Sotheby’s is one of the most oldest and best-known auction houses in the world. With locations as far and wide as London, New York, Geneva and Hong Kong, Sotheby’s is renowned for combining historic antiques and fine art pieces with contemporary art to create hotly anticipated auctions throughout the world. Ahead of two auctions in New York this October we spoke to David Walker to hear more about how exhibitions like this are curated, and his role at Sotheby’s.
As VP of 19th Century Furniture and Decorative Arts at Sotheby’s you must have one of the most interesting jobs in the art world, can you tell us what an average day looks like?
It depends where I am! I check my emails as soon as I wake up, though I don’t answer any until after I’ve left the apartment. Many emails include images of objects, and I like to see them early so I can ponder them as I’m preparing to leave “ …where have I seen this commode before? Isn’t it like one we sold in such-and-such sale? I must check the catalogue when I get in.”
I’m always trying to focus on the next sale, or the one after that, so I plan business trips to visit clients and collections, and keep thinking about what form the auctions are going to take. Day-to-day we have regular consignment and strategy meetings, and I like to go into the warehouse once a day, to inspect the new property that has come in, and check certain things I am researching.
The global market for European furniture and decorative arts has changed so much in the last five years, and even in the last one to three. New markets and collectors have emerged, technology has advanced, and the method of interaction and consumption is now so different. The fundamentals haven’t changed though – all auctions start and end with people: the owners of the objects, and the buyers of them.
Sotheby’s receives enquiries from every corner of the world, and fortunately we can curate our sales to offer an engaging selection of objects that will suit collectors as well as decorators looking to create unique and interesting spaces for their clients. Often our sales will comprise a core of fine furniture and decorative arts from an estate or private collection, and it is wonderful to be able to showcase how a particular collector collected – what inspired them, what they loved and why they chose it.
For these auctions you chose to work with Farrow & Ball paints and papers, how do you go about selecting pattern and colour for your exhibits?
We work together as a team, talking about all of the different shades and patterns and how our pieces will look against them. We like bold contrasts and contemporary looks that show how antique pieces can be seen in a different light. Our galleries on York Ave have undergone several changes recently, including taking the floors back to the bare concrete. This presents challenges and opportunities when displaying fine antique furniture, and the contemporary Farrow & Ball wallpapers and paints have been instrumental in helping us tie it together. We choose a mixture of dark and light shades, tight and wide patterns, and try to create different moods in different parts of the gallery, so people have different experiences walking throughout.
What role do you think design plays in exhibits such as these?
Design plays a huge role, and we try to keep it at the core of our approach. Even with physical, in-person auction attendance decreasing (with so many ways clients can bid remotely, including online and by phone), our gallery attendance during the preview prior to the auction are increasing. We also hold cocktail parties and special events, and it is essential that we try to display the property to the best possible advantage. With so many diverse objects this can be challenging, but we seek inspiration from various sources and have members of the department that take special care to bring new ideas and approaches to our display. We have also worked well with interior designers in the recent past, and this helps us to see the pieces on offer in new ways too.
What’s it like working for one of the most famous auction houses in the world?!
Inspiring, challenging, rewarding, tiring!
What was the first antique you ever bought?
A late Victorian ebonised chest of drawers, for £10. I was 14 at the time and thought it was a masterpiece. It wasn’t.
What’s the most interesting artefact/antique/artwork/curios in your own home?
It sounds awfully nerdy, but it is probably a rare Russian pink rhodonite and green nephrite urn from around 1850. It has gilt bronze mounts and looks great on my modern bookshelves with some space around it.
And finally, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?!
I’ll probably want to retire to a rambling Jacobean house in the Cotswolds with a nice garden…before then – wherever the world takes me!