The Art World Works From Home: Sotheby’s Auctioneer Helena Newman Is Playing in a String Quartet and Planning a Picasso Sale

The art world may be working remotely, but it certainly does not stop. We're checking in with art-world professionals to see how they work from home.

Helena Newman.
Helena Newman.

On a regular day, Helena Newman is a busy woman. Not only is she the chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, she is also the worldwide head of Impressionist and Modern Art, where she sources paintings for the auction house and has a keen eye for works by Picasso, Monet, and Kandinsky. In 2018, she made headlines for helming the historic sale of a $157.2 million painting by Modigliani.

In lockdown since mid-March, she has doubled down, helping to transport Sotheby’s auctions into the virtual world, a feat that has so far proved successful by setting several online records in the past months.

And on top of that, she’s been playing chamber music on her sidewalk with her two children and her husband, acclaimed violinist Rafael Todes. (All members of the family play a string instrument.) The little ritual worked—until the police intervened and sent the rogue quartet back into their home.

We spoke to Newman about selling Picassos over the internet and how to make a mean banana bread.

Courtesy Helena Newman.

Where is your new “office”?

Since the lockdown, my new office has been in the ground floor of our West London home looking straight out onto our garden. We’ve had glorious weather here in London and I can open the French doors and hear the birdsong and enjoy fresh air. I’ve reorganized my art books to have what I need at hand next to me.

What are you working on right now (and were any projects of yours interrupted by the lockdown)?

We haven’t really stopped for working since the lockdown. Initially we converted many of the sales that would have been live into online only sales and then we started adding in new sales. Since March 1, we have held 66 online sales with a combined total just shy of $118 million. One of our new projects is an online sale devoted to Picasso, which we announced this week. “The World of Picasso” includes drawings, watercolors, ceramics, and prints by the artist and even some of his original palettes from his studio, which come directly from the collection of Marina Picasso.

My main project, though, is working with my team to get together the major evening summer sales of Impressionist and Modern Art, which will take place in late June in New York and July in London.

How has your work changed now that you are doing it from home?

Like many of us, I spend a lot of time on video calls with my team, pricing works of art and strategizing about the business. Before the lockdown I was traveling abroad a few times a week to see clients and negotiate deals and to view pictures first hand. We are now relying heavily on technology instead these in-person meetings.

What are you reading, both online and off?

The news.

Have you visited any good virtual exhibitions recently?

I have heard that the Raphael show at the Quirinale is amazing. Meanwhile, we are deep in the planning of our own virtual exhibition for the New York and July London auctions this June.

Have you taken up any new hobbies?

Music has been a lifelong passion of mine since childhood and at home we are a family string quartet with my husband Rafael Todes, who is a professional violinist, and our 18-year-old son Max on the cello, our 17-year-old daughter Bella on the violin, and me on viola. We set ourselves the project of playing all 15 Beethoven string quartets during the lockdown and, on the invitation of a neighbor, played a series of concerts in our driveway for our street. It has been a wonderful experience although sadly eventually shut down by the police!

We were also invited to give a fundraising concert for St John’s Hospice London on Victory in Europe Day on May 8.

Newman’s family playing a garden show for their neighbors. Courtesy Helena Newman.

What is the first place you want to travel to once this is over?

Tuscany, Italy, for the unbeatable art, food, and culture; and Cornwall for the rugged clifftop landscape and bracing sea.

If you are feeling stuck while self-isolating, what’s your best method for getting unstuck?

Walking. The London parks have never looked more glorious than this spring and I love nothing more than walking our dog Georgie early in the morning when it is quiet.

What was the last TV show, movie, or YouTube video you watched?

My husband and I are currently watching “Normal People.”

If you could have one famous work of art with you, what would it be?

That’s a really hard question. Something great by Picasso from the 1930s. But then again, maybe I would rather go with Kandinsky’s Composition VII, Tretyakov State Gallery, Moscow.

Vassily Kandinsky, Composition VII (1913). Wikimedia Commons.

Favourite recipe to cook at home?

I haven’t done much baking, but our daughter Bella made a delicious banana cake.

  • olive oil
  • 250 g self-raising flour plus extra for dusting
  • 3 ripe bananas
  • 2 tablespoons fresh apple juice
  • 125 g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
  • 2 large free-range eggs
  • ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons runny honey
  • Optional: 50 g pecans

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Peel and add the bananas to a mixing bowl. Using a fork, mash the bananas so you’ve got a mixture of smooth and chunky, then put aside. Add the apple juice and stir to combine. In a separate bowl, beat the butter until creamy and add the eggs. Fold in the flour, cinnamon, honey, and banana mixture. Roughly chop the pecans on a chopping board, if using, then fold through the mixture. Bake in the hot oven for around 40 minutes, or until golden and cooked through. Allow the loaf to cool slightly and transfer on a plate, cut into slices and serve. This works best with super-ripe bananas, so use up any that you’ve got at home.


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