What I’ve learned James Hyslop

What I’ve learned: James Hyslop

Christie’s head of Science and Natural History on the magic of meteorites, celestial globes and selling STAN, one of the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found

My first experience of Christie’s was as a bidder in the saleroom. After graduating, I worked at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science at Cambridge University. The museum had a small acquisition fund, and part of my job was to scour auction catalogues in search of objects for the collection.

I still remember one of the first lots I missed out on, in 2006: seven extremely rare plaster models of single-celled organisms. They came back up for sale six years later, by which time I had moved to Christie’s. I catalogued them and gave the museum a heads-up. Gratifyingly, the Whipple went on to place the winning bid.

Václav Fric (1839-1916), Seven plaster models of single-celled organisms. Sold for £8,750 on 25 April 2012 at Christies in London
Václav Fric (1839-1916), Seven plaster models of single-celled organisms. Sold for £8,750 on 25 April 2012 at Christie's in London

We don’t deal in the ordinary. So when you glimpse something in one of the Christie’s warehouses that really sings, you know you are looking at a masterpiece. The best part of my job is getting to spend time with such extraordinary items on their own, outside of the wider context of an exhibition or auction. These quiet behind-the-scenes moments are what make my job so fantastic.

‘At Christie’s, I get to be a temporary custodian of the very best specimens of science and natural history in the world’ — James Hyslop

Part of my job is spotting fakes. As with all works of art, you’re looking for tell-tale signs such as the quality of the engraving on a scientific instrument or the age of the brass. 

I did my undergraduate dissertation on a group of 19th-century fake scientific instruments on display at the Whipple. At the time, I couldn’t believe that people were collecting these things in the 19th century, let alone faking them. My teacher warned me that scientific instruments are addictive. Once you get a taste for them, there’s no going back.

I’d love to have a time machine to see how modern British artists such as Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore would have responded to gogottes — mesmerising sandstone concretions from Fontainebleau that resemble abstract sculptures. They definitely collected flints from the coast that have holes in them reminiscent of those in their artworks, so it would be interesting to know their thoughts.

A pair of gogottes, Fontainebleau, France. 16¾ in (42.5cm) high. Sold for £20,000 on 7 November 2019 at Christies Online
A pair of gogottes, Fontainebleau, France. 16¾ in (42.5cm) high. Sold for £20,000 on 7 November 2019 at Christie's Online

I grew up in Canada near the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, so I’ve always had an interest in rocks and fossils. It’s the most wonderful museum, in the Badlands, a magical landscape full of dinosaur remains and dramatic rock formations. One of my favourite exhibition galleries has a lab — protected behind glass, of course — where you can see the museum’s scientists chipping away at new discoveries. It’s a really great way of connecting what you see in the museum with the science. Look where it led me.

A male Tyrannosaurus rex (aka STAN). From the Hell Creek Formation, 16 metres below the K-T boundary, Maastrichtian, late Cretaceous (circa 67 million years ago). Sold for $31,847,500 on 6 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York
A male Tyrannosaurus rex (aka STAN). From the Hell Creek Formation, 16 metres below the K-T boundary, Maastrichtian, late Cretaceous (circa 67 million years ago). Sold for $31,847,500 on 6 October 2020 at Christie’s in New York

Coming face to face with STAN for the first time was awe-inspiring. He was bigger and scarier than I’d imagined. When I first saw him, he was just a jumble of bones in a crate. But over the next eight to 12 hours, I got to see him being assembled, bone by bone. It was breathtaking. It’s not often you get so close to one of the most complete T. rex  skeletons ever found.

Instagram is a new way of existing. We should all embrace it. Two years ago, I consigned an amazing celestial globe from about 1550 via Instagram. I sent the owner a message saying that we could probably pin down a date and a maker and, if so, would they like to offer it for sale. It was a recent discovery and extremely sought-after. We sold it for £125,000.

Discovering a rare Islamic spherical astrolabe in Brussels was a stop-the-clock moment. What looked like a modest pocket globe turned out to be a signed instrument made in Mecca in around 1662, presumably for the ruling family at the time. 

