Will Haydock photographed a couple of months before Christie’s semiannual American Art auction. The piece to his right, Childe Hassam’s oil on canvas In the Old House, eventually sold for $1.455 million at the auction. (Photo: Gary Wayne Gilbert)
Let’s see what’s in here,” Will Haydock ’06 said, leafing through a stack of paintings. The works, some of them highly valuable, were layered unceremoniously between sheets of plain brown cardboard, in a plywood bin that sat on the floor of a windowless storeroom. “Okay, we’ve got a Milton Avery,” Haydock said, gently pulling out a canvas and giving it a long look. “This is four to six hundred thousand.”
As the head of American Art at Christie’s, the famed London auction house, it’s Haydock’s job to curate and arrange the sale of scores of artworks each year. So he frequently finds himself elbow-deep in masterpieces, in this particular storeroom—located in Christie’s New York City offices, in Rockefeller Center—and in others like it.
Or maybe treasury is the right word to describe the room. A decade of global economic growth has driven the art market to ever greater heights. For most of the twentieth century, art prices were set by U.S., European, and Japanese collectors. In the twenty-first, however, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Russian billionaires have joined the bidding, to breathtaking effect. In 2000, art auctions generated $3.2 billion. In 2018, the number was $15.5 billion. And price records are constantly being set. Just in the past eight months, the record paid for the work of a living artist was broken twice: In November 2018, David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) was sold for $90.2 million. Then, in May of this year, Jeff Koons’s Rabbit sculpture sold for $91.1 million. (Both auctions were handled by Christie’s.)
Standing over the bin, Haydock slid the Avery painting back into its place and pulled up another. “This is a beautiful Walter Ufer,” he said. “He’s Taos School”—the New Mexico artistic movement made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe. “You can see how he captures the light there. That’s, I think, 500 to 700 thousand.”
The paintings in the bin were all destined not for auctions, but for private sales. A buyer may approach Haydock with a request for a work by a particular artist, or in a particular genre. Haydock will then approach an owner and see if a deal can be made—a highly personal negotiation that can take months. Private sales are an increasing part of Christie’s portfolio, Haydock said, a change partly driven by the overall growth in the art market. But on this February morning, another type of sale was weighing on his mind. The spring American Art auction, one of two that Christie’s holds each year, was still three months away, but the pieces that would go under the auctioneer’s hammer were already arriving. One of the showstoppers, Haydock told me with excitement, was “the first large-scale, abstracted floral painting” that O’Keeffe ever produced. It was due for delivery the next day. And Haydock was working hard to gather a few other major pieces for the late-May event, the kind capable of generating public interest and attracting the collectors who place bids at an auction.
Haydock stepped away from the bin. It was time for him to leave for a meeting. As he exited the storeroom, he paused to admire a bust by the pioneering modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi that was lying on an old library cart. The sculpture is a white marble version of Brancusi’s famed Sleeping Muse, an abstract female head no bigger than a Nerf football. Haydock estimated that it would sell for $4 million to $5 million. “We sold a gilded one for 30 million,” he added, with an incredulous shake of his own head.
* * *
Raised in Westchester County, north of New York City, Haydock went to Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, for high school and then attended Boston College. “I don’t know if it was subconscious or what,” he told me, “but I clearly didn’t have a strong desire to leave the Northeast.”
After some trial and error, he wound up majoring in mathematics, adding a second major in communications. “That left open a pretty broad array of things I could pursue,” he said, “but it felt like the natural gravitational pull was toward finance. It wasn’t that I had a strong desire to work in the field, but for whatever reason it just took me there.” So after graduation, he joined a small private-wealth-management firm in Manhattan, and then moved to UBS, a major international bank.
He still looks the part. On the day we met, Haydock, 35, was dressed in a sharp navy suit, a pale-blue tie, and classic snaffle-bit loafers with gently rebellious bright-blue patterned socks peeking above them. Add to that his tall, trim frame, neatly parted brown hair, and ready smile, and you’d probably guess, were you to run into him on the street, that you were looking at a happy and prosperous young banker.
In reality, Haydock said of his time in finance, “I found myself day to day absolutely hating my job.” We were sitting now in a skybox office that overlooks Christie’s main auction floor. “I think it was the robotic nature of what I was doing. You get in at the same time every day. You leave at the same time every day. There’s no real variance.”
But his time as a banker did offer one solace—and, it turned out, an escape.
Haydock’s salary allowed him to begin collecting nineteenth-century American paintings. “The Hudson River School is what I was fascinated by—the first artistic movement in America, which had the idea of capturing landscape, luminosity, the beauty of the country,” he said. But those paintings were beyond his means, so he turned to works by artists of the New Bedford School. “A much smaller movement,” he told me, “so the prices weren’t, you know, $500,000! Way down from that. It was artists the general public will never have heard of: William Bradford, Lemuel Eldred, C.H. Gifford.”
