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Life at the high end: what it is like to work at an auction house

Memoirs by Charles Hindlip and Simon de Pury, and a history of Christie’s, shed light from above

by James Stourton  |  7 April 2017
Life at the high end: what it is like to work at an auction house
A auction at Christie's (Image: courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd. 2016)
These books tell the tale of two of the outstanding personalities of the art market over the last 40 years, Charles Hindlip of Christie’s and Simon de Pury of Sotheby’s, and later Phillips de Pury. When the history of auctions is written, the half-century from 1958 will be seen as a golden age, similar to the 1880s. The Sotheby’s and Christie’s duopoly went international and remained supreme, only seriously challenged at the turn of millennium, which is part of the story told by De Pury.

The father of today’s art market is Peter Wilson, Sotheby’s chairman from 1958, who, by persuading Americans to sell French pictures in London (beginning with the Goldschmidt sale that year), created the international auction market. Rather than compete with Christie’s on its Old Masters ground, Wilson made Sotheby’s the house for Impressionist and classic Modern art. Within a decade Sotheby’s turnover had doubled Christie’s, but by 1970 Christie’s was catching up fast.

The old adage about gentlemen and auctioneers was true during the 1960s and 1970s. It was equally the case that Christie’s strengths were British while Sotheby’s were international. The latter based its astonishing trajectory on great sales from overseas collectors. Wilson was never comfortable in White’s, while Hindlip was never out of it. It was the acquisition by Sotheby’s of Parke-Bernet, the venerable New York auction house in 1964, that changed everything. It was when Christie’s opened up in the city that—in classic duopoly theory—the two houses became international giants.

But until the giddy 1960s—books and manuscripts apart—Christie’s had the field virtually to itself. Going Once is its 250th anniversary production in the souvenir catalogue manner, the company history told through 250 objects. The format is chilly, which is a shame because no auction house on earth has sold such a cavalcade of masterpieces; from Botticelli to Rembrandt, and Velázquez to Picasso, Christie’s handled them all. Hindlip and de Pury enter the story in the 1960s and 1970s respectively when the competition was at full throttle.

Hindlip, affable and charming, describes in An Auctioneer’s Lot a client list of cousins, godparents and the world with whom he went shooting: Christie’s as an extension of Eton and the Coldstream Guards. He chronicles the world of English country houses and their great Old Master collections. But if only he had spent less time scrutinising Christie’s Review of the Season this book would be a delight. It is a record of triumphs—with a few disasters thrown in—but as reading matter we long for more of the author and his thoughts. One curious omission is Christopher Davidge, its former chief executive who resigned in 1999 over the Christie’s and Sotheby’s collusion case, receives only a passing mention; both Hindlip and De Pury are coy on the topic.

In The Auctioneer, De Pury, by contrast, comes across as the Swiss boy from Basel, brittle, driven, charismatic, modernist in outlook and focused on the international jet set. His career has been like a comet, soaring high and occasionally crashing to the ground. He is a more complicated figure than Hindlip and round him there is always an air of agitated loneliness. He always seemed to be rushing to catch an airplane. De Pury had three adolescent dreams: to become a soccer star, a rock star or a great artist, with Pele, McCartney and Picasso as his trinity. The key to his career, apart from his astonishing energy and ambition, is being Swiss. They looked after their young man. Given his first leg up by the great Basel dealer Ernst Beyeler, De Pury was then passed to the auctioneer Kornfeld in Bern before finishing his education at Sotheby’s under Wilson. (He repeats the nonsense about Wilson being the “fifth man”.) De Pury then became Baron Thyssen’s curator at Lugano where, in his own words, he was living in a gossip column.

De Pury tells a ripping yarn, at times a bit breathless, hammed up with amusing descriptions of the high-octane sex life and art buying of the baron. De Pury played the courtier to perfection and it was with some soul-searching that he returned to Sotheby’s, rising to become European chairman. He describes his time there as less about being an art expert but rather a social worker to the rich and famous. He was helped by being a gifted linguist. Despite cries of self-deprecation, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he loves attention: “whenever I saw a podium, I wanted to be on it”. He is a superb auctioneer.

By the time De Pury set up Phillips de Pury under Bernard Arnault, he had turned from courtier to player. The strategy was to “compete elite”—to focus on the high end. Underneath his conventional appearance there lurked an inner glam rocker: auctions were surrounded by wild parties, rock concerts and so on. By 2002 he had lost his girlfriend and his business partner, and his auction house looked dead, but De Pury has always managed to pick himself up. He compares himself to Hamlet but with an un-Swiss recklessness, always taking the bold move; his story is closer to one of Henry Fielding’s picaresque tales of obscurity, fame and alternating fortune.

While Hindlip is content to remain in London dealing with the remnants of the Christie’s country house world through Simon Dickinson, De Pury has adjusted with ease to the world of Doha, oligarchs and celebrities. In the art world you need to circulate and you need energy. Hindlip conveys something of the fun and laughter he shared with his former colleagues and wonders if they enjoy themselves as much today. Indeed.

• James Stourton was the chairman of Sotheby’s UK until 2012

Going Once: 250 Years of Culture, Taste and Collecting at Christie’s
Phaidon editors
Phaidon Press, 496pp, £39.95 (hb)

An Auctioneer’s Lot: Triumphs and Disasters at Christie’s Charles Hindlip
Allen & Unwin, 260pp, £30 (hb)

The Auctioneer: a Memoir of Great Art, Legendary Collectors and Record-breaking Auctions
Simon de Pury and William Stadiem
Allen & Unwin, 320pp, £16.99 (pb)

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