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

MillionaireAsia India - - In Conversation - By Rama Ahuja

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 Grifn of Pisa.

Please tell us a lit­tle about how you be­came an auc­tion­eer? Did you al­ways want to be one? Or was there a dening 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 grifn, 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 grifn 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.

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