What is your background, and how did you first become interested in auctions? (Gareth Jones, Sotheby’s Switzerland and Italy Managing Director) I’m originally Welsh and Irish, and I left university with no money, just like everyone does. At that time in the 90s, the best-paying jobs were in IT. I can’t say it was passion of mine, but I needed to pay back the bank quickly. So, I pursued that route, and I ended up in IT. By ’98, I was offered a job with Sotheby’s in Geneva, working as desktop support, a role similar to a help desk person. I applied for the position in Geneva and I found myself on a plane on a Monday morning, starting the job without ever having been to Switzerland before. I fell in love with Geneva immediately and thought it was amazing compared to London. I joined Sotheby’s and spent five years working in IT, supporting the auctions. Back then, we relied on a modem line, which often failed, even when we were conducting auctions in our building. We also did a lot of off-site auctions in chateaus, Schlosses, and large country houses, including St. Moritz in Switzerland. These remote locations often posed IT challenges, and the line would frequently drop. Consequently, we had to be prepared to run the auction on paper as a backup. To do this, one needed to be well-versed in the processes for VAT, invoicing, and various customs rules. I had a good understanding of that process, while the business gradually lost that knowledge. Interestingly, IT retained the old paper-based method as a backup, while the rest of the business quickly became reliant on IT system functions. I remained in this role for five years, leaving Sotheby’s in 2003. I stayed in Switzerland and worked for pharmaceutical companies, banks, and investment firms.
(GJ) In 2013, Sotheby’s reached out to me to return as the General Manager for Switzerland, a role I accepted. It was a unique experience to return, as many of the senior colleagues I knew when I was younger were still there, and I was eager to work with them again. When I left Sotheby’s initially, it was somewhat reluctant, as I left to gain more experience in management, which I couldn’t find at the time. Working in banks, pharmaceuticals, and investment companies was vastly different from working at Sotheby’s. Here, every day was different, with unique objects, varying in weight, value, and material, and a diverse clientele. It was challenging to define our work precisely, as each department had its own distinct culture within the broader company culture. This diversity extended to the art itself, with significant differences between old master paintings and contemporary art. The people who worked in these areas dressed differently, thought differently, and even the clients had their unique characteristics.
“If you decide to specialise in jewellery or watches at a young age, say, 15-18, it requires a tremendous amount of passion and often an element of eccentricity to become one of the world’s best specialists in that niche.”
(GJ) While we encouraged some crossover, it remained fundamentally different. Sotheby’s has over 30 departments, each with its individual culture. Working here has been a constantly evolving and unique experience. If you decide to specialise in jewellery or watches at a young age, say, 15-18, it requires a tremendous amount of passion and often an element of eccentricity to become one of the world’s best specialists in that niche. These individuals are great fun to work with. That’s been my experience here – it’s never been standard or repetitive. Every day is genuinely different, every object unique, and every auction distinct. The clients and collections bring their own unique flavour. It’s a world of constant change and diversity. So, I was very happy to return in 2013. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to take on about five different roles in the span of ten years. I’ve recently been working with jewellery and Italy. Previously, I managed several European countries, including Sweden and Russia. We conduct auctions here in Geneva at the Mandarin Oriental twice a year. Preparing off-site auctions, requires intricate operational and logistical planning, making it a truly enjoyable experience. There are numerous considerations: security for the objects, shipping logistics, on-site security, marketing to ensure people understand the events, and also managing accommodations for the staff, including where they sleep, eat, and when to reopen. Additionally, there’s the coordination with journalists. It’s great fun, albeit challenging with long hours, yet the enjoyment we’ve experienced over the years has been amazing. That’s why I’m still here, why I love it, and why I came back.
You mentioned the difference in teams between those working with contemporary paintings and those working with legacy paintings, what are the distinct characteristics of these teams? (GJ) From my perspective, when I think of old master paintings, I envision a private school-educated Englishman in a suit and tie, carrying a squared briefcase from the 80s or 90s. If you were to open that briefcase, you’d likely find the Financial Times, a jumper, and an apple inside. These individuals tend to be very traditional and a strong academic approach. Historically, this field has been primarily male-dominated, and that remains true today. Contemporary departments are quite different. You won’t find ties or even suits; it’s more likely to be trainers and a primarily female presence. In this domain, factor like the academic experience matter less.
“When it comes to watches, enthusiasts are deeply engrossed in the details. They meticulously inspect watch movements, scrutinising them with a magnifying loop. On the other hand, jewellery is often all about emotions. It’s about how a piece makes you feel.”
