Ham­mer­ing it home

The chair­man of Christie’s UK on its 250th birth­day and life at Burgh­ley

Country Life Every Week - - Interview -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.