project is one that touches every corner of Christie’s. I see my role as acting as the hub of a wheel with spokes going out to every other part of the company, and getting it to turn in tandem. I have the amazing opportunity to work with every specialist department involved with a sale. 

For instance, during last October’s suite of sales for The Ann & Gordon Getty Collection, we offered over 1,000 lots across 10 sales and ultimately earned over $150 million, all going to philanthropy. I had the opportunity to work with specialists from Impressionist, Old Master and 19th Century Paintings departments, as well as with our excellent international decorative arts teams covering English and European furniture, silver and ceramics.

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The blue parlour at Ann & Gordon Getty's Temple of Wings

And as people may or may not know, those 10 Getty sales were just the beginning. This month in June, we're offering property from the Getty’s Berkeley residence, Temple of Wings. This sale has a very distinct flavour from the San Francisco home as it focuses on the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but provides us the chance to carry through the narrative arc we began last autumn and share a different interior world created by Mrs. Getty.

The specialists at Christie’s are an exceptional resource. They are so passionate and knowledgeable about their given field, and are more than willing to engage and share their expertise, whether it’s on a specific work of art or overarching current market trends. 

There’s a very important educational element to what we do at Christie's. Our exhibitions are always open to the public and are a fantastic way for people to interact with rare works of art that may not be seen again for another generation.

The specialists at Christie’s are an exceptional resource. They are so passionate and knowledgeable about their given field, and are more than willing to engage and share their expertise, whether it’s on a specific work of art or overarching current market trends. 

There’s a very important educational element to what we do at Christie's. Our exhibitions are always open to the public and are a fantastic way for people to interact with rare works of art that may not be seen again for another generation.

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