A copy of Mr Christie stands in the delightfully cluttered office of Nic McElhatton, 57, chairman of Christie’s South Kensington (CSK), who started as a porter and worked his way up. “It’s not very good,” McElhatton says cheerily of the painting.
There’s also a picture of a chair, done by McElhatton himself, who started out as a serious painter; a stuffed boar’s head wearing sunglasses, a huge skull of a Victorian shire horse, his latest find, and bookcases tottering not only with books but a model of the tardis, another of a 19thc stagecoach, part of a mannequin, and all sorts of things.
What ties them together is that they are quirky and unique — and that they caught a painter’s eye. “Things I’ve spent five pounds on are equally important as the few things I spent thousands on,” he says.
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Christie’s holds popular regular Interiors sales, which have, as you’d expect, an amazing range of interiors items for sale, many of which are mid-century modern.
To celebrate its 40th anniversary, this March it began ‘Christie’s Lates’. Held on the first Tuesday of the month, between 6pm-8.30pm, they are free. You can view exhibited lots, hear short talks from experts, and enjoy wine at £4 a glass.
Many people are in their late twenties or early thirties, and according to McElhatton, “it’s obvious that some people are on dates,” which he thinks is great. It is certainly a romantic setting.
“Ninety per cent have never been before,” he says, “but say they’ll come again.“ With 400 people in March and a thumping 750 in June, it’s got to be as good as a dating app.
“The difference between buying here or on the high street isn’t just the quality,” says McElhatton with feeling, “but that these hand-made unique things hold their value — and you can make a personal statement.
I love having dinner parties and showing off what I’ve bought. A lot is very affordable. Last year, 25 per cent of sales went to new buyers whose first buy was under £2,000.
“You never know what you’ll fall in love with. I started accumulating late in life, and it’s in my blood now. I can’t pass an antiques shop or a flea market without going in. “
McElhatton studied fine art in Sunderland Polytechnic, then painted for three years in a studio under the Tyne Bridge, supporting himself by working at the Newcastle Playhouse, where he also met his wife, a stage manager. “Theatre stood me in good stead, because an auction house is very theatrical too — it’s a performance, setting it all up, and selling it.
He followed his wife to London, taking odd jobs to make money, even working in the Europa supermarket on Old Brompton Road that is now part of Christie’s itself. Fed up, he wrote to the auction houses. Only Christie’s replied, giving him an interview with the original MD, Bill Brooks. “He felt my muscles to see if I was strong enough to be a porter,” McElhatton laughs.
“Porters have to be strong. There was one specialist sale of range cookers. They were cast-iron, sooty and horrible. Total backbreakers. At the end of it I looked like a chimney sweep. But it was fascinating as well.
“We porters talked to dealers and also did the bidding,” he says, “so it was a fantastic insight into the business. One day I was told to take my pinny off and catalogue 50 things, and then I became a junior specialist.”
After a thee-year break dealing he came back in 1992 as head of the Objects department, and an auctioneer, and then amalgamated the Objects and Furniture departments. He started having things photographed in real settings, with lamps on tables or chairs on carpets. That was the start of Christie’s presenting itself in the approachable way it does now.
“Come in once and look round, I defy you not to be inspired. Even if you don’t think you know about art and antiques, it isn’t frightening, it isn’t complicated and it isn’t science. Just walk in — and you’ll realize that.”