Auctioneers don’t seem to be born so much as made — perfect specimens, crafted in some ornate laboratory, to emerge slick and charming at the age of 50, with sonorous voices and a bonhomie built in.
Cut from a different cloth
Henry Highley, however, the most exciting young star in the auction world’s firmament, defies that conception. Yes, there’s the charm, the easy manner, the resonant yet calming voice, the omnivorous curiosity. But Highley is a bright young thing in every sense. At just 32, he is quickly rising up the auction world’s ladder and has already installed himself as a key player in Phillips’s modernisation of the artistic landscape.
Highley began his career at Phillips in 2008 after studying history of art at university. “At the time I remember thinking auctioneering was exciting, but I had no idea if it was something I’d be comfortable doing or not,” says Highley.
The training began
“I’ve had the same trainer since I’ve begun,” he says. “I remember a hot sweaty summer in New York and turning up on my first day and being really nervous.” There followed a crash course in the numerical side of things. “The different kind of methods of being on the right footing, landing on the right bids, taking bids, splitting bids,” Highley remembers.
“After that, it’s really about tweaking tiny bits of your mannerisms. It gets pretty deep. You get your personality rejigged a little bit. I think of it as a bit like having a life coach.”
The art world according to Highley
I ask Highley what he’s most excited about in the current art world. “There’s a pocket of African American artists right now that are generating a lot of interest. There’s an artist called Mark Bradford that I’m quite close to. Phillips first brought him to auction and we were offering these works at lower levels. Now the auction record is $12m.”
“My advice in that respect would be to buy something you are passionate about..."
With returns like that, it’s no wonder that a new generation is looking to contemporary art as an investment opportunity. “My advice in that respect would be to buy something you are passionate about and don’t worry about art as an asset class to begin with,” says Highley. “Educate yourself and follow your gut and in my experience that tends to work out for the best.”
Clearly, Highley is excited about the art world’s new-found openness and about a new generation engaging seriously with the market. “People are doing sales through social media, which is remarkable, and online-only auctions — eBay style — are very effective at the lower end of things,” he says. “But I don’t think anything can replace the true excitement of a live auction.”
“The great thing for younger collectors now is all these things are so much more accessible and information is so much more readily available,” he explains. “I like that young art lovers and art buyers can walk into a gallery or an auction and think, ‘I feel at home here.’ That’s very exciting for me.”
This interview originally appeared in the Jul/Aug issue, subscribe now to get the next issue sent straight to your door…