Hammering it home
The chairman of Christie’s UK on its 250th birthday and life at Burghley
In the lobby of Christie’s London headquarters in King Street, the aroma of an espresso bar adds a caffeinated kick to the bustling atmosphere as people stream upstairs to the viewing of furniture, miniatures and clocks in the next day’s sale, ‘The English Collector’.
It’s the sort of relaxed countryhouse ambience that most of us associate with Christie’s, but it’s only a few months since these rooms witnessed the drama on July 7 of the highest price ever fetched for an Old Master painting at Christie’s, the £44.88 million paid by a private American collector for Lot and His Daughters by Rubens. Orlando Rock, who has been head of Christie’s UK since 2015, stands at the door of his office, pointing out where it had hung, facing the top of the stairs. ‘I miss it,’ he says.
Mr Rock’s spacious office mixes old and new—flower paintings in elaborate frames hang near a sculpture by David Mach, a wonderfully tactile zebra’s head made of used matches. ‘I collect things from any period or place. I like to mix things together, things of different periods with contemporary objects,’ he explains.
These are worlds that the boyishly buoyant Mr Rock spans with ease; he looks every inch a modern businessman, but he and his family live in one of the great Elizabethan houses, Burghley, in Lincolnshire. In 2007, his wife, Miranda, a granddaughter of the 6th Marquess of Exeter, an Olympic athlete, was appointed house director of the Burghley House Preservation Trust in succession to her mother, Lady Victoria Leatham.
Does this give Mr Rock much opportunity to mix old and new? ‘There’s no room for meddling,’ he smiles, ‘but we buy things both for the collection and ourselves. It’s a challenge for any historic collection in which the clock has stopped. I think the best approach is to identify the core of the collection, think about where there are gaps and how you can add to it. At Burghley, for example,’ he points out, ‘there’s a major collection of 17th-century Japanese porcelain and I think that’s a tradition that can be continued by adding modern porcelain—we’ve bought pieces by Kate Malone and Andrew Wicks.
‘We haven’t embarked on buying modern pictures—the house has its original pictures, so what do you take off the walls—but I’d love to have a site-specific video work by Bill Viola at Burghley. We’ll just have to save up the pennies.’
Christie’s celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2016—Mr Rock has been employed by the auction house for exactly one-tenth of that time. Collecting runs in his family. ‘My grandfather, Sir Edward Robinson, was a numismatist, curator of coins at the British Museum and a massively obsessive collector. My dad was pretty obsessive, too, especially about furniture—i spent much of my childhood in the back of a car stuffed with bubblewrap while my father, to my mother’s despair, travelled round country houses, museums and churches.’
Mr Rock read history and history of art at Bristol, focusing on architectural history. ‘After that, I talked to the dealer Christopher Gibbs, who was a great icon for my father, and he told me to go and work at Christie’s, which I did, starting with three months on the front desk,’ he recounts. ‘I then moved to the furniture department— always my greatest interest.’
He remembers a leisurely way of life on the front desk, where playing bridge occupied much time. In 25 years, Christie’s, he reflects, has ‘changed almost beyond recognition. When I joined, it was very Anglocentric and male-dominated. That’s improved dramatically and now we have every nationality. Our CEO is a woman, Patricia Barbizet, and she’s very alive to what’s going on throughout the world.’
In terms of taste, the most important change has been the shift to 20th-century, post-second World War and contemporary art: ‘I remember Christie’s having its first dedicated London sale of contemporary art in a warehouse in Clerkenwell in 1998— it made £3 million, which seemed unbelievable then. There’s also been a huge uptake in online sales, which have reached new communities of buyers. But it doesn’t really matter if it’s face to face or online: it’s still the same Christie’s, with the same experts and the same guarantees of service.’
Perhaps it’s a symptom of this global transformation that, when asked to name the Christie’s sale that he most remembers, Mr Rock’s mind turns not to a dispersal of a great aristocratic collection, but a sale of western and contemporary Chinese art in Shanghai in 2013. ‘Christie’s had won a licence to hold sales in mainland China and, to validate it, we had to hold one within five months.
‘I was asked to help pull a sale together that would appeal to a broad range of collectors and the passionate respect that the Chinese have for works of art. Christie’s had been in Hong Kong for a long time and we had all sorts of connections with collectors on the ground there, but the mainland was very new for us.’
The event was promoted by the creation of a new work by Cai Guo-qiang, who works with gunpowder to burn images of landscapes onto long paper scrolls, a modern take on traditional Chinese painting. Mr Rock pulls his phone from his pocket to show me a video of the event, held in a disused church on the Bund. After tracing his design, the artist ignited it in a sheet of flames, terrifyingly close to his distinguished audience.
‘Luckily, he knew what he was doing,’ laughs Mr Rock, ‘or I might have had to phone London the next day to say “Unfortunately, I’ve killed off most of the major collectors in China”.’ Michael Hall
‘I’d love to have a sitespecific video work by Bill Viola at Burghley