John Hays pictured with Ammi Phillips (1788-1865), Portrait of a Girl in a Red Dress, circa 1834. Estimate $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Silver on

What I’ve learned: John Hays, Deputy Chairman

About to enter his 36th year with Christie’s, the American Furniture and Decorative Arts expert shares his thoughts on Ammi Phillips, American collectors’ passion for history, Outsider art, and the discoveries that change consignors’ lives

Always send a photograph to Christie’s before you give away furniture to the Salvation Army. We once discovered an 18th-century piecrust tea table, one of the highly embellished icons of Philadelphia carving, at a house in Philadelphia. When people inherit works of art, sometimes the art loses its identity — and that was just what happened here. Luckily the real estate stager tipped the family off and they called us right away. It ended up selling for $6.7 million, which is still the record for a piece of Philadelphia furniture.

You might think I need my head examined. I’m entering my 36th year with the company; I was 23 when I started and had come straight from the course in London. I’m a Christie’s person from start to finish.

The last place I wanted to be was in the museum field. I wanted to be where the excitement was. I worked at the Metropolitan Museum as a summer college intern, but it wasn’t right for me. When I arrived at Christie’s I just jumped right in, and I’ve been selling American art and furniture ever since.

American art is an amazing history lesson. My field is American furniture made around 1770 to 1830, and those years continue to resonate deeply with American collectors. Our story only really spans 250 years, unlike European or Chinese culture, but American collectors are very passionate about their history — and well they should be.

Ammi Phillips is the icon of American folk art. The painting I am standing with in the photograph is uniquely American, and is one of four that Ammi Phillips painted of children wearing red dresses in circa 1834. We discovered one of the others in 1984 and it made the front cover of The New York Times, before selling in January of the following year for $864,000. You have to remember 1985 was a very tough year for the art market, and the price was a very big deal. In 2008-09 the American Folk Art Museum held an exhibition of works by Phillips alongside paintings by Mark Rothko. It’s not a reach to say they shared the same, modern ideas about getting the image down in a quickly rendered, stylised way. 

The challenge is becoming the authority. At the beginning the frightening part is that you’re not an authority in the marketplace yet — that takes time — but I was fortunate to have so many people around me who took me under their wing and helped me. Then one day you wake up and you realise that you know something about this field.

‘I know I can solve problems for people who have objects that they want to sell or that they're interested in buying’ — John Hays

You’re only as good as the art that you sell and the people you work with. I’m immensely proud of the accomplishments of Martha Willoughby, who’s one of our great researchers, and Cara Zimmerman, who runs our Outsider art sales. I’m proud of building the team that I have but I have to tell you, I’m bobbing in their wake. They’re amazing experts.

Being an art auctioneer is one of the most under-appreciated parts of the whole process. It looks so straightforward, but the truth is it’s a lot of work. Good auctioneers are a rare thing, and at Christie’s we’re lucky to have some very fine ones.

I consider my office to be a safe harbour for our clients across all departments. As Deputy Chairman, my phone starts ringing and the emails start coming in the moment I walk through the door. I know I can solve problems for people who have objects that they want to sell or that they’re interested in buying: I could be involved in post-war art collections, Asian art collections, American painting collections, anything. People have a lot of questions about where they should go, how they should handle things, and I try to point them in the right direction.

Outsider art is getting a lot of attention today. It’s an art produced by people who are in society but not necessarily part of the most visible group. It’s a term that gets thrown around a lot, but there are many artists who we could consider Outsider artists, including Joseph Cornell, Vincent van Gogh and the people who were disenfranchised like William Edmondson, a black gravestone-carver turned artist.

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I love it when we sell a piece for a family and it changes their lives. One of the most dramatic instances was a little 17th-century valuables cabinet that was discovered in the eaves of a house on Cape Cod and was sold for more thanr $2 million. Originally owned by a couple who testified in the Salem witch trials, it was consigned by an out-of-work boat-builder and his sister, who was a school teacher. Selling that allowed him to buy his own boatyard and for her to... actually I think she divorced her husband! So it changed their lives. It was a little bit like winning the lottery. We play a role in that, so that’s personally very satisfying.

As long as there are more discoveries to be made, I’m in the game. I’m still learning, sometimes the hard way. But I can’t think of a better job. It takes you all over the world.