Ruthlessly competitive, glamorous and scheming - the secret world of London’s auction houses

·7-min read
 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

In the glitzy corridors of London’s grandest auction houses, big finds are hot gossip. A Salvador Dali diptych has been found languishing in a dusty Rome attic. ‘We were only there to look at some low-value ceramics belonging to an old composer,’ says India Phillips, head of Bonhams’ Impressionist and Modern Art department, trying to make it sound as if her life is just as banal as mine.

Dali’s Couple aux têtes pleines de nuages sold at auction for £8.1m last year — not exactly small change. ‘This life is jet set,’ Phillips admits. ‘Pandemic aside, I’m on a plane at least every other week, and in a new city every few days. I’ve had Picassos sitting with me on the train, Basquiats on the plane — first class, obviously. It is the opposite of dull and boring.’

Opulent artworks, demanding VIP buyers and flashy parties are the stuff of legend at London’s old auction houses. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have run a (mostly) civil duopoly since the 1700s. When Napoleon died in 1821, Sotheby’s scooped the sale of the books he took with him in exile to St Helena; Christie’s secured clients such as Catherine the Great. These days, the money is louder, the competition fiercer.

Phillips, family firm Bonhams and a coming wave of Chinese competitors jostle alongside one another, too. ‘It’s ruthlessly competitive,’ says Doug Woodham, former president of Christie’s in the Americas. ‘This is not about turning the widgets in a factory and banging out another 50 Picassos. They’re trained professionals who source sales in packs.’

Although maybe sometimes slightly less professional. ‘It was like being at a boarding school,’ one ex-staffer tells me. ‘Lots of parties and drugs. Everyone’s sleeping with each other. And then everyone carries on with their day job. It’s mega.’ Sharing privileged information with rivals is a sackable offence, though. ‘We had an intern we found out was going out with someone at Phillips and she had to be got rid of immediately,’ says one staffer. Yet many people who work at Christie’s have worked at Sotheby’s and vice versa. There are friendships that link people. You’re allowed to be friends with people on the other side, just not talk shop.

The sellers are like rock stars. Take John Marion, Sotheby’s boisterous auctioneer of the 1980s, a quick-win, quick-spend decade. He coined such bon mots from the rostrum as, ‘Come on, sir, it’s $2 million, make it $2 million-one — what’s $100,000 between friends?’ and ‘Nine hundred thousand? Call it $1 million, sir — it’ll sound so much better when you tell the folks back home.’ Seasoned professionals know which jokes work and how to build rivalries in the room. Charity auctions bring the best out of the showboats, too. Henry Wyndham, former chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, once auctioned a year’s supply of elephant dung to a gardening enthusiast for £5,000.

That’s your lot:  a bidder at Christie’s as works by Warhol and Lichtenstein go on sale in 2006 (Getty Images)
That’s your lot: a bidder at Christie’s as works by Warhol and Lichtenstein go on sale in 2006 (Getty Images)

Nick Bonham, formerly of Bonhams and the doyen of charity auctioneers, trumped even that. He sold a Shetland pony on the fourth floor of the Café Royal, taking £600 for the horse — and £50 for the mess it had made on the floor. They both have more glorious charity tales: Wyndham sold a guitar signed by Eric Clapton, Bono and other rock stars for $1.6m in a Qatar auction that raised $10m; Bonham has fetched almost £200,000 from an original Beatles manuscript.

It’s not all fun and games. Rivalries simmer. ‘There are little sayings that show that,’ one staffer tells me. ‘Like “Christie’s are gentlemen who play at being auctioneers, Sotheby’s are auctioneers who play at being gentlemen”. It means everyone at Christie’s has gone to Eton — although now it’s mostly Harrow — whereas Sotheby’s are people who have come up through business and would like to be English aristocrats but weren’t born that way.’

