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In Conversation with Lord Harry Dalmeny

Xander Haveron-Jones talks to Lord Harry Dalmeny about his childhood surrounded by art and the transformation of the art market throughout his career at Sotheby’s.

“When I finish this call I’ve got to go on to a client who owns a Monet”, says Harry Dalmeny, the UK Chair of Sotheby’s. Having spent some three decades at the preeminent auction house, he’s seen hundreds of millions pass under the hammer, trawled through the country’s greatest estates hunting-out forgotten prizes crammed in distant corners of grade-listed attics, and personally sold some of art history’s most treasured works. He must have an enviable black book of contacts, I think, half-disappointed that he doesn’t have any recognisable artists hanging behind him. Though I’m sure he knows the various international whereabouts of many of their prized works—concealed within private collections.

Dalmeny’s fascination with objets d’histoire was near instantaneous: the heir apparent to the earldom of Rosebery, a great-grandson of Prime Minister Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery and Hannah de Rothschild—the richest woman in Britain—he was raised amongst the great collections of Dalmeny House and Mentmore. “My family had been collectors; my great-grandmother had an amazing house, full of treasures; when I was about eight, my father died and tax rates being what they were, we had to sell the house and Sotheby’s did a house sale on the lawn.” Dalmeny recalls his amazement at perfect strangers knowing more about the objects in his house than he did himself. I wonder whether, had the lawn-sale been held by Christie’s, the seed might have been planted to join Sotheby’s renowned adversary instead.

Dalmeny was fortunate to have a fortuitous exposure to a bounty of things ancient and precious, a metaphorical cornucopia—only this collective horn of plenty was offered to the government for the equivalent of £24m in 1974 in lieu of taxes. Dalmeny pursued his interest in the arts to Cambridge, where he studied History of Art. Having grown up in a private art-horde I can imagine the world’s greatest museums felt a little pedestrian (rather, with too many pedestrians) in comparison. Post-graduation, he came to work at the older of the two dominant auction houses, starting off as a ‘porter’, a denomination which he assures me has now been upgraded to ‘technician’, which seems a little more dignified. Enjoying a stimulating breadth of experience throughout the house’s numerous departments, this suited an anxiety to understand as much as he could, ever-conscious that he would soon be the custodian of his familial collection.

Having spent a career at the place, and indeed over the most transformative decades the art market has seen, Dalmeny remembers the retrospectively modest state of affairs when he started out in the 90s: “When I started, the contemporary art department was two men in corduroy suits with an office halfway up the staircase”. Nowadays, the same department is the single ‘engine’ of the business—the global contemporary market turnover in 2000 was $92m; as of 2019, it was $1.9bn. Yet this transformation has inevitably extended to far more rigorous demands of the auctioneer’s staff: “I’m probably one of the last dinosaurs who doesn’t speak three languages”, he says.

“I spent the 90s going from stately home to stately home, putting up a tent on their lawns and doing to them what was done to me aged eight”. He found the harmonious unity of family collections particularly pleasing—”the whole thing made sense in the house, in the family, in the ownership”. Early in his career, he worked on the Windsor sale, sorting the contents of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s house in France after their deaths. Sotheby’s house sale at Chatsworth, the seat of the Dukes of Devonshire, was particularly fruitful: “we freed up the rooms, and gave them £7 million in return for the things that were their problem”. Blocks of stone discovered in an old saw mill on the estate were, in actuality, the dismantled original fireplaces designed for Devonshire House in London, some of which sold for over half a million pounds. Presently, he’s managing a sale of the late countess of Mountbatten of Burma’s collection—whose granddaughter, India Hicks, I happened to have interviewed for Cherwell last July.

Yet Dalmeny most excitedly recalls the unexpected discoveries made throughout the years, of things such as a textile wrapped around a heating pipe—which turned out to be indigenous artwork from Canada which sold for over £200,000. A colleague of Dalmeny’s recently unearthed a cardboard box with a “feathery ornament” inside. Having tracked down the provenance and discovered that it had come back with Captain Cook on his first voyage from the South Sea, the ‘ahu ‘ula sold last year for £239,400. When discussing the art market, it’s difficult not to price-drop, as it were. Dalmeny tells me his most valuable auction lot was a Monet painting of Haystacks.

