Adrian Hume-Sayer, Christie’s Private Collections Director and Head of Sale for the Audrey Hepburn auction, discusses his passions and shares the stories behind the celebrity auctions
For as long as I can remember, I knew that I wanted to work in an auction house. My field is English furniture, but now I work in the Private Collections and Country House Sales department. I am dealing with different objects and clients every time, and that is what makes my job challenging and exciting.
I’ve been working on our Audrey Hepburn sale. They are her personal possessions, the things that she chose to keep with her until the end of her life. You really get a sense of the person when you work on a sale like that. Everything I have come across indicates she was just as nice as we all think she was. She was genuinely humble, not a Hollywood grande dame.
The sale is led by her Breakfast at Tiffany’s script. It starts at page 93, and our first thought was that a big chunk of it was missing. It turned out that the script is largely complete, but is probably bound in the order that it was filmed. The pages are covered in notes in the turquoise ink that she favoured. She copied lines across to the blank side, and did lots of underlining where she wanted to put emphasis. When you watch the film, you see that this reflects exactly how she played it.
The thing that appeals to me is the story behind the object. If you gave me the choice between something that was wonderful but had no story, and a piece that was relatively mundane but came with a fantastic story, I would go for the latter.
Patina for me is magical, because it is the texture that comes from handling, and so is a direct link with all the people who have owned an object in the past. Patina varies tremendously from item to item. A piece of delicate 18th-century satinwood furniture will take on a fine glow. But a piece of 17th-century country oak, which might have been quite pale and raw when it was created, will take on a deep patina from generations of handling and waxing because it won’t have been so highly finished. Repairs can also be quite charming: a piece of tin nailed over a hole in the back of a Welsh dresser — that too, in a sense, is part of the patina.
I do enjoy the detective work. Take our Margaret Thatcher sale. She loomed large in the press during my childhood, and for some reason I have always had a strong image in my mind of what she wore to the banquet at Versailles in the week she fell from power. When that outfit came to us, I just knew that the skirt paired with the jacket was not the right one. It was a hunch, because I am not an expert in fashion. I wanted to make sure that it was absolutely correct, so we tracked down a grainy newspaper photograph that proved the point. It’s history: you have to get it right.
A story never turns out to be quite what it seems. I was surprised to hear that Mrs Thatcher had a stamp collection — surely she was a bit too busy in the 1980s to be fiddling about with tweezers and stamp hinges? — but it turned out that these were first-day covers sent to her as prime minister by the postmaster general. She always wrote back with a personal letter of thanks; we found those documents in the archives.
I can’t understand people who don’t collect. I am a bit of a magpie, attracted to quirky things that I think I might come to understand. One of my most treasured possessions is a 17th-century portrait of a man in a steel breastplate. It is almost black with the soot and smoke of the years, and the frame is collapsing. I look at it, and I am transported to another time.
I keep a cannonball on my desk. It’s Civil War period; I got it for £40 at a provincial saleroom. I bought it because it had been found in a field in Yorkshire, near my family home. I’m not aware of any battle that took place there, and I can’t say that it was ever fired in anger. But it’s still amazing to think that it lay untouched for 300 years. What is its story? I’ll never know.
My grandmothers collected and were a huge influence on me. One died when I was four, but I could draw you a picture of where everything was in her house. She used to keep a box of family ephemera, and whenever I went to see her I would pull something out and she would talk to me about it. My other grandmother nurtured my love of history and beautiful things. When I was seven I did a school project on porcelain, using remnants of services from my grandmother’s pantry. They were the only old objects I was allowed to play with.
There is no substitute for handling an object. You can look at a photograph and see that the object is fantastic, but you have to spend time with it to appreciate the detail that betrays the skill of the master.
Silenus Riding a Goat, an incredible first-century marble, is a favourite among the pieces I’ve handled. It was in the collection of Professor Sir Albert Richardson, which we auctioned in 2013. Only the bodies of the goat and the man are original; the rest was reconstructed in the 18th century. People wanted to see classical sculpture complete then; nowadays it would be mounted headless and limbless, as it was found.