I’m not sure that’s fair. Harry Dalmeny, Sotheby’s chairman, worked his way up from an entry job in 1991 — but he’s also Lord Dalmeny, son and heir of the 7th Earl of Rosebery. It cuts both ways. But a Christie’s staffer confirms that one polo-mad colleague ‘rides Prince Harry’s horse’.

Networking is crucial. ‘Half of the people employed by London auction houses come from that top three per cent of society’s wealthiest anyway,’ says one source. They’re all employed ‘not because of what they know, but because of who they know’. Every single door in society is open to them. A typical VIP event would involve whisking a select group of buyers off to a private palazzo in Venice for dinner, ‘and put up one piece on the wall, and not even say anything about it, just let them notice it quietly.’ Less is more when you have almost everything already.

It’s not a world for the faint-hearted. In May 2017 Sotheby’s and Christie’s were ‘squabbling like siblings’, says Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina. A collection of early works from future superstars such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons worth $160m was up for grabs. The Spiegels, a New York real-estate mogul and his wife, died and left their art to their two daughters, who each received half. ‘One chose Christie’s and the other Sotheby’s.’ The auction houses staged duelling auctions on consecutive days. Years of wooing were invested in each daughter. ‘In a brutal way, we often say the auction houses make money out of the three Ds: debt, death and divorce,’ an insider tells me. ‘So you also keep up to date with what somebody’s life situation is. Oh, so and so’s mother just died, how sad. Let’s go in and see if we can offer a probate valuation.’ Or ‘so and so’s getting divorced. What a pity. He’s going to need to sell that Koons, because he needs to pay some enormous alimony money.’

Sold master:  a Picasso sells  at Sotheby’s for £15m in 2017 (Alamy Stock Photo)
Sold master: a Picasso sells at Sotheby’s for £15m in 2017 (Alamy Stock Photo)

Charm is part of the long game. ‘We’re about to see the biggest wealth shift in America in generations,’ says Woodham. So tapping the bright young things set to inherit their parent’s juicy collections — and keeping the scions sweet — is imperative. Increasingly, pale, stale old men are less sought after. Christie’s is said to have had a programme for heirs, or ‘Beaus’ (a nod to George Bryan ‘Beau’ Brummell, the original dandy, for whom getting dressed took five hours a day). To get your hands on that £35m Picasso, you’ll pull out all the stops.

Beyond all the glamour, hard-working staffers earn their keep. ‘My career highlight was selling an Hermès Birkin that belonged to its namesake, the English singer Jane Birkin,’ says Meg Randell, head of Bonhams Designer Handbags and Fashion department. The bag was totally battered: Birkin had let her cat sleep in it (the handles even had bite marks on them). It sold to an overseas bidder for £119,000. But she’s also had to smuggle pricey items from client’s homes in unassuming bin liners in order to put rival sellers off the scent.

Lockdown saw sales rocketing as the auction business embraced tech. Virtual auctions allow for more eyes on the prize, while Instagram and WhatsApp are a big part of whipping up interest. Randell gamely models Chanel pieces for any client who wants to know what an outfit looks like on a person. Her colleague lets top clients know about rare works in a few ways: it might be a print copy of a catalogue popped in the post, it might be ‘a WhatsApp with screaming face emojis’. It’s a big shift from a decade ago, when clients would be flown in to see rare old masters and slipped in via the back door. ‘Now, after the pandemic, we’re doing a lot on video call.’ The old houses are slowly getting to grips with zippy rivals that use AI to flush out potential clients from web lists. The old ways are changing.

Auction houses, too, are moving on from a business model of using ‘pretty women and pretty men’ to woo socialites, says Woodham. Most people who are interested in selling work are either savvy themselves, or well-advised ‘by people like me’. Today’s auction land is about buyer’s premiums and Excel spreadsheets. ‘The old English school of competition is quaint, but I don’t think it has much relevance in the marketplace today,’ he says. Savage.

Then again, he’s calling from New York. Maybe he just feels left out of the London party.

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