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April 15, 2013

Helena Newman's Diary

By Spear's

The chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department, Europe, on auctions in unusual locations, evenings where music and art collide and her sweet tooth

The chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Department, Europe, on auctions in unusual locations, evenings where music and art collide and her sweet tooth

I’ve been taking charity auctions for as long as I’ve been an auctioneer at Sotheby’s. The heady rush I get when taking one of my own Impressionist & Modern Art sales is there when I’m conducting a sale for a charitable cause that I believe in, and the most recent auction for KIDS charity at Claridge’s was a glamorous affair which meant I had to take to the podium bedecked in a floor-length gown.

At least that night I didn’t have to dash around the room with the microphone, as I’d had to when auctioneering for the superb micro-financing charity Opportunity International in the Crypt at St Paul’s. On that occasion the ancient pillars throughout the room obstructed the microphone’s frequency and meant that I had to be a roving auctioneer to make sure I could see all the bids.

At such auctions there is, of course, a very different style and mood to the sales that take place in Sotheby’s salerooms. It’s an opportunity for the auctioneer’s personality to have more prominence, as one takes on the role of entertainer as well as auctioneer. But, just as on the podium at Sotheby’s, I think it’s most important to remain true to your own style, while maintaining a sense of energy to give a good pace to the proceedings — it is, after all, about eliciting the highest possible bids.

A little night music

Coming from a music-oriented family, one of the highlights of our programme of events is a night at Glyndebourne, which I’m currently organising for July. Together with my co-host Henry Wyndham, Sotheby’s chairman, Europe, we’re inviting guests to attend The Marriage of Figaro.

Much as I used to love the ritual and drama of al fresco picnics at Glyndebourne, each year’s British summer seems to be a greater challenge, so we opt for supper in the private green room, with courses during the interval and after the performance. Director Gus Christie joins us and inevitably provides a wonderful behind-the-scenes insight.

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Collecting collectors

Hopping on a plane to meet collectors throughout the Continent is one of the best parts of my job. Recently, on a gloriously sunny day, I had the privilege of being shown a group of works, belonging to a European gentleman, which represents my absolute dream of a collection.

In a supremely elegant home, the collector shared with me and my colleague from our Paris office some of the wonderful anecdotes that accompany each of the works in the collection. Whether there’s an astonishing story about how the work came into their collection, or the rare occasion when a collector actually knew the artist in person, there is always a wealth of history that surrounds artworks.

Paris, je t’aime

Since my children’s schools break up for holidays on different dates, just before Easter I made the most of this situation by arranging a girls’ trip to Paris with my ten-year-old daughter, Bella. As well as visiting the Louvre, where we of course saw the Mona Lisa, we also went to the Orangerie to see Monet’s Waterlilies. I’d forgotten how stunning the two rooms are as I haven’t been for a number of years; usually my trips to Paris are so brief. We had the exhibition entirely to ourselves, which was special, but our next stop — the Dali exhibition at the Pompidou — was the exact opposite, and after craning our necks to see as much as we could, we headed for a well-deserved lunch at a brasserie on the Île Saint-Louis.

In London my indulgence is Ladurée macarons, and the Burlington Arcade shop is temptingly close to my office. So, while in Paris, I couldn’t resist their beautiful tea rooms, where we each chose three macaroons to eat over tea and a box to take home. (The box didn’t make it home.)

Cycle safe

Back in London I like to make the most of the city by cycling to work across Hyde Park. Much as I’d like to say it’s my way of keeping fit, the journey into Bond Street is pretty flat, so it’s more a way of decompressing. It helps with jetlag too, and with the number of trips out to New York on the horizon, I’ll definitely need this recovery time in the form of pedalling.

In the lead up to the major summer sale season in London, the challenge is to remain focused on finding exceptional works for the June auction, while also bringing works in our May New York sale of Impressionist & Modern Art to the attention of individual clients. Of course, it can get rather heated when there’s a work sought after by numerous bidders; you never know how the sale will unfold. 

Until the night of our sale, I have the opportunity to hang a number of the highlights in my office and it’s always a great pleasure to curate my gallery in miniature. Last year I fell in love with the beautiful blue Miró painting, Étoile Bleue, that we sold in London in June. Painted in 1927, it was one of his most beautiful dream paintings executed on a resonating blue ground. Though my time with these masterpieces is brief, their impact on me endures.

Photograph by Jenny Lewis

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