Christie‘s Global Head of Private Sales on How Christo Changed His Life, Finding the Missing Links in Collections, and an Astonishing Encounter with the Heir to Monet’s Descendants
My dream city would be Paris, but with a New York spirit. I speak as a born Parisian lucky enough to live in New York. Paris would benefit from some of New York’s human magic.
My job is to hunt for works of art. As head of private sales, I spend a great deal of time meeting collectors and trying to understand what they want. I flip through old exhibition catalogs to identify works that might still be in private hands. It isn’t so much about getting the work for sale as connecting with people and creating relationships.
Private sales are a kind of reverse dynamic. Whereas auctions are driven by sellers, private sales are led by buyers. Say, for instance, you are longing to buy a great Georges Seurat Conté drawing, it may take years until you find the right one at auction, whereas we can try to locate one privately, which may then become available.
Private sales often trigger transactions that otherwise would not have happened. We don’t only think about what clients already own, but also about the missing link in their collection.
Always show up. I once got a call from a friend who asked me to meet a client of his at a highway toll gate — on Christmas Eve! My friend said, ‘This person wants to remain anonymous, but just trust me.’
So I set off early in the morning and drove to the designated toll station. There, we met up with a gentleman who asked us to follow his car to a little town outside Paris.
We arrived at a modest apartment and were greeted by the man’s mother, who revealed an astonishing portfolio of works tucked away under the bed, in cupboards and down in the basement. Among them was a gorgeous Monet Nymphéa painting. But also, illustrated letters from Paul Signac, a lost Rodin watercolor, even a pair of Monet’s spectacles. She was the heir to Monet’s descendants — and nobody knew that Monet had descendants!
‘The most successful auctioneers manage to remain themselves in the rostrum. Easier said than done!’
I caught the auction bug when I was seven years old. Every weekend my father took me to the local salerooms of the Drouot auction house. I was fascinated by this other world — by the Proustian atmosphere, messy, full of charm and discoveries. I would watch the auctioneer up there selling books, wine, furniture, pictures. I relished the theatricality of it all.
My first recollection of a work of art was at the same age — and I walked on it. I will never forget the astonishing project of Christo, who had wrapped up the Pont Neuf in Paris. It was the first time I saw his work, and the first time I set eyes on that bridge. Christo’s radical and poetic approach in revealing something while hiding it astounded me.
Auctioneers live with the unexpected. Until proceedings begin, you have no clue how the room will respond, how a particular painting will fare. That’s exactly why I get a kick out of it. And when you think that the sale of a single lot — an event that is over and done with in a matter of seconds — might be the culmination of months and sometimes years of work, that is a rewarding part of the job. I guess the most successful auctioneers manage to remain themselves in the rostrum. Easier said than done!
Why do we have art at all? The interesting paradox is this: art is anything but a necessity, yet we all need it in our lives. We are all drawn to beauty, one way or another, and art is a way for humankind to create hope. It elevates us to a plane where we find meaning. As Duchamp said, it is the viewer who gives the meaning to the picture.