What an Expert Wants You to Know About Investing in Iconic Collections
From the ballet flats beloved by Audrey Hepburn to a beaded Versace jacket custom-made for Elizabeth Taylor, Christie’s has handled some of the world’s most iconic items during its 255-year history of private collection sales.
“Christie’s is the only international auction house to have a department dedicated to Private & Iconic Collection sales,” explains Amelia Walker, specialist head of the Private & Iconic Collections Department. “We excel at telling stories—whether they be those of celebrated icons such as Hepburn and Taylor; historic collectors such as the late Dowager Countess Bathurst; or revered connoisseurs such as Simon Sainsbury. Our strength lies in our ability to curate and present collections in the best way possible to the widest audience. And our results speak volumes about our ability to consistently achieve excellent outcomes for our clients.”
Here, she shares what sparked her own love of collections, what goes on behind the scenes of a Private & Iconic Collection sale and what every budding collector should know.
Q: How did you come to hold your current position at Christie’s?
A: I started at Christie’s as an intern in the chairman’s office, working for Charles Cator. His incredible passion for furniture, collecting and country houses was infectious and helped to develop my own fascination for collections, with a particular focus on furniture. I then worked my way up to Specialist Head of Department, a position I’ve held since 2014.
How did your interest in iconic collections begin?
I read history at the University of Oxford, with a particular focus on Tudor England, and I’ve always had an appreciation of historic items and their association with celebrated figures from the past. That, coupled with my general nosiness and a fascination with how people live, helped propel me along this path.
Can you share what you do behind the scenes at a Private & Iconic Collections sale?
Staging a collection sale is a bit like conducting an orchestra—all the parts are vital and if one falters then it all risks going horribly wrong. But I’m lucky in that the unique nature of collections means that no two days are the same. Depending on the collection, I might find myself working with every specialist department in the business, visiting a client and their collection in their home or immersing myself in the archives of a country house or the British Library for a week.
What advice do you have for someone interested in collecting iconic pieces?
There are some important things to consider when buying. For example, think about an item’s condition. Is it in its original condition or, if not, has its restoration or conservation been done sympathetically? Also consider quality: Is it the best example of that particular type of work of art? Is it crafted or painted in the right way, and does it have a pleasing and honest patina?
Then there’s provenance—do you know for whom the piece was made and where it has been, particularly whether it’s graced any interesting or historic collections in the past? This will often add desirability and therefore value. Finally, look to the market. Check whether similar items have been sold recently, and gauge whether you think the estimate or price is fair in relation to recent results.
What are some notable highlights from recent sales?
Whether it be an Old Master painting, a much-loved chair, or even a wastepaper basket, the cachet of owning something from a prestigious private collection immediately elevates it beyond the usual market expectations. And the fascinating stories of collectors and their collections is a definite highlight of each sale.
The Julians Park & Six Private Collections sale has been a privilege to work on in 2021. Through researching the works of art and their provenance, I’ve been able to dig into the story of the collector Audrey Pleydell-Bouverie (1902-1968), sister of the great surrealist patron Edward James. She was a great society beauty, a social butterfly, collector of art (and husbands) with a discerning and eclectic eye and was close friends with Coco Chanel, the Queen Mother and the Churchills, amongst others. She lived a fascinating and colorful life surrounded by an extraordinary collection of art and furniture.
Do you have a favorite item from a recent collection?
My favorite item from the Julians Park collection was a pair of Queen Anne gilt-gesso pier glasses. Their survival, condition and quality makes them extremely rare, and they were almost certainly made for James Douglas, the second Duke of Queensberry, who was made a Knight of the Order of the Garter in 1701.
They are in a remarkable state of preservation, with all but one of the mirror plates being original and exhibiting a beautiful slightly sparkly gray color. The frames were originally silvered rather than oil-gilded, and the original decoration is present to this day beneath two later layers of decoration. They are a truly exciting discovery.
On the other end of the collecting spectrum, handling works of art from contemporary cultural icons is always special—and one in particular comes to mind at the moment. We’re currently lucky to be handling the L’Wren Scott Collection, a stunning array of couture gowns and pieces she crafted for various stars of the stage and screen.
The sequined oak leaf jacket she made for Mick Jagger is special not only for its association with his memorable Glastonbury 2013 performance, but it is also a masterwork of craftsmanship.
Meike Abrahams is editor of Luxury Defined.
This story originally appeared on Luxury Defined by Christie’s International Real Estate.