Some memories of Christie’s in the 1970s

A recent correspondence in the Antiques Trade Gazette about how the art world has changed over the past forty or fifty years brought back happy memories.  The following note is based on my own contribution.


While I had the good fortune to be born into a family long established in the trade, I count my eighteen months as a ‘student porter’ at Christie’s as both formative and inspirational.

In those days, Christie’s strength lay in the passion and depth of knowledge in each department, together with a web of connections across the country and further afield. Christie’s was still a partnership and the board was made up of experts in various fields; in addition to the major partners, there were towering figures including Anthony du Boulay (Asian Art), Hugo Morley-Fletcher (Continental Ceramics), William Mostyn-Owen and Gregory Martin (Old Master Paintings), and many others equally distinguished.  While a handful of passionate connoisseurs remain, their position is much diminished, surely to the detriment of nurturing future generations of connoisseur-collectors.

I remember the excitement in the porcelain department when a pair of  Chantilly, Kakiemon-decorated  and ormolu-mounted figural pots arrived in the warehouse (from the collection of Sydney J. Lamon [29.11.73, lot 49]); sales of ‘Fairings, pot lids and Staffordshire figures’ overseen on the floor by the much-teased Albert Watts; avoiding the eye of Jim Taylor, the ferocious foreman porter, when heavy marble slabs had to be carried up the stairs in King Street; my first purchase, as a porter, of an unsold Chinese gouache of a shoe-seller; my first conscious exposure to ‘Art Nouveau’; the short-sighted auctioneer who relied on the clerk (at that time the inestimable Ray Perman) to point out bids, and so much more – including The Golden Lion most lunchtimes.

Each week there were daily sales ranging from those with narrow unillustrated catalogues to ‘Fine’ sales with larger catalogues, and rarely ‘Important’ sales with many illustrations, some even in colour!  Once in a blue moon, there was a ‘Highly Important’ sale. I forget the exact order, but certainly Thursdays were for furniture and Fridays for paintings. This was a five-day-a-week opportunity to look, see and handle hundreds of objects in a multitude of disciplines – you could not help but learn.

We lowly porters, today’s ‘art handlers’, stood, anonymously in our green coats, in ‘block outs’ (a square of flat-topped show cases) where we handed over objects to be examined, mainly by the trade. Here was a wonderful opportunity to learn as experts pored over, say, a Chelsea figure or silver teapot, commenting on its design, weight, colour and condition.  And one noted the tricks of a trade. The comment ‘oh, I don’t much care for this’ might a day or so later be followed by active participation in the bidding at the horseshoe table that surrounded the rostrum.

Martin Levy Christie's Auction

Martin Levy, 1973 (holding a Chinese ewer). Christie’s Images

Friendships were made in those days that remain, including with some then on the front counter and now sitting in the boardroom; others moved on to become successful dealers, while some followed quite different paths.

I remember, later, in the pre-paddle, pre-registration, pre-phone days one particularly effective auctioneer smiling as I, by then a dealer, showed reluctance to bid against a reserve on a secretaire bookcase that we attributed to George Oakley (see H. Blairman & Sons, Furniture and Works of Art, 1995, no. 4): ‘two more bids and its yours, Martin’, and so it was, Duncan.

The old partners were there every day overseeing the well-being of the firm and its staff (‘Mr Guy’, having opened the post, leaning over the balcony watching out for late arrivals); turkeys were handed out at Christmas and the name of the rival ‘up the road’ was sometimes gently ‘spat’ rather than spoken, but all with a dignified civility and humour.

Meanwhile, as Margie Christian reminded me recently, there was the annual cricket match: Christie’s and Sotheby’s versus the Trade.  Leggatt Brothers supplied the Pimms, which was so strong that the umpires were soon incapable of judging an LBW.  Then there was the wonderful coming together of the trade and auction houses in 1973 for ‘Fanfare for Europe’ when we joined the European Economic Community.

We cannot turn the clock back, but it does no harm to recall that not all the changes are necessarily or entirely for the better.

Martin Levy, FSA

London, February 2021