The Art World’s Hotshot Auctioneer

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The Art World’s Hotshot Auctioneer

Words by Mr Stephen Doig | Photography by Ms Cat Garcia | Styling by Ms Eilidh Greig

4 October 2017

As art season kicks off, Mr Henry Highley puts the new Anderson & Sheppard collection on the block .

Autumn means peak art season in London. As the trees turn rich with the sepias and cinnamons of falling foliage, the city welcomes the most powerful gallerists and agents in the world to Frieze and PAD, as well as the deepest-pocketed collectors, or their representatives at least, who follow them.

Most of them will already know Mr Henry Highley, head of evening sale at art institution Phillips, overlooking Mayfair’s Berkeley Square. To time with Frieze, there are a series of high-value auctions that Mr Highley – who, with cheekbones that could cut glass, a sweep of chestnut hair and a Mr Hugh Grant-esque RP accent – is limbering up to lead, both physically and mentally.

Despite Mr Highley’s polished demeanour, the cut and thrust of taking an auction is a physically demanding job; comfort is paramount and the archetypal image of the tweed-sporting, monocled auctioneer is more Antiques Roadshow caricature than 21st-century reality. “You’re on your feet around the [Frieze] fair all day,” he says, nodding to his pristine kicks, “a good pair of Stan Smiths help.” Gesturing to the stark white walls and sloping entrance hall of Phillips’ imposing £30m Aukett Swanke-designed London site, he says: “We’re in a very contemporary space here, and we’re dealing with a lot of young contemporary artists, so that allows you a bit of creativity in how you present yourself.”

Armchair from the first-class carriages of the “Settebello” ETR 300 train, circa 1952, by Messrs Gio Ponti and Giulio Minoletti. Prints, “PALM” by Mr Richard Stapleton

“Style-wise, I like to mix classic English tailoring with something more casual. I like a well-cut blazer with some trainers, for example. I’m quite into younger British brands, too, who do a more relaxed cut, like Oliver Spencer and Casely-Hayford. I’m slim so I like a narrower fit, but nothing too restrictive – you need to feel at ease up there.” The Anderson & Sheppard range, which features slim-fit cashmere-blend cardigansmoleskin trousers and shearling gloves, was pitch-perfect for his preference towards casual and considered, he says. “We’re minutes from Savile Row here and it’s always been a hub of sartorial elegance. The Anderson & Sheppard pieces were beautifully made.”

Mr Highley is archetypal of a dynamic new breed of art aficionados who have entered the halls of the once dusty auction houses such as Phillips, Sotheby’s and Christie’s (where he interned). Certainly, in the world of auctioneering he’s something of a supernova, having trained under the renowned Mr Simon de Pury and this year presiding over the sale of an £21m Peter Doig in what was a record-breaking figure for a living British artist.

It’s the high-voltage atmosphere of a bidding war that he thrives on, an atmosphere that his mentor Mr de Pury was a Prospero in whipping up. “Simon is renowned for the electric energy he creates in a room,” says Mr Highley. “He’s extremely charismatic. I started out as a bid clerk for him, doing the notes and spotting the bids in the room. When you’re next to a man like him in these big sales with this incredible sense of anticipation in the air, you can really pick up on his energy. It was a crash course in the auctioneering world,” he says.

Mr Highley’s introduction to the scene came by way of an “amazing teacher at school [Harrow] who got me hooked on art”. From there he studied history of art at Newcastle University, interning during his summer holidays, while his friends sought sun and sangria. He began at Phillips 10 years ago and steadily rose through the ranks to helm the brand’s evening sales. He admits the role is part-mathematician, part-showman and for all the rapid-fire exchanges of the auction room and high drama, it’s methodical planning that makes an auction run smoothly.

“Chieftain” armchair, model no. FJ 49 A, designed 1949 by Mr Finn Juhl

“Preparation is key. I have an auction trainer who comes to London or New York to prepare me for the sale, and on the morning of it we’ll sit down and go through the numerical side of things. That’s so important in getting your mind in the right gear,” says Mr Highley. “I find that I need to step away from the chaos, to get out of the office and clear my mind. Then you just hope that all your training clicks into place when you’re up there.” The butterflies before he takes to the stage, he says, never abate.

As well as the new London site, Phillips recently launched a space in Asia in what has been a period of rapid expansion. The world has become a much smaller place for Mr Highley and the team as they traverse it, keeping up with the art world’s ebbs and flows. He travels frequently to oversee charity auctions in Hong Kong, New York and beyond. The razor-sharp precision and split-second decision-making of his work means he has no time for the fuzzy-headedness of jet lag. “You have got to be focused, and I find getting into a routine wherever you are helps. I’ll also make sure I get up and go for a run – either on the harbourfront in Hong Kong or Central Park in New York – to really clear the mind.”

Two vases, model no. 629, from the Onde series, circa 1969, by Mr Ettore Sottsass, Jr. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017

Armchair, designed 1936, by Mr Steen Eiler Rasmussen

Of Mr Highley’s own tastes, he’s unerringly drawn to contemporary art, although he labours under a hope that one day he’ll find an ancestoral connection to Mr Gerhard Richter (we’re debating whether my own surname might mean I have a claim on Mr Peter Doig’s artistic legacy). “I collect younger artists and I’ve recently started to get into ceramics, I think it’s a field that’s really undervalued,” he says. His tips on how to venture into the sometimes impenetrable London art world is to “see as much as possible. Find out what area interests you and go to every gallery, fair, show, auction. Build a relationship with an advisor or auction house. It’s a massive world to get into and it’s important to submerge yourself in it.”

Two-seater lecture hall armchair, designed for the Faculté de Lettres, Université de Besançon, 1952-1956, by Mr Jean Prouvé. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017. Prints, “PALM” by Mr Richard Stapleton

Mr Highley, poised and polite, doesn’t initially exude the sense of swaggering razzle-dazzle that some might expect with a star auctioneer. Watch him in person however, or in various YouTube videos (he’s built up quite the fan base; a website called cites him as one of the most handsome fellows in the art world), and you’ll see his on-stage presence kick in, one of charm, quiet intelligence and charisma. “It’s performance,” he says. “Any auctioneer has to appear calm, polished and relaxed, but underneath the surface there’s a lot of work going on. You can never show the pressure, you just have to get up there, make the correct calls, make instinctive decisions and hopefully click into being your flamboyant, energetic self.”

The Anderson & Sheppard collection