Auction Veteran Simon de Pury on His Whirlwind Adventures Behind the Scenes on the Hit Netflix Show ‘Emily in Paris’
The auctioneer shares his experience on the set.
Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.
Back in October 2019, I received an unexpected call. On the line was Juliette Ménager, the founder of Joule Casting Studio in Paris. We had met at Cap d’Antibes where I had conducted the auction for the annual amfAR gala during the Cannes Film Festival. She told me that she was the casting director for a new Netflix series entitled Emily in Paris.
It was being produced by Darren Star, who is known for a number of hugely successful series including Sex and the City and Beverly Hills 90210. In one of the episodes, there would be a charity auction for the American Friends of the Louvre, and they were looking for an actor to play the auctioneer. Having seen me in action, she thought I might find it fun to play myself.
She was right—I love doing things that fall outside of my regular routine. That is how I ended up with my own 30-second cameo on the popular series. This is how it went.
9 a.m. Simon in Paris
On filming day, I was picked up by a driver from the recently opened Hotel Lutetia in Paris where the production team had booked me in. I wore my “uniform,” a double-breasted navy-blue blazer, a white shirt and a dark blue tie. Upon arrival, I was first sent to a trailer in which a lady in charge of costumes took one look at me and said, “oh what a relief, you can act your scene dressed as you are!”
10 a.m. Maquillage à Trois
Next, I was sent to a trailer in which there were three make-up artists. I was asked to take a place on an empty seat in the middle. On my left was Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, an outstanding French actress who I had always admired, who plays Sylvie, the advertising agency boss, in the show. To my right was Faith Prince, an American actress whose comical talent on and off screen automatically puts you into a great mood. Not that I needed any help, I clearly relished all the attention.
11 a.m. By the Book
I was then led to a salon adjacent to the stage of a little theater where I was given the three pages of the script in which my lines of dialogue were included. They told me to study my part and wait to be called. Given the shortness of my scene I did not feel the need to really learn it by heart. Auctioneering is all about improvisation in any case. I thought I would be done by noon at the latest, and had made exciting dinner plans for 8 p.m.
2 p.m. A Memorable Introduction
At some stage, Juliette Ménager came by with Darren Star to introduce me to him. I was struck by his engaging personality and how there wasn’t an ounce of arrogance in him. His track record of coming up over and over again with a formula that would generate maximum commercial success is truly amazing.
After two to three more hours of waiting I was no longer alone. Jean-Christophe Bouvet, the actor who plays with so much humor the French star couturier Pierre Cadault, joined me. When he heard I was in the art world, he asked me if I knew Courbet’s L’Origine du Monde. I responded “of course” and that I had always been fascinated by that painting. He told me that he had posed for the male version of it for an artist friend of his, and wanted to know what its likely market value would be at auction. I answered, “priceless, no doubt!” Gradually more actors joined in. I loved the whole spirit of camaraderie.
7 p.m. Cancelled Date
The day was passing, and I still hadn’t been called for my scene. At 7 p.m. I had been waiting for 10 hours, so I called up my dinner appointment to very sadly cancel my date. At 8 p.m. I began to wonder if they were going to film the auction scene at all.
8:30 p.m. A Dazzling Light
At last, I was led to a large room with beautifully set tables and packed with elegant guests. I saw little difference with the many charity auctions that I conduct around the globe. On stage, I was introduced to Lily Collins—the star of the show. Lily is the daughter of pop star Phil Collins, himself a great philanthropist. Over the years I have conducted a number of auctions for his Little Dreams Foundation. Lily oozed charm, sparkled, and instantly reminded me of Audrey Hepburn. Back in 1990 I conducted a charity auction organized by Thomas Ammann during Art Basel under the dual patronage of Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor.
9 p.m. Hammer Time
The director’s click was followed by the shout “action,” and everything was in motion. Lily was incredibly professional. It turned out that there was no room for improvisation at all and I had to rigorously follow the lines of the script.
We did it all perfectly in the first take. I therefore thought, “that’s it, my 30 seconds of work is done!” Little did I realize that being in a scene with many different protagonists meant it had to be filmed over and over again from every different angle. It was 3 a.m. by the time I finally returned to my hotel, where I slept for two hours before having to get up to catch an early morning flight.
A year later and I have of course seen the full first season of Emily in Paris and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is the ultimate feel-good series. To my great surprise, there is hardly a day that passes since it was released on Netflix that I don’t get a text from a client or friend who saw me in it—including some very “serious” people, whom I never expected would watch such a series. I felt it was ironic that in a career of nearly 50 years in the art world, nothing I ever did—no exhibition I ever curated, no auction I ever conducted—got me more feedback than my 30 seconds in Emily in Paris!
In an example of life imitating art, a month ago, Darren Star contacted me saying that the “real” American Friends of the Louvre and their great chairman Kip Forbes had asked if I could conduct their annual benefit auction. It being 2020, I did it on Zoom, but I hope to be able to do it in person in the coming year. Olympia Le Tan, who creates the chicest evening clutch bags, produced a limited edition of 15 Emily in Paris designs for the cause. The prototype was sold in the auction and the remaining 14 can be ordered directly from OLT for €2,160 with a portion of the proceeds going to the American Friends of the Louvre. (As a comparison, last year I sold an Olympia Le Tan clutch at auction for the Snow Leopard Foundation in Kazakhstan for $100,000).
Meanwhile, Netflix has announced that there will be a second season of Emily in Paris. Based on how much fun I had, I feel like writing to Juliette Ménager and Darren Star to ask if they might need someone—i.e. me, hint hint—to give Emily a guided tour of the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, or anything else that would expand on my 30 seconds.
Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury
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