As Haydock’s passion grew, so did his interest in the business of art. “I became fascinated with the idea of the auction environment, with what was happening behind the scenes,” he said. “You could tell that there was so much more to the auction format than being in the room and bidding.” Then one day, he discovered that the famed auction house Sotheby’s offered a master’s degree in Art Business. “I quit my job at UBS and started the next day,” he recalled.
At the Sotheby’s Institute, in London, Haydock found himself a bit of an outsider. Almost all of his sixty or so classmates were focused on contemporary art. “They wanted to be around Warhol, Basquiat, Jeff Koons, things like that,” he recalled. “My interest was so different. It was much more traditional.”
But his individualism proved beneficial. In 2010, at the end of the eighteen-month program and its intensive courses in art history, art law, and the practical matters of auctions and private sales, Sotheby’s hired him directly to work in its American Art wing. “My growth in the field is a huge product of having those opportunities available to me right away,” he said, “whereas so many people in the crowded contemporary-art world had to start at more junior levels.”
Haydock quickly rose through the ranks, and in 2014 Christie’s lured him away. Within a few years, he was named head of Christie’s American Art department.
* * *
"American Art” refers, broadly speaking, to works produced in the United States prior to World War II— what might be called homegrown art, produced outside the European traditions of fine art. (The war drove many European artists to move to the States, and is seen as the beginning of art’s contemporary internationalization.)
“The American Art category is super broad,” Haydock told me. “We start with American portraiture, like George Washington. We span through the Hudson River School, genre painting, Ashcan School, American Modernism, illustration, American realism....” The category also includes sculpture, drawing, and photography. There’s a lot to know and learn, in other words. That’s what was missing from finance, Haydock said. “In this job, I firmly believe that if I’m still doing it at the age of 55, I will still have infinitely more that I can learn. Which I love.”
At Christie’s, “American Art” also refers to the two annual auctions, held every May and November, where scores of works are put up for public sale. Like the artworks themselves, Haydock explained, the collectors who gather to bid against one another are largely American. The work is so intrinsically tied to the country—think of Ansel Adams’s monumental photographs of Yosemite National Park, or Charles Russell’s dynamic bronze sculptures of broncos and cowboys—that its appeal is, too. But there are exceptions. “Within our category, there are a few artists who resonate meaningfully in a broader way,” Haydock told me. “Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper, and John Singer Sargent can transcend the category and cross oceans.” That’s what made securing the O’Keeffe abstract floral painting so important for the May auction.
The success or failure of an auction usually hinges on the presence of big names, Haydock explained. Like a superstar listed on a Broadway marquee, an O’Keeffe or a Picasso on the auction block gets people in the door—even if the supporting cast of lesser-known artists makes up the bulk of the sale. “We have it at $4 million to $6 million,” Haydock said of the O’Keeffe abstract, “and we have very strong expectations. So we could see it going for anywhere from six to, if we have the right day, maybe as high as ten.” Also secured for the May show was a Hopper watercolor (“a beautiful, beautiful piece”). Christie’s put its estimate at $1 million to $1.5 million. There was also a Norman Rockwell listed at $4.5 million to $6.5 million; a pair of Marsden Hartley paintings, one listed at $4 million to $6 million and the other at $1.6 million to $1.8 million; and an N.C. Wyeth listed at $700,000 to $1 million. Sargent would also make an appearance—not one of his glorious portraits, but two drawings.
* * *
Auctions have traditionally been the preferred method of selling high-end art, and they remain an important component of the industry—“They’re what get the headlines,” Haydock said—but times are changing. More and more, auction houses like Christie’s are acting not as auctioneers but as brokers putting a seller together with a specific buyer. “Last year, for American Art, we sold about $60 million to $70 million privately,” Haydock said. “It’s becoming an increasing part of our business. It used to be that the two big auctions dominated the calendar—one finishes, and on to the next. Now we are handling property at every single moment of the year.”
Selling art privately requires building relationships with the people who own it and the people who want to buy it. As a result, much of Haydock’s work involves face-to-face conversations with both parties. The stakes are often high, given that the works can go for an actual fortune—“I have a meeting this morning to talk about an O’Keeffe, in the range of $20 million,” he said—but it’s a job he relishes. “You’re traveling all over the country, you’re seeing these beautiful objects, you’re learning a ton as you’re developing and growing, and you’re also meeting some of the most interesting people in the world,” he said. “What’s better than that?”