(GJ) When it comes to watches, enthusiasts are deeply engrossed in the details. They meticulously inspect watch movements, scrutinising them with a magnifying loop. Their orientation is primarily towards detail. On the other hand, jewellery is often all about emotions. It’s about how a piece makes you feel, how it will make the consigner feel, and ultimately, how it will affect the buyer. There’s a lot of passion involved in this field because to excel in it, you need to care about the smallest details, like the shade of red or the the style and techniques of the mounting and setting. So, when a watch catalog is released, everyone is focused on the fine details. When a Fine Jewellery catalog is published, it’s about ensuring that the colours match perfectly, celebrating the successful colour corrections, or identifying mistakes. Interestingly, clients often don’t notice or worry about these intricacies themselves.
(GJ) In other departments, such as the car team, you’ll find a mix of passions. They are passionate about colours and aesthetics but are also very detail-oriented. While this field is male-dominated in Europe, there’s a blend of interests in both aesthetics and precision.
“RM Sotheby’s Car auctions can last for over four hours without a break. On the other hand, Sotheby’s tend to be much faster-paced. RM Sotheby’s Car auctions typically feature around 20 lots per hour, while with Sotheby’s auctions feature average around 60 lots an hour.”
What has been your journey been like as an auctioneer? (GJ) I’ve been working as an auctioneer since around 2016, I got into auctioneering because there was a gap and a need for it here in Geneva, especially for charity auctions. At that time, we had about five or six auctioneers on the team, but they were always traveling and busy with their other roles focused on business development. My role was more about management, which made me more available to handle local charity events. Over time, I started assisting the watch team and have been involved in jewellery auctions when needed. I’ve also worked with the car enthusiasts at RM Auctions since last year, which has been a fantastic experience. It’s a completely different vibe compared to Sotheby’s auctions, with a different pace, level of interaction, and duration. RM Sotheby’s Car auctions can last for over four hours without a break, and I’ve handled a few like that. Sotheby’s auctions, on the other hand, tend to be much faster-paced. RM Sotheby’s Car auctions typically feature around 20 lots per hour, while with Sotheby’s auctions feature average around 60 lots an hour. It’s a significant difference, and it’s interesting to see how the pace and culture vary between the two.
“We sold a Ferrari in Geneva back in November, a Schumacher’s Ferrari, forCHF 14.7 million. It took me 45 minutes to auction that lot. The main bidders had advised me in advance to take it slow, so they genuinely preferred a deliberate pace.”
Why do you think car auctions tend to have longer durations? (GJ) More people tend to bid in person at car auctions because they come to see the cars. Car auctions are often associated with car events, like in St. Moritz or Le Mans, so attendees are already present. Additionally, they prefer having more time to think about their bids.
“These clients want to be present in the room, see their competitors, and take their time to make decisions.”
(GJ) We sold a Ferrari in Geneva back in November, a Schumacher’s Ferrari, forCHF 14.7 million. It took me 45 minutes to auction that lot. The main bidders had advised me in advance to take it slow, so they genuinely preferred a deliberate pace. I could see them carefully considering their options as we went along, thinking about how to pay for it and whether it was the right decision. One of them even exceeded his initial limit, showing that they were actively contemplating their choices. It’s a very traditional approach, even though RM auctions have a different style. These clients want to be present in the room, see their competitors, and take their time to make decisions. The initial estimate was 7 million, but we ended up selling it for 13 million at the hammer. Despite lasting 45 minutes, it was far from boring. The room was packed, and the intensity came from genuine bidding decisions.
(GJ) Let’s consider the dealers in two areas, watches and jewellery, who prefer a quicker pace. Timing also plays a role as our jewellery and watch auctions in Geneva coincide with trade weeks and auction weeks, involving Phillips, Christie’s, Antiquorum, and Sotheby’s. Collectors attending these events have already spent hours listening to detailed descriptions for each lot. They may not have the time or inclination to go through it all again. I don’t believe the duration of auctions is always dictated by the value of the lots. I enjoy being an auctioneer and have learned from assisting with RM auctions that sometimes it’s crucial to wait. You don’t have to rush through everything. Giving bidders time to think can be more effective than words.
“When they say they’re sure that they are done. 70% of the time they come back again.”
(GJ) When they say they’re sure that they are done. 70% of the time they come back again. With RM auctions, which move at a slower pace, it’s harder to predict. People may surprise you and wait until the last moment to bid. They’ve had more time to contemplate their decisions. In contrast, Sotheby’s, the traditional way allows you to understand who in the room is likely to bid and when there’s no interest. When I open a lot, I can often gauge the room’s response.