For those who disdain commodification, and the traditionalists who insist that the price distracts from the purpose or importance of any work, I often agree. The price of a work necessarily informs public perception of it—and its creator. Yet price does not uniquely determine quality, but demand. And, indeed, marketing. “The idea that you would invest in art and you would take a profit is probably a product of the last 20 years. It’s really particularly germane with contemporary art, because people do decide to buy an artist and then will sell it if the price gets to the right point. I’ve known clients who have bought and sold the same work two or more times”. For those who haven’t recently watched Fran Lebowitz on Netflix, I offer her observation: “If you go to an auction, out comes the Picasso—dead silence. Once the hammer comes down on the price—applause. We live in a world where they applaud the price but not the Picasso”.

Marketing has becoming increasingly essential during the pandemic, of course. Despite all operations moving online—no in-person viewings, bidding, etc.—Sotheby’s beat Christie’s to make $5bn in global sales. Yet it seems to me that watching that infamous Banksy self-destruction was cause for more alarm to Dalmeny than the pandemic: despite its suddenness, Sotheby’s circumstance has unsurprisingly been one preparedness. Over the last few years, 80% of sales had already moved online—absentee bidding, telephone bidding. “I witnessed an Asian bidder bidding over $70 million online on his laptop for a Francis Bacon last year,” he recalls excitedly. Fortuitously, Sotheby’s had been acquired by new owners just before 2020, whose apparent digitally-adeptness had already invigorated trade as an ‘interactive marketplace’ rather than the glossy catalogue-browsing of old. “We couldn’t have imagined people spending this much online. This was a person who couldn’t come and view the work in person—the painting was in New York, the auctioneer was in London, the buyer was—well, I can’t tell you… But the underbidder was in Asia. These four entities were interacting.”

But amidst their impressive online marquee auctions, digitally dystopian sales with miniature talking phone bidders beamed in front of the auctioneer, Sotheby’s private sales have been doing exceptionally well. While it often used to be a question of selling “when somebody died, or moved house—we used to operate on death, divorce, disaster”, private sales organised between clients are becoming increasingly popular. “If the vendor wants to sell something privately, we tend to know who has bought similar works, and more critically who has underbid on similar works—if you have a frustrated purchaser for one work, you might know that they might be interested in another.” A few years ago, Sotheby’s sold a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, a remarkably rare illustrated book. Dalmeny happened to know an owner of another copy; after a bidding battle for the one up for auction, Dalmeny swiftly called the underbidder and negotiated a sale for the other private collection copy within a day—for £6.5 million.

Though the majority of their private sale offerings are posted on the Sotheby’s website, aspersions of opaqueness have been levelled against the auction house: “We’re obviously reacting to what our clients want—and if somebody wants to sell something without it being public, we do all the due diligence to ensure they own it, that they’re entitled to sell it, that it’s being sold legally, and that the funds are being transferred correctly. Beyond that point—if you want to sell your house, you don’t have to take out an advert in Country Life…” It’s true that Sotheby’s recently opened pop-up shops in Hamptons and Palm Beach, as well as a Buy Now in London where Adrian Sassoon showed some ceramics and silver.

But I press Dalmeny on the recent lawsuit filed by the New York Attorney General against Sotheby’s for allegedly defrauding millions in unpaid sales tax. In a 40-page complaint, filed in November 2020 with the New York State Supreme Court, the government lawyers affirm that Sotheby’s “helped wealthy clients evade taxes to boost its own sales”. As the second greatest global art market, how must auction houses change in order to ensure the utmost transparency and ethical practices? “The smoke signals within Sotheby’s is that this is about the American tax regime trying to find a way to attack. We are defending ourselves extremely vigorously”. Naturally, the auction house conducts thorough investigations into the funds proposed by buyers as their source of revenue for purchases. Similarly, if they organise sales through a dealer on behalf of an end buyer, they must always know who the final buyer is.

“Obviously art, and particularly the fact that the object itself is its own certificate, means that you have to be aware of the possibility of dishonesty, fraud—either fake items or the work of art and its value being used perhaps in money laundering.” Dalmeny says that, while Sotheby’s diligently keeps records and cooperates with tax and legal authorities, they nevertheless act to “protect the interests of our clients”. He says that any auction house will always be “caught up” with legal efforts: “We’re the visible point. If they’re investigating somebody who has shady financial deals, they may well have purchased art—just like they might have bought lunch in a restaurant; it’s very hard to know exactly who the clientele sitting in a restaurant is, and we have to be extra vigilant who the clientele are in our auctions”.

As time moves on I can see that Dalmeny’s mind is turning towards that client with the Monet. I cease with the legal line of questioning and he imparts some wisdom informed by his decades in the art market—though being as unpredictable as it is, I daresay no amount of cunning could predict its appearance in the coming decades. Only time—and the influence of Sotheby’s global clientele—will tell.

Image Credit: luxurylondon.co.uk/CC BY-SA 4

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