Still, he said, the semiannual American Art auctions are never far from his mind. They’re what people think of when they think of Christie’s, and they’re what largely define his internal clock. “After doing I don’t know how many auctions now, I always expect the anxiety to lessen,” he told me. “But it’s still exactly the same. There are just so many uncertainties that exist at auctions, and you completely relinquish control the moment the auctions starts.”
I asked what I’d see at the May auction, which was three months away. “Oh,” he sighed, “you will see high stress.”
* * *
A few months later, when I next met Haydock, there were just a few days to go until the May auction. As promised, stress was evident—but the auction wasn’t the only reason for it. Three weeks earlier, Haydock and his wife, Sara, had welcomed their second child, a daughter. Haydock had temporarily moved from the family’s home in Westchester County to a hotel in the city, and his conscience was bothering him. “I feel like I’ve abandoned my family,” he said.
At the auction house, Haydock led me into the public gallery where the works were on display. The O’Keeffe was there, no larger than a newspaper but eye-catching with its bright carmine tones, as were other works. Pausing before one piece, Haydock suddenly became intense. Arthur G. Dove’s Nature Symbolized No. 1 (Roofs) “is probably the first abstract painting ever exhibited in America,” he said. “Its importance cannot be overstated.” He’d brought every prospective bidder in the auction to see it.
Haydock whisked me through the rest of the gallery. The auction was nearing and his time was short.
* * *
The next time I saw Haydock was the morning of the auction. For all its glamour, and for all the months
of buildup, the event itself was charmingly casual. Many people were wearing sneakers with their suits and dresses. I followed the crowd into a carpeted, tennis-court-sized space. A couple hundred chairs were laid out on the floor. If it weren’t for the artwork on the walls—the real stuff, not reproductions—it could have been any hotel conference room between London and Tokyo.
Along each sidewall was a wood dais lined with a bank of half a dozen phones, each manned by a Christie’s expert ready to take bids from collectors who couldn’t be in New York. Haydock was among them, on the left, the second phone of six.
The bidding began with little ceremony. John Hays, the auctioneer—who’s also a Christie’s expert on American furniture—ran through the rules and then launched right in. First up was Untitled (Lily), another O’Keeffe, this one a pencil drawing. “We can start the bidding at $17,000,” Hays said. Bids began to ping: $20,000, then $22,000, $24,000, and so on, all the way up to $40,000. “All through?” Hays asked. And it seemed for a moment as though it was, but then a new round of bidding started up. Finally, someone offered $70,000. Hays gave everyone a moment to consider, and then moved to close the sale. “Last call, for $70,000,” he said. “Once, twice, for $70,000... and sold!” He banged down his gavel. The whole thing took 1 minute and 50 seconds.
A broadly similar process played out over the next ninety minutes or so, with roughly eighty-five objects sold during the span. (Auctions, it turns out, are quick affairs.) Not everything created a bidding war. The O’Keeffe floral painting, Inside Red Canna, wound up selling for $3.8 million, slightly less than the $4 million low end of its estimated range. The Hopper watercolor, meanwhile, went for $1.55 million, eclipsing its projected range.
Haydock, fielding bids on his phone, was quiet during these sales. But as the auction moved to the secondary works, things heated up. Operating on behalf of anonymous bidders, he “won” Thornton Utz’s ironic Resume Safe Speed oil painting for $100,000, well above its $70,000 estimate, and picked up a few other works for prices that exceeded expectations. Then came the bidding for a striking white-shrouded figure by Kenneth Miller Adams, a relatively minor Taos School artist. Its raw beauty had eclipsed the artist’s reputation, Haydock had previously told me. With a bidder on the line, Haydock started things at $170,000. Preregistered bids brought the price to $200,000. A bidder in the room immediately went to $220,000. Haydock’s phone bidder countered with $240,000. From there, the offers escalated. Haydock’s client eventually made it $380,000. A moment later, the price hit $400,000. “That’s against you, Will,” Hays said to Haydock, in effect asking whether his buyer wanted to go higher. Haydock waved his hand, indicating that his client was out. “Four hundred thousand once, twice,” Hays said, his hammer raised—and then, a new bidder! “Four hundred and twenty,” Hays announced. The surprise attack ended the bidding, and the Adams sold for $420,000, far above its $300,000 estimate.
The auction began to wind down and the room thinned out. Winning bidders headed to Christie’s sales office, while brokers and gallery owners gathered at the back of the room and began to discuss—at a volume that suggested they were happy for the world to eavesdrop—treasures they might make available at the next auction. For Haydock, the conclusion of the auction brought to end months of work and stress. Yet the last I saw of him he was already deep in conversation with what looked like potential clients—buyers and sellers both.
Tim Heffernan is a writer and longtime contributor to BCM. He lives in New York City.
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