“I believe that emotional intelligence is crucial. We work on behalf of the consignor until the hammer comes down, and then we work on behalf of the buyer. Each bidder is unique, and understanding how to engage them varies.”
What elements do you think are required to be a great auctioneer? (GJ) It’s a very good question. It’s all about the numbers, right? It’s about the process. But once you’ve grasped the basics, you need to know the property. However, sometimes it’s actually better not to know the property. What I mean is, to have a great auctioneer, like our former colleague David Bennett in Geneva, particularly in the jewellery department, he knew the property, the consignor, and had thoroughly studied the item. He knew it inside out, which enabled him to sell it very effectively.
(GJ) However, on the other side, he stand there knowing who the seller is, and the seller is watching them closely. He would be aware of the expected price range for the item. So, on a challenging day when things aren’t going as expected, they can become too emotionally involved. In such cases, it’s often better to maintain impartiality and treat every lot the same, regardless of its origin or value because the auctioneer may not have an in-depth knowledge of every item. This approach is important most of the time, and it marks a distinct difference. For instance, if it’s a passionate and important collection, it’s best to have an auctioneer from that field. But for good quality lots that don’t require extensive expertise, it can be better to have someone who is less emotionally attached. In these cases, the auctioneer doesn’t have to personally deliver news to the seller about an item not selling as expected. While they still interact with sellers who come to see them, the auctioneer hasn’t consigned the item, and they don’t need to maintain an ongoing relationship. The sellers may choose not to work with the auctioneer in future auctions, which is okay. However, in terms of Sotheby’s consignments, they can continue to work with us because the trust remains with the specialists.
(GJ) I believe that emotional intelligence is crucial. It’s about understanding people and being able to gauge when they say, ‘Are you sure?’ and whether they truly mean it. Often, they come back even after claiming they’re done, and it happens quite frequently. Additionally, part of emotional intelligence involves figuring out how to extract more bids. The goal is to make the auction process exciting and enjoyable while maximising the value for the consignor. We work on behalf of the consignor until the hammer comes down, and then we work on behalf of the buyer. Each bidder is unique, and understanding how to engage them varies. Some may need time, others may require less attention, and some may need to feel genuinely involved in the process.
What are the best-selling lots in Sotheby’s Switzerland? (GJ) In the watches category, we sold the Henry Graves Super-complication pocket watch in 2014 for 24 million USD – it’s not a wristwatch– making it the most valuable pocket watch ever sold in auction at that time. Sotheby’s has had the privilege of selling this remarkable piece twice in Geneva. As for jewellery, we consistently have significant lots every six months. Notable recent sales include the Bourbon Parma Sale in 2018, where every item sold for well above the lowest estimate, and in May, we sold the Bulgari Laguna Blu, the top-selling lot in Geneva. This piece gained extra attention as it was worn by Priyanka Chopra at the Met Gala, generating publicity in media channels we don’t typically reach.
(GJ) Every six months, we have a substantial collection of jewellery lots, including watches and handbags. In our most recent auction in May, we achieved a total sales figure of over 100 million in Geneva, which is a significant accomplishment and the best result we’ve seen in the past four years. Geneva is recognised as one of the leading centres for watches and jewellery in the world, alongside Hong Kong and New York. These two departments play a pivotal role in our company, but we also have other important categories like Fine Art (GFA), wine, luxury items, and cars. While we don’t conduct live auctions for GFA in Geneva, we do have an online auction in Zurich, which serves as an essential hub for exporting art to major centres like New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong for their painting auctions.
Have you observed any significant changes in collecting post-COVID? (GJ) COVID accelerated changes that were already in motion, and this is why I believe we handled it better than our competitors. We were ahead in terms of digital infrastructure, especially in the luxury segment, which includes jewellery, watches, wine, cars, handbags, sneakers, and collectibles. We had already established a dedicated division for this, separate from fine art, and were actively promoting digital auctions. In fact, we were conducting more live and online auctions than our competitors before COVID struck, which put us in a strong position. As for changes post-COVID, we’ve observed trends like the rise of NFTs, which although not directly related to COVID, gained significant momentum during the same period and became a major trend in 2021 and 2022.
“For jewellery, especially high-end pieces, seeing the stone in person is crucial since our eyes perceive things differently. However, when it comes to watches, they are often serial numbered and relatively standardised, making it less necessary to physically view each one.”