My French is good but not perfect, so there was a hilarious moment of misunderstanding when I told the client that my valuation was ‘cent à cent cinquante’. They were a little disappointed to hear it was worth only a few hundred pounds. After an awkward moment, and with the help of a colleague in the Brussels office, I was able to clarify that I meant £100,000-150,000. They consigned there and then. The astrolabe went on to sell for £722,500. It really is a special piece.

Meteorites are highly sought-after by a range of collectors, but notably Old Master collectors. It might be because they are kind of memento mori, reminding us of the death of the dinosaurs. Christie’s is offering a really large, very sculptural meteorite this month, which set a world record when it sold for $68,500 in 1996. The market has moved on so much since then that it is likely to set another.

I’d really like to handle a transitional fossil called Archaeopteryx, a bird-like dinosaur that lived in the Jurassic period. There are only about 10 of them known and most are in state collections. The ‘Berlin specimen’, also known as ‘the fallen angel’, in the Natural History Museum in Berlin is absolutely magnificent. If you shine a light on it, you can still see its feathers.

The 150-million-year-old ‘Berlin specimen’ of the primeval bird Archaeopteryx lithographica in the Natural History Museum, Berlin. The fossil was found in limestone deposits on the Blumenberg near Eichstätt, Bavaria, in 1875.
Photo © Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

The 150-million-year-old ‘Berlin specimen’ of the primeval bird Archaeopteryx lithographica in the Natural History Museum, Berlin. The fossil was found in limestone deposits on the Blumenberg near Eichstätt, Bavaria, in 1875. Photo: © Carola Radke, Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin

Buy a fossil that looks alive. Nobody wants to live with a dead fish! If the fish looks like it’s swimming, it’s much nicer to have around. The Berlin Archaeopteryx is the only specimen I can think of that goes against that rule, as its neck is broken — I presume that’s how it died. The way its arms are spread out makes it look almost like Christ on the cross. It’s very moving when you see it up close.

The dodo skeleton was one of the most exciting discoveries I’ve come across at Christie’s. It was last published in 1976 and had subsequently been forgotten about by everyone apart from the family who’d owned it since the 19th century. As soon as we got the call, I dropped everything to go and see it. 

The fossil itself did not disappoint: it was in fantastic condition and made a record price at £491,250. Which didn’t surprise me. The dodo is such an iconic figure of extinction and a poignant reminder of our responsibilities to look after all the species of our planet.

A dodo skeleton, Mauritius, before 1690. 25 x 22 x 14 in (64 x 55 x 35 cm). Sold for £491,250 on 24 May 2019 at Christie’s in London
A dodo skeleton, Mauritius, before 1690. 25 x 22 x 14 in (64 x 55 x 35 cm). Sold for £491,250 on 24 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

I wish I’d known what was going to happen to the enigma machine market. When I joined Christie’s in 2007, enigma machines fetched between £15,000 and £20,000. Now they are selling for £200,000 to £300,000 or more. They’ve just gone up and up. I think about the reason for that all the time. 

The story of Alan Turing and the code-breaking at Bletchley Park hadn’t been told very well outside academic circles. But when the National Museum of Computing opened at Bletchley in 2007, the story became more widely known. Two Hollywood blockbusters on the subject will no doubt have helped too. The continuing rise of cryptography for our day-to-day transactions has also brought new collectors to this bit of historical code-breaking.

A Second World War enigma machine, Olympia Büromaschinenwerke, 1944. Sold for £347,250 on 16 July 2020 at Christies Online
A Second World War enigma machine, Olympia Büromaschinenwerke, 1944. Sold for £347,250 on 16 July 2020 at Christie's Online

At Christie’s, I get to be a temporary custodian of the very best specimens of science and natural history in the world. I could never compete in the category as a collector. But I do collect first editions of detective fiction. I have two sets of books at home: first editions that remain out of the reach of kids, and those that you can just pick off the shelf and read.

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The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum is spectacular. But my favourite London museum has to be Sir John Soane’s Museum. Everyone should know about it: it’s such a great way of seeing how a collector lived with art. The candlelight tour is definitely worth queuing up for.