GOING, GOING, GONE
William Robinson, International Head of Group, World Art, Christie’s, shares the secrets to being a good auctioneer, his favourite works of arts and some tips on being a collector
William Robinson heads the global activities of the Islamic, Antiquities and Tribal Art departments at Christie’s, and has been involved in the unearthing of The Bronze Lion, the only known companion piece to what is possibly the most impressive piece of Islamic bronze sculpture in existence, the Grifn of Pisa.
Please tell us a little about how you became an auctioneer? Did you always want to be one? Or was there a dening moment when you knew you had to be an auctioneer?
I did not originally intend to become an auctioneer. I wanted to be a specialist due to my love for the arts, their history and culture in general. I love theatre. When I grew up, I even pursued some amateur dramatics. This came very handy when I was holding my rst auction about twenty years ago. But before allowed to go on the rostrum I had to undergo a thorough training process understand the essence of auctioneering.
What are the three qualities according to you that an auctioneer must have?
Firstly, a comprehensive understanding of the nancial side of auctioneering is crucial. A reserve is set on each piece and which is the minimum amount below which the piece cannot be sold. One must coordinate the bids with due etiquette while understanding that commission bids have precedence over telephonic and online bidding. Striking the right balance between these variables and most importantly encouraging more bids out of the assembled potential buyers.
Secondly, having stage presence is essential too. It Darshanais all a Ubl show at the end of the day, and one needs to be both entertaining and alert. To lighten atmosphere one can share a few quips
make the audience laugh but must also remember that it is a serious business after all. A palpable tension is what the audience looks for in an exciting auction. After all, it is a performance.
And lastly, whenever someone asks what the preparation process is, I always stress the importance of research. You have to know the item you are selling, really well. You have to be aware of the details. After that, you need to be alerted about all the bids that are in front of you and those happening via telephone, and on the Internet. I frequently make additional notes in the auctioneer’s book and then refer to it when required.
Could you please share some unforgettable moments or anecdotes that you encountered while auctioning?
One of the funniest was when I had two bidders sitting next to each other who were each bidding on the same lot. I made sure to separate them. The bidding went and eventually reached around double the top estimate. At that point one of them turned to the other and asked “Shall we go on?” They were husband and wife and had not agreed beforehand who would do the bidding.
But the most memorable lots are those where price goes way up beyond anybody’s expectation, and the recent sale in March of the Pala Loka natha Avalokiteshvara in New York is a prime example. The bidding went on for about 15 minutes, with each bidder trying to alter the increments that they bid so as to shake the other bidder off their tail. They bid faster, then slower. Large increments, then small. One of the bidders was sitting right in front of me in the room. In the end he shook his head and in a very chivalrous moment joined in the applause from the others the saleroom to congratulate the buyer. The sculpture had been estimated between $3,000,000-5,000,000; it sold for $24,663,500.
Has there ever been a work of art that you were auctioning but hoping you could bid on? Please tell us more about it
Oh yes – many. We do have the chance to bid, but only by written bid and 24 hours ahead of the auction. On the other hand, we specialists have 3-6 months to enjoy all works of art consigned with Christie’s. We are their guardians for a brief amount of time and then comes the sale.
You’ve been with Christie’s since 1982. What has the experience been like?
Practice and more practice. Nothing beats this old school saying. You get better and better with more auctions and with experience you also gain insight into the kind of auctioneer you want to be.
What is your take on the art scene in India?
The art scene in India has developed strongly over the last years with many new initiatives taking place such as Kochi Biennale. Interest has grown in classical Indian art well as in modern. It is a country that takes its own art very seriously and works hard to support it. But it also is certainly far easier to sell Indian Art in India than it is to sell art from outside India.
Please tell us about your favourite works of art?
My favourite work of art is the one I am working on at the moment. The one that I am most pleased to have been asked to handle was a bronze lion that was made in 12th century Spain. It was a companion piece to a winged bronze grifn, one of the great masterpieces of Islamic sculpture which had sat on east gable of Pisa Cathedral since the late middle ages in the 15th century. The grifn was thought to be unique and I discovered this pair which had been hidden in a noble European collection for centuries. It tripled the existing world record for any item of Islamic Art, but it was its presence itself that had me enthralled.
Could you share some tips to collect art?
Try to view as much art as you can to train your eye and to nd out what speaks to you. It is essential discuss what you see with trusted people from museums, auction houses and in leading dealerships. Touch things (where allowed) since the weight of an object is indicative of its origin just as much as the colour of a glaze or stone. Study – read books on the subject and go to lectures. Buy what you know will delight you even on the coldest and grimmest of winter mornings; that will warm you up then.
Any words of wisdom for those who are new to the world of auctions and are participating for the very rst time?
Each auction is a public event and all are welcome to attend. Just as the auctioneer prepares well for the sale, so should you, learning about the items on offer, nding out about their background and also asking which ones are likely to perform strongly, and which are less probable. It’s okay to go to a sale to see what the experience is like. And lastly, you are buying a work of art to enjoy it; you should enjoy the buying process as much as possible as it will contribute to your enjoyment of the piece itself.