(GJ) Sneakers and pop culture items, like Michael Jordan’s sneakers, have seen explosive growth. Football jerseys, including Maradona’s, have also performed exceptionally well and show no signs of slowing down. The market for cars and watches continues to grow, as does the wine market. While jewellery and watches haven’t experienced the same rapid growth, they haven’t declined either. Overall, the luxury sector appears to be well-suited to the digitalisation of goods. While not all items require physical inspection, for jewellery, especially high-end pieces, seeing the stone in person is crucial since our eyes perceive things differently. However, when it comes to watches, they are often serial numbered and relatively standardised, making it less necessary to physically view each one. Reputation and cataloging play a significant role in watch purchases. Items like sneakers and handbags have experienced a resurgence, almost like a rebirth. While we dabbled in them back in the 90s, the real resurgence began with COVID. People had the time to explore and consider these items, leading to a surge in collectors. Additionally, we’ve seen a growth in new bidders, with more people registering and participating in auctions. For example, in our May sale, we had an impressive 34% of new bidders. We now have a significantly larger number of bidders compared to the past, reflecting our broader global reach among potential clients. This expansion is evident in various luxury categories, including wine, cars, watches, jewellery, handbags, sneakers, and more. We have also increased our presence in online auctions, where we have improved our capabilities.
(GJ) Furthermore, we introduced a unique private selling platform called ‘Sotheby’s Sealed,’ which distinguishes us from competitors. In traditional auctions, you bid against the reserve and other participants. With Sotheby’s Sealed, you place your bid, which only you can see. For example, if the low estimate is 500,000, and you bid 300,000 you won’t see that amount but you’ll simply see that you are in second place. If someone else bids 350,000 you’ll be notified that you’re now in third place. This approach adds an element of fun and novelty to the bidding process. It offers consignors the discretion of a private sale but with the upside potential of a competitive auction.
Have you observed any demographic shifts among bidders and consignors in recent years? (GJ) We’ve significantly reduced the average age of our buyers since COVID, thanks to the various initiatives we’ve introduced. However, we’ve also observed a decrease in the average age of our consignors, which may not necessarily be a positive development. For instance, tiaras are not typically found in the possession of 25-year-olds; they are more commonly found in the collections of older individuals. We should continue to cater to the older generations who possess valuable and unique items that younger consignors may not have or be aware of. Over time, tastes and preferences evolve, so it’s important not to overlook the valuable assets of the older generation. As we rapidly transition to the digital realm, we must be cautious not to lose touch with our original client base, which was predominantly older. Since COVID the average age of our consignors has clearly reduced. While this shift is notable, we need to ensure we maintain connections with clients who may not be as tech-savvy. For instance, consider the lady with the tiara living in a small town in Germany. She’s not actively checking emails or browsing Google; she’s more likely to rely on traditional sources like newspapers. Many cherished old watches are owned by older individuals who may not be digitally connected.
(GJ) I returned from a two-week vacation and found a voicemail from a Swiss lady regarding her mother’s collection. It made me realise that, in this digital age, we sometimes overlook traditional communication methods like voicemails and handwritten letters. In the auction world, we often encounter situations related to the ‘Four Ds’: death, divorce, debt, and diversification. These are highly emotional matters, and it’s essential to be empathetic and understanding when discussing them with clients. Many people bring in jewellery and watches passed down through generations, hoping for significant valuations, but sometimes the reality is different, and items may not be as valuable as they thought. In the world of auctions, we often find ourselves breaking hearts. Clients come in with high hopes, but the reality is sometimes different, and we have to deliver the news that their items may not be as valuable as they imagined. It’s a delicate balance because these possessions often have deep emotional ties to their family history.
(GJ) On the other hand, there are instances where people bring in items without realising their true worth, and it can be life-changing for them. For example, I once auctioned a Rolex Daytona Ref 6239 that the owner had bought for a mere £134 in the 70s. And he still had the £1 change from the £135 cheque. It came with an incredible backstory, including photos of him wearing it on his wedding day. The family was initially conservative with their expectations, and we estimated it lower than others in the market. However, it ended up selling for over CHF 951,000, bringing immense joy to the family. So, the emotional aspect is a significant part of our work. Clients are passionate collectors, and their attachments to these items run deep. We have to balance heartbreak and making dreams come true, although heartbreak tends to be more common.
If there’s one thing that is commonly misunderstood about Sotheby’s what is it? (GJ) An auction is public, and you don’t need to be invited to attend or require a secret code. Our high value sales get the big headlines which makes us seem inaccessible. But we don’t always sell property worth 100 million. For example, we welcomed over 140,000 visitors in August in London to see the Freddie Mercury exhibition prior to the auctions. The average value of the lots we sell is way lower than people think. Come and see us!