With a Great Gavel Comes Great Responsibility: Your Go-To List of Record-Breaking Auctioneers

Fine art can sell for eye-watering sums at auction, but who are the auctioneers behind the most iconic record-breaking sales?

Auctioneer Georgina Hilton sells the top lot of Christie’s 21st century Georgina Hilton (2023). Photo courtesy of Christie's Images Limited.

Fine artworks can sell for eye-watering sums at auction, but who are the people behind the lectern making the call? Auctioneers stay in control of the room, fielding bids from the room, phones, online, and sometimes the chandeliers to finalize sales that can reach astronomical sums. It’s certainly not a low-pressure job. Here are five people taking charge of those sky-high prices. 

 

Jussi Pylkkänen

Jussi Pylkkänen (2017). Photo by Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images.

Jussi Pylkkänen (2017). Photo by Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images.

Jussi Pylkkänen is perhaps the world’s most famous auctioneer. He joined Christie’s in the 1980s, moving through the ranks as the director of the Impressionist and modern art department, the president for Europe, the Middle East, and Russia, and then becoming global president in 2014. Throughout that time, he has been behind the lectern for dozens of the world’s highest-value sales.

Works sold by Pylkkänen include several consecutive record-breaking lots like Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’, 1955, sold for $179.4 million in 2015), Andy Warhol’s Shot Sage Blue Marilyn (1964, sold for $195 million in 2022), and No. 5, 1948 (1948, sold for $140 million in 2006) by Jackson Pollock.

Pylkkänen also sold the current world record holder for the highest price ever achieved at auction: he hammed the sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi (1510) which sold in 2017 for $450.3 million following a 19-minute bidding war.

Pylkkänen took to the Christie’s podium one last time on November 9 this year, selling Claude Monet’s Le basin aux nymphéas (1919) for $74 million including fees–going out with a bang. Now that he has left Christie’s, Pylkkänen will continue his career as an independent art adviser. 

 

Tobias Meyer

Tobias Meyer (2010). Photo by Michael Nagle / Getty Images.

Tobias Meyer (2010). Photo by Michael Nagle / Getty Images.

Tobias Meyer has been dubbed the “James Bond” of the auctioneering world, known for his slick suits and voice, which one Economist article referred to as “silky but rather sinister.” Meyer joined Sotheby’s in 1992 and became the auction house’s first-ever expert hired to lead its European contemporary art department. He later acted as the worldwide head of contemporary art and as chief auctioneer between 1997 and 2013. During his time at Sotheby’s, Meyer sold iconic works such as Pablo Picasso’s Garçon á la Pipe (1905, sold for $104 million in 2004) and Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895, sold for $119.9 million in 2012).

The wunderkind left Sotheby’s in 2013 to pursue his career as a private art dealer, and in his final sale at the auction house he sold Andy Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) (1963) for $104.5 million, at the time was the highest price ever reached for a Warhol work. In 2014, he was included in the Guardian‘s “Most powerful people in the art world” list. That paid off: in 2017, he was hired by the Newhouse family to advise on the collection of publishing mogul S.I. Newhouse, one of the best-respected collections of 20th century artworks in the world.

 

Helena Newman

Helena Newman (2020). Photo by Michael Bowles / Getty Images for Sotheby's.

Helena Newman (2020). Photo by Michael Bowles / Getty Images for Sotheby’s.

Helena Newman is the Chairman of Europe and Worldwide Head of their Impressionist & Modern Art department at Sotheby’s, which she joined in 1988. In her very first evening auction in June 2016, Newman sold a Picasso’s Femme Assise (1909) for £43.3 million ($63.7 million), smashing the record for the highest amount achieved for any single Cubist work. Not a bad start!

After the sale, Newman—who is also an accomplished musician and brings her musicality into her auctioneering style—told the New York Times that “this will send a very clear message to the market that women auctioneers should be up there with men auctioneers—this is a new era.” In 2017, she led the highest-value sale ever held in London, totalling at £213.9 million ($271.6 million) and this year sold Gustav Klimt’s Dame mit Fächer (1918, sold for $108.4 million)—the latter became the new record-holder for the most expensive work of art ever sold in Europe at auction.

 

Oliver Barker

Oliver Barker (2019). Photo by Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images.

Oliver Barker (2019). Photo by Johannes Eisele / AFP via Getty Images.

Oliver Barker is Sotheby’s Senior International Specialist and Principal Auctioneer, having joined the auction house in 1994. He sold Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) for $84.6 million in 2020, the highest price paid for any artwork sold that year. In 2008, he was the auctioneer behind Damien Hirst’s Beautiful Inside My Head Forever sale which broke the record for a single-artist sale, reaching £111.5 million ($141.5 million).

He hit stardom in in 2016 when he led the “white glove” sale of the vast art collection of musical legend David Bowie, which sold for more than double its high estimate, reaching £24.3 million ($30.5 million). The sale included a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat for £7.1 million ($8.9 million), and a collaborative piece by Bowie and Damien Hirst, Beautiful Hallo Space-boy Painting (1995), which sold for £785,000 ($987,600).

And you may recall that it was also Barker behind the lectern when Banksy’s Girl with Ballon (2006) infamously self-shredded when the gavel dropped in 2018, becoming Love is in the Bin (2018). The auctioneer described it as “a brilliant Banksy moment.” He’s tech-forward, too, and played a key role in the popularity of Sotheby’s online auctions, for which they have since won a Webby Award.

Fun fact: he travels with his gavel in his hand-luggage! So far, security at the airports have not confiscated it.

 

Georgina Hilton

Georgina Hilton (2023). Photo courtesy of Christie's Images Limited.

Georgina Hilton (2023). Photo courtesy of Christie’s Images Limited.

Georgina Hilton joined Christie’s in 2013 when she was just 21 and went on to become the first woman working in fine art ever to win the U.K.’s Novice Auctioneer of the Year Award at 25, beating nine male colleagues in the process. She worked in the Old Master Paintings department in London and is now Christie’s Head of Classic Art, Asia Pacific, taking charge of sales in Hong Kong, New York, and London. She told Downe House Society in 2018 that “Nothing beats the excitement of getting on the rostrum for a big sale in a room full of clients and all of your colleague’s telephone bidding. The atmosphere is incredible and I love throwing as much energy into it as I can.”

This year, Hilton sold Jean-Michel Basquiat’s El Gran Espectaculo (1983) for $67 million, making it the fourth-highest price ever paid for a Basquiat work. 

 

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