The Wick - Interview  Sotheby's Europe chairman Helena Newman The Wick - Interview  Sotheby's Europe chairman Helena Newman
Monday Muse

Interview  Sotheby’s Europe chairman Helena Newman

Helena Newman
11 March 2024
Helena Newman
11 March 2024
Helena Newman has many strings to her bow, both musically and artistically. The Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe – and Worldwide Head of Impressionist & Modern Art – trained as a classical violinist before joining the auction house in 1988, where she uses her performing skills to command the sale room like a conductor. Back in 2016, she became the first woman to take an evening sale since 1990, and she remains one of the few (and most senior) female auctioneers in the business to preside over these flagship sales, including last week’s Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction.

In June last year, she was on the rostrum for the sale of Gustav Klimt’s Lady with a Fan, which fetched $104 million – making it the most valuable painting ever sold at auction in Europe. During her time at Sotheby’s, Newman has also been at the forefront of the global expansion of the Impressionist and Modern Art market.

Here, she gives us an insight into how to become a virtuoso auctioneer and power dress on the podium, while giving us a glimpse into the future of the auction house.

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday during auction week

Helena Newman:   The excitement begins to build for the auction ahead. It’s the moment when everybody convenes, with colleagues and clients arriving from all over the world. There’s also the buzz of having all the artworks we have been working on for so long finally on view. It’s when the countdown to the sale starts.

TW:   What are your key takeaways from last week’s Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction?

HN:   The market continues to be strong for material that is very fresh. Collectors competed for stunning works by artists such as Signac and Picasso, which had been held in private collections for decades. The room was packed and the blend of material on offer attracted a depth of bidding at all price levels. It was fantastic to see not only the demand for established artists, but also a real excitement for relative newcomers to auction, both for women artists and for those who fall outside the traditional Western art centres.

TW:   What is your go-to fashion brand or designer to wear for auction week?

HN:   I traditionally opt for Victoria Beckham when taking our evening sales. Last week, I chose a classic, chic black dress with statement gold jewellery. The Victoria Beckham brand merges classic British luxury with a subtle contemporary flair, and immaculate tailoring – which not only looks good on the rostrum, but also allows for ease of movement when conducting the auction. I often select outfits that reflect the colours of the works in the sales, so black was an unusual departure for me (but one that seems to have gone down well!)

I am also a fan of Roksanda. For my last charity auction, I wore a long, sleeveless blue satin gown by the London-based designer.

TW:   What do you hope to achieve in London through auctioneering and how do you see auction houses evolving in future?

HN:   The auctions in London, especially this first major sale of 2024, are often seen as a bellwether of the market. They bring together new and established collectors from all over the world, and allow us to engage with existing clients and build new relationships. London continues to be the second largest marketplace globally after New York and it is certainly the most diverse (we had 41 countries participating in our sale). Today’s collectors are comfortable bidding via a myriad of ways, on the telephone, in the room and online.

I see a very strong future for auction houses. Speaking for ourselves, we strive to be seen as a leader in market transparency, innovation, integrity and trust. For me as an auctioneer, it is most exciting to watch the next generation of talent here take to the rostrum, and see how each person gives their own spin to the centuries-old tradition.

“I always aim to orchestrate the tempo and pace from the particular mind-set of a musician.”

TW:   You come from a family of professional performers and play the violin and piano yourself. Where do you see the cross-over between music and art?

HN:   Music is a central theme that runs through both my personal and professional life. I grew up in a home filled with music, books and art. Performing on the rostrum in front of an audience is very much like conducting a musical performance. I always aim to orchestrate the tempo and pace from the particular mind-set of a musician. This is also where my training as a musician and all the techniques involved comes to the fore.

I also have an affinity with artists who have a strong connection with music. The two art forms have been bedfellows for centuries, exemplified in the work of Wassily Kandinsky (one of my favourite artists), who took his cue from the language of musical composition – his every colour corresponding with a particular emotion or “sound”. In fact, the artist’s path towards abstraction was triggered by attending a concert of music by Arnold Schoenberg.

TW:   Where do you look for emerging talent?

HN:   We continue to find new ways to bring to auction both artists who have been overlooked historically and new and emerging talent, for our Evening and Day auctions. Sometimes an unexpected image just captures attention. This season we offered a work by Klára Hosnedlová, an artist from the Czech Republic and based in Berlin, from her Ponytail Parlour series. Combining paint and embroidery within a ceramic frame, the magnetic image of an intimate feminine moment doubled its estimate. In our Evening sale, we included a painting by Emily Kam Kngwarray, widely considered to be one of the most significant and celebrated artists in Australia’s history and soon to be the subject of a major solo exhibition at Tate Modern in London, opening in 2025. Marking the first time that Kngwarray’s work had appeared in a Western art or Evening Auction context, this work also struck a chord.

TW:   What are your top three tips for aspiring auctioneers?

HN:   It’s important to build experience and training. Presiding over charity auctions is a great way to gain confidence on the podium. I would also recommend watching as many auctions as possible, either in person or online. Lastly, it’s vital to develop your own style – one that is authentic to you.

TW:   What book would you pass on to the culturally curious?

HN:   Ways of Life: Jim Ede and the Kettle’s Yard Artists by Laura Freeman – I love the whole aesthetic of Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the former home of Jim Ede and his wife Helen. This book captures the essence of this house and gallery, filled with 20th-century painting, sculpture, and found natural objects such as pebble stones, together with beautiful studio ceramics.

TW:   Who is your ultimate muse and why?

TW:   The trailblazing actor Helen Mirren. I admire how she has navigated a brilliant 50-year-plus career with style, confidence and beauty.

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