Stephen Jones in the Christies Rockefeller Center library with Deborah Remington (1930-2010), Gallatin, 1976. Oil on linen. 20 x 18 in (50.8 x 45.7 cm). Estimate $10,000-15,000, and Helen

What I’ve learned: Stephen Jones, Senior Writer

Changing careers in your 30s and the importance of ‘listening with your eyes’— Stephen Jones reflects on what he has learned as a writer for Christie’s

Taking controlled risks is good for the soul. I started in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department as an intern when I was 38. Before Christie’s, I worked as a journalist for 16 years, in radio and then at the BBC. Having come from a relatively senior position in another career, I was uncertain about how I would cope with starting fresh.

I look back and think that changing careers was a scary thing to do. But when my internship came to an end, they offered me a job in the department and the rest, as they say, is history. Twelve years later and I’m still here.

Learning about art is a journey, the more time you can spend with it, the better. You’re never going to know everything, so you have to take joy in the act of learning and finding out something new. It is about the art, after all.

Often, it’s the story of the object, as opposed to the story of the art or the artist that makes a compelling narrative. Many of the works that Christie’s offers have been in important collections and exhibitions, so we’re often writing about that journey, about the owners and collectors. My general interest is in the postwar era, but I also enjoy the process of learning what contemporary artists are doing, how they’re expressing themselves and dealing with what we’re going through as a society.

As a journalist, it was the same thing. I was given a few hours to do some research, find out what the story was, and then make it interesting for whomever was watching. I’ve learned that the skillsets are quite similar — having the ability to take all that information and pull together a coherent story that will ultimately start a dialogue with the audience.

Stephen Jones in Christies Rockefeller Center library
Stephen Jones in Christie's Rockefeller Center library

A collector once told me that ‘you should collect by listening to your eyes’. This valuable advice came from gentleman who had built a collection of works on paper. They weren’t especially high value in terms of some of the works we sell, but you could immediately tell how passionate about them he was. In saying that, he meant that collectors shouldn’t listen to what someone else tells them to buy. Collectors should listen with their eyes, and form their own judgements about works of art.

The greatest downside to working remotely is that you’re not looking at the art in person. You can have as many hi-res, superzoom images as you like, but at least half of what a painting is telling you appears when you see it in person.

One of the first artworks that I wrote about was a sculpture by John Chamberlain. I had a pretty bad image of the work, so in my mind it was small and subtle, and I wrote about it in those terms. After the catalog was published, I was walking through the warehouse and I passed something. It was the sculpture, which was literally the back end of a car that he had crushed and moulded into a specific shape. Had I seen that before, I would’ve written about it in a completely different way.

Education is more than reading books or attending lectures. You’re going to learn a lot about the art world from being around and listening to conversations between colleagues and clients. I tell all the interns that they must develop a kind of connoisseurship to understand the different qualities of an artist’s work, particularly with an artist like Andy Warhol who was so prolific. It’s something you pick up from being there while people are talking about the artwork. Overhearing and being a part of these discussions, it gives you an understanding that you can never learn in an Art History lecture on Pop Art.

‘Collectors should listen with their eyes, and form their own judgements about works of art’

I read a theory in a book called Expert, by Roger Kneebone, which I think is spot on. In the book, Kneebone argues that you should base your career in three phases. In the first third, you’re an apprentice, learning everything you can. In the second, you’re a journeyman, developing your skills and your own voice. Then, in the third, you’re a mentor, passing that information onto the next generation. At this point in my career, I think I’ve just about arrived in the middle section.

No matter how dull or seemingly uninteresting a task is, there’s value in it. When I started as an intern, I knew I was at the bottom of the pile, despite being in my late 30s. I learned quite early on that you just have to submit yourself to what needed to be done. As with all these things, the devil is in the detail.

While giving out the mail can be a mundane job, I realized that it was an easy way for my colleagues to get to know me. Every day, I brought the mail to people’s offices. We would exchange greetings, talk a bit, and then I would continue on. It paid off, because when they had interesting tasks that needed to be done, they knew me as more than an anonymous intern, and would give me those things to do.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Salvator Mundi, 1500. Oil on panel. 25 ⅞ x 18 in (65.7 x 45.7 cm). Sold for $450,312,500 on 14 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Salvator Mundi, 1500. Oil on panel. 25 ⅞ x 18 in (65.7 x 45.7 cm). Sold for $450,312,500 on 14 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Seeing the Salvador Mundi  was a spiritual experience. When people ask which artwork has had the biggest impact on me, it has to be the da Vinci. I remember coming in to see it early one morning before we opened. It was a typical fall day — dull, cold, and wet with busy New Yorkers on the subway. But when I walked into that dimly lit room with nobody else around, suddenly I was alone with a Leonardo da Vinci. It’s incredible, seeing these things you’ve come to know so well over the past three or four months before they go onto their next journey, in what feels like your own private museum. Getting to spend that one-on-one time with art, it’s an immense privilege.