Jane Hay at Christie’s Education, which operates from an 18th-century townhouse designed by the Adam brothers in London’s Portland Place. Photograph by Liz Seabrook

What I’ve learned: Jane Hay, International Managing Director of Christie’s Education

After 33 years at Christie’s in a career that has spanned Decorative Arts, Old Masters and Furniture, auctioneering and Christie’s Education, Jane Hay reflects on the art of the future, grace under pressure — and getting lucky at auction

Art and antiques are in my DNA. My father was an art teacher and later an antiques dealer. In the 1970s, dealers traded in any objects they could find, so it was a great journey of discovery for me.

One day my father brought home a Maori paddle from the Cook expedition. It was a wonderful, wonderful thing — long, with a bird’s beak, inlaid with abalone shells, and inscribed with a date and the name of a crew member. It sat in our hallway for many years.

The art world is a very broad church. But you must have a passion for it. When I started at Christie’s I felt at home right away. I have been here for 33 years — first as a specialist in the decorative arts department, then as an auctioneer.

Since 2012, I have run the educational division, which now focuses on further education. The continuing education audience attracts established Christie’s clients as well as budding collectors. We tailor the content to their lifestyles and interests and deliver programmes both online and on location.

I love maps, always have. On the wall of my office there are two large maps of London, drawn by the artist Stephen Walter. One shows what lies beneath the capital, the lost rivers, submerged monuments and infrastructure, and is annotated with comments at points of interest; the other depicts London above ground and lays out the city’s cultural hub spots in the years running up to the 2012 Olympics. Both have been great departure points for a conversation.

It’s impossible for me to name a favourite work. I seem to fall in love with something new every week. For many of us, that is why we work at Christie’s. One memorable item was a wonderful Renaissance bronze roundel depicting Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan. It was spotted in a cupboard under the stairs by a long-standing client of Christie’s and went on to make a world-record price.

I absolutely loved being an auctioneer. It is a bit like driving: when you first get behind the wheel, you are concerned with the mechanics of the process and following the instructions.

You can’t refine your technique until you transfer the whole process over to the intuitive side of the brain, when it becomes as natural as breathing. If someone is going to make a transaction at auction, the whole process should be enjoyable. An auctioneer has to reward the bidders with an amazing experience.

Stephen Walter, London Subterranea, 2012. Archival inkjet with screen print varnishes and hand-painted acrylic. 131 x 163 cm. Signed and editioned by the artist. Edition of 50. © Stephen Walter. Published by TAG Fine Arts, London
Stephen Walter, London Subterranea, 2012. Archival inkjet with screen print varnishes and hand-painted acrylic. 131 x 163 cm. Signed and editioned by the artist. Edition of 50. © Stephen Walter. Published by TAG Fine Arts, London

Some buyers do get lucky. Early on, I was involved in a sale that featured a Grayson Perry vase. It was about 1989, and he was already building a reputation. We thought the vase was tremendous, but the audience didn’t agree. It fetched, as I recall, about £50.

The art market is constantly changing. I have worked through the collapse of the fabled Japanese market, the transition from phones, photographs and paper to email and computers, the rise of contemporary art, the resurgence of Asia as a global power after nearly 1,000 years.

The next 30 years of changes will be just as radical. New types of art will be created which will require new forms of expertise. We are already seeing new modes of transaction and the market is constantly reshaped by our ever-evolving client base.

The next generation of young professionals and collectors joining the art world have very different sensibilities and approaches to knowledge exchange, trading and connoisseurship. I can’t predict the future, but it will be exciting.

‘Art has a transformative, restorative quality that few other things can deliver’

Expertise is more than subject knowledge. Client knowledge and knowledge of the market are equally important — really important information that delivers competitive advantage is seldom found on a database.

The people who have worked at the front desk for 30 years, who transport the things that we sell around the world, who hang and lay out our sales, or who look after our customers’ credit requirements, they all have their own expertise. You need to go through at least one market cycle to get to grips with all this, which takes about 10 years.

A parcel-gilt and -silvered bronze roundel depicting Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan, Mantuan, circa 1480-1500. 16½ in (42 cm) diameter. Sold for £6,949,250 on 11 December 2003 at Christie’s in London
A parcel-gilt and -silvered bronze roundel depicting Mars, Venus, Cupid and Vulcan, Mantuan, circa 1480-1500. 16½ in (42 cm) diameter. Sold for £6,949,250 on 11 December 2003 at Christie’s in London

Grace under pressure is not something you are born with. To develop emotional intelligence and resilience, to become a high-functioning individual in an immensely high-pressure environment, you have to be in the thick of it, to see how other people do it.

Even the most resilient people have a breaking point. If they reach it in your presence, it is vital to hear them out. Often the strength and depth of your relationships with colleagues and clients is founded on working together to solve problems.

You’re only as good as your team. In all the projects I’ve been involved with at Christie’s — the great furniture sales of the 1990s, redeveloping South Kensington, creating new education programmes — I’ve been lucky to work with amazing people, and they have taught me a lot.

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Integrity should never be sacrificed in the pursuit of profit. In the auction business, clients often have extremely high expectations with respect to authenticity, quality and probable sales outcomes. It’s easy to talk something up without realising, but it is important to always remain the trusted advisor.

For me, Christie’s is not about monetising art. It’s about putting art into the hands of a new person who’s going to love it. Art has a transformative, restorative quality that few other things can deliver. It has been an immense privilege for me, not just to access and appreciate great works of art myself, but to see them passed on from one owner to another.