It must help to be omni-visual if you work at Christie’s, especially if you’re one of its head honchos. The art auction house born in London in 1766 has become a super-specialization hotbed. Post-war contemporary, South Asian contemporary, Chinese masters, wine, books and manuscripts, Indian antique jewellery, signage and advertising, Impressionists, moderns—the categories under which they auction collectables suit the knowledgeable, evolved connoisseur as well as the pop lover. When David Linley, its UK chairman, says his strength is being that “omni-visual guy” whose most crucial role at the company is to educate collectors about the importance of collecting particular works of art in all these categories, you want to keep the conversation going. Which isn’t a difficult proposition when you meet 48-year-old Linley over a post-breakfast cuppa.
Linley came down to Mumbai recently—to meet Indian collectors and “would-be collectors”—for the first time since 1983, when he had visited Ladakh for three weeks with a camera in hand to capture its picture-postcard landscape. “I was a young, aspiring photographer. Vogue UK gave me a young photographer of the year award and sent me to Ladakh for a project. I went back from India with a lot of inspiration for Linley, my then fledgling furniture label,” the chairman, clad in a crease-free, two-piece suit, recalls. His small build, soft manner of speaking and formal attire is perhaps a far cry from that young photographer.
Artisan: Linley began his career as a bespoke furniture designer. Jayachandran / Mint
After three levels of security checks, I make it to Shamiana, the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower’s coffee shop. It’s a sunny, unusually breezy February morning, and Linley is in a chatty mood. “The year 2006, when I came to Christie’s, was a very euphoric time to be part of the art world. The last three years have been the most exciting period in collecting history,” he tells me, sipping Darjeeling tea. One of my first, seemingly obvious questions—how are things different at Christie’s after the financial downturn—steers a long conversation to the new, recession-proof art collector, an English school for wood craftsmen and furniture design.
On 10 December, Linley’s team prepared for the Impressionist and Modern Art Sale in London with trepidation. The meltdown was snowballing, and they had rare works of Monet, Picasso and Matisse on the table. As the last lot went under the hammer, they were surprised. “It was a wonderful collection of inspiring beauty. There were fewer buyers in that sale, but those who bought went all out for each work that they liked. The prices more than held their own. This auction has convinced me that it is a moment of truth for the art world. The real collector with real taste is coming out, who is willing to pay prices for works that have special appeal to him or her, and to the world,” Linley says. This auction fetched a sum of £1.15 million (around Rs8.1 crore).
All forthcoming Christie’s auctions, he says, are focusing on “smaller lots, but quality lots” and predicts that much of contemporary art will suffer a dramatic fall in prices. “In the last two years, some of the contemporaries were on (a) par with moderns and masters in terms of price. That’s now changing,” Linley reiterates.
A return to the classics may not be such a good thing for Christie’s, though. In the last few years, the company has added many categories to its list of collectables, and its various departments have worked together to juxtapose items from various categories for composite lots. Recently, original copies of Charles Dickens classics, signed by the author himself, were placed alongside the desk on which Dickens wrote those books. On 12 February, Christie’s New York auctioned the original handwritten manuscript of Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 victory speech for $3.4 million (around Rs16.6 crore). “My challenge is not just to shape collectors’ tastes, but to map the discerning art lover’s interests according to market trends and social trends. The Lincoln speech is politically appropriate at the moment. Perhaps, in due course, we’ll have the Obama collectables, too,” Linley says.
Christie’s first big auction of 2009 is that of the Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Berge collection in Paris from 23 to 25 February. Linley says, “It is a sale of 700 lots. The depth of this collection and its broad sweep—from Old Masters to Art Deco to 19th and 20th century furniture—required experts from every department of Christie’s to be involved in this sale. Some of these pieces are not so valuable and some are immensely valuable, but it reflects the all-embracing sensibility of Christie’s.”
A background in wood craftsmanship, a lineage of artists and architects and an education in the arts helped Linley cultivate his aesthetic world view. Linley’s father, Lord Snowdon, was an architect and designer who married the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret, in 1960 (as their eldest child, Linley is 13th in line of succession to the British throne). As a child, Linley was sent to Bedales, a school that encourages free thinking and artistic development. Later, he spent two years in a school for wood craftsmanship called Parnham House, after which he started his own bespoke furniture label, Linley, with an eclectic idiom that evolved from influences such as Indian marquetry and Venetian architecture. At both institutions, Linley developed a passion for the visual arts. “In the early 1980s, Linley was a cooperative. There were four of us who designed and made cabinets and desk accessories. The idea was to celebrate craftsmanship which, till now, as chairman of the brand, I insist on,” he says. There are two Linley stores in London, which he runs independently, with seven designers who cater to orders mostly of dining-room furniture and desks.
Later in life, Linley became a collector of art—some of which is Indian. He owns an antique white marble table that he collected when it was in pieces. “The collector who owned it lost interest in it, but I was very happy to mend it and preserve it.” he says. Linley confesses he’s not an expert on Indian art. But from a novice collector’s perspective, he says the best of Indian (contemporary and modern) art is still the one that is embedded in the country’s artistic traditions. “Subodh Gupta works because his artistic vocabulary is firmly rooted in the vernacular of everyday India. Indian artists are working with a history that’s overwhelming and rich,” he says.
But wherever he travels in the next couple of years, Linley wants to look out for art that “can soak up the atmosphere. A great deal of art around the world will be inspired by the hardship and depression that’s around us now. And the best of them will be in auctions a decade from now.”
Curriculum Vitae | David Linley
Born: 3 November 1961
Education: Schooling in alternative school Bedales, Hampshire, UK; residency in Parnham House, Dorset, UK, a school for craftsmen in wood (this school no longer exists)
Current Designation: Chairman, Christie’s, UK
Work Profile: In 1985, he set up a cooperative of wood craftsmen under the label Linley; its first store opened in London and a collection was showcased at Christie’s the same year. By 2005, a second Linley outlet opened in London. In 2006, he joined Christie’s in a non-executive capacity and in 2007, was appointed chairman
Favourite Weekend Pastime: Taking his 10-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter to the National Museum in London to look at one painting a week
Favourite Destination: South of France
Currently Reading: ‘The White Tiger’ by Aravind Adiga