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Why I left Christie's


Being ill-used by Christie's
Brian Sewell Writer
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And Sotheby’s, for that matter. Sotheby’s did it with Bruce Chatwin, Christie’s did it with me. Pretty young men, whom they suspected were homosexual, who could be sent off to scout for a weekend. When… and the chairman was at Eton. The chairman knew which of his peers at Eton was queer, and so if one of them rang up and said, 'Oh, I need someone to come and look at my pictures', they wouldn’t send Patrick, but they would send me. And there would then perhaps be an attempt at flirtation. And I remember one occasion... which I had gone to bed, and I woke up and found his lordship sitting on the end of it. And actually, we were expected to sell our souls for the firm. So it wasn’t exactly plain sailing. And then, my real reason for leaving Christie’s was that I’d reached the point where I was the old master drawings expert in the house. There was nobody else who knew as much as I did. And Patrick was still my titular superior, and I’d gone to America and, I think, secured a very important collection for sale by an old man who happened to be Jewish. And I’d spent a week going through his drawings, every day I had spent with this old man, and we had discussed everything in detail. We had fixed every reserve price, every estimated price on everything. We got it absolutely tied up.

Then, on the last morning, I was leaving for London later that day, and that last morning... He was a judge, and he’d judged it very well, because he said, 'And now, what are the terms?' And I said, 'Oh, we charge 10% on whatever figure is reached at the auction'. And he said, 'No you don’t, not for me. I’m giving you a whole sale. It’s a complete collection. There are enough pictures here, enough drawings here, to fill a whole sale. So your costs will be much lower, the prestige of selling my collection is worth something, so I don’t intend to give you 10%'. And I said, 'Well, I’m afraid I can’t discuss this'. 'Why not?' I said, 'Well, I’m not a director and only…' and I got no further. I didn’t… he shouted at me, 'Do you mean to say Christie’s have had the impertinence to send me somebody who is not a director and who cannot discuss terms?' I said, 'Well, I can go back to London and discuss terms with a director'. 'That’s not good enough, I want to settle it now. You’ve been here for a week. I’ve fed and watered you, shown you everything, confided in you. And no, I… no'. And that was very difficult.

I flew back to London that night, and went straight to Patrick the following morning and explained the situation and said, I thought that he ought to get on an aeroplane and go straight to New York and secure the collection before it got turned over to Sotheby’s or anybody else.  And Patrick said,' I’m buggered if I’m going to fly to New York for the convenience of some old Jew'.

So I then went to the chairman and said, 'I’m sorry, this is very difficult, but this is what happened, this is Patrick’s response. And the best he is going to do is pick up the telephone, and I think it needs something better than that. I think it needs the presence of somebody who really is a director and can make, you know, concessions'. And I don’t know what happened, but all that the chairman said was, 'Leave it with me'. Nobody did go, and Sotheby’s got the sale.

And that told me that all my knowledge, all my expertise, all my experience, counted for nothing.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Christie's, Sotheby's, Eton, Patrick Lindsay, Charles Bruce Chatwin, Peter Chance

Duration: 5 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2013

Date story went live: 04 July 2013