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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Richard Brierley

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-09-28

In auction industry parlance, Richard Brierley of Christie's has arrived.

"One arrives as an auctioneer when one has raised a bid past a million dollars," Mr. Brierley, vice president and head of the company's North America wine department, said yesterday.

His moment came during bidding for a jug and basin reported to have been used by Madame de Pompadour, the 18th century mistress of Louis XV of France. Mr. Brierley did not stop at $1 million. He drove the price up to $1.8 million.

"I could feel the rush, the adrenalin flowing," the 33-year-old Briton said. "Auctioneering is fun - but it also takes a lot out of you. You're constantly pumped up. You need to relate to the audience. You have to read subtle signals. There are times when my body is actually sore after an auction. I always arrive very early before auctions start. It's a form of rehearsal for me. Auctions are really theater."

That is why Mr. Brierley and the three dozen or so auctioneers associated with Christie's in New York regularly work with a theater coach. She instructs them about voice projection, about word resonance, about eye contact, about gestures and other aspects of body language. She also teaches them how to relax.

So how does an auctioneer relax after an auction?

"One rarely does," Mr. Brierley said. "You're on such a high that it's difficult to decompress. Sometimes I wonder how James Christie relaxed. He was known for his zest and vigor during auctions."

Christie, who lived from 1730 to 1803, founded the eponymous auction house in London in 1766, when he was 36 years old - almost the same age that Mr. Brierley is now. He was successful from the start.

By last year, Christie's had expanded to 40 countries, doing $2.5 billion worth of business worldwide. And its North America operations brought in almost half that sum - almost $980 million.

While Mr. Brierley's bailiwick is Christie's wine department, he contributes to the company's bottom line by actively serving as an auctioneer for all kinds of other items, such as the fine and applied arts, collectibles, even sunken cargo. His stewardship of wine auctions fetched nearly $15 million last year.

Mr. Brierley acknowledges, however, that no matter how successful his auctioneering, it may never match the founder's achievements. In 1778, Christie negotiated with Catherine the Great of Russia the sale of Sir Robert Walpole's collection of paintings. This art was to form the base of the Hermitage Museum Collection in St. Petersburg.

"It's impossible to work at Christie's and not be conscious of its history," Mr. Brierley said. "Just a simple walk through Christie's is like walking through a museum."

But most museums rarely empty their stock; Christie's is in the business of selling what's on its walls and cellars. The North America branch accounts for nearly $1 billion in sales, or almost half the company's annual global revenues. That means Mr. Brierley is constantly on the lookout for wine collectors who may want to sell their treasure.

That also means that he must personally inspect the wine that is to be auctioned, checking it for condition, provenance and rarity. And that means that Mr. Brierley must not only persuade sellers to go with Christie's, he sometimes must juggle his calendar so that his auctions are held slightly ahead of competitors such as Sotheby's and Zachys.

"It's the thrill of the chase," Mr. Brierley said. "This is a highly competitive field."

The auction field is growing more competitive every year in America, especially as wine consumption increases. The global wine industry - estimated at $450 billion - is also growing.

But there's another factor at work in the wine auction business, according to Mr. Brierley.

"We are increasingly seeing younger buyers who want to build wine collections," he said. "This is good for the industry, but it's good in another way. Buyers almost always tend to dig into history when they acquire old collections. Their behavior today is probably no different from that of audiences in Christie's days. And auctioneers need to handle all kinds of queries knowledgeably and with humor."

But before an auctioneer mounts the podium, New York law requires that he get a licence, which is issued by the city's Department of Consumer Affairs. And all auctioneers must be fingerprinted and have their pictures registered with the authorities. Their employer is required to post bonds.

Why all these procedures?

"We are talking about large amounts of money here," Mr. Brierley said. "So these measures are for security purposes. Christie's also rigorously conducts self-scrutiny."

Such monitoring of auctioneers and their game is particularly strict because of the high volume of business. Just last week, for instance, Mr. Brierley conducted an auction of Chinese snuff bottles, another one featuring Korean art and a wine auction, all in New York. His efforts yielded more than $6 million.

So do all winners of bids pay up or at least pay up in time? Christie's requires bidders to pay within seven days, and its hands over the proceeds of auctions to sellers within 35 days. To secure the best collections for auctions, Christie's sometimes offers get interest-free loans, or discounts on its standard commissions of between 5% and 10%.

And what was Mr. Brierley's most embarrassing moment at an auction?

"When I dropped my gavel," he said. "I had to crack jokes while I retrieved it."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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