As Henry Wyndham, senior auctioneer and European chairman of Sotheby’s, strides out of the picturesque village of Beeley in the Derwent Valley, I can’t help thinking that the 6ft 6in 59-year-old looks like Gandalf by way of Jeremy Clarkson, toting a Brighton and Hove Albion scarf. Known for his entertaining and speedily efficient auctions, Wyndham has brought down the gavel on some of the biggest art sales in history, including Giacometti’s “Walking Man” sculpture that sold in 2010 for a record-breaking $104m.
We’re walking around the 35,000-acre Chatsworth House Estate, where Wyndham – a Chatsworth trustee – presided over the 2010 “attic sale” in which 20,000 objects from the house were auctioned. From Beeley, we follow the lane uphill. The mist is clearing a little as we turn through a gate into a plantation of pine and birch, a small stream babbling away to our right. We drop down and cross this via some stepping stones and then follow the path, through mossy boughs with views back across the valley, until we reach a stone wall that we climb via a stile.
“Auctioneer” is a job that careers advisers don’t really mention, so how did Wyndham become one? “I was never the sort of bloke who liked standing in front of people and performing,” he says. After taking the Sotheby’s fine art course, he joined Christie’s and, about to move to New York to head up their 19th-century painting department, was thrown in at the deep end. “I was made to do it when I was 24. I was terrified ... The first sale I did there were only two people there and they had to swell the crowd with staff members.” But it was something he took to. “I’m actually quite numerate. I’m quite quick – that’s one of the skills.”
And the others? “Voice matters. If you don’t have the right voice, you’re always going to struggle,” he says in a rich, warm tone that projects calm authority and opens wallets. “I think it’s also a matter of timing and tempo. Someone once said that it is a musical experience, which I think it is. It’s rather like a Handel opera. It’s very musical. I like to see an auction flowing.”
We’re now crossing an expanse of moorland that still harbours snow. The sky is showing hints of blue, and we stop to watch as a kestrel hovers above the rough grass, hunting.
Wyndham is a sort of über-auctioneer. In 2001, he appeared in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider presiding over an auction, and he has even been immortalised in a Jilly Cooper novel, Pandora, in which he is seen relaxing pre-auction “in a deep, English Fern-scented bath”. When I mention this, he laughs. “I don’t know where she got that from. It’s so embarrassing.”
So how does he prepare for a big auction? “Actually, I do go in the bath and practise it. I’ll have the catalogue with me and run through the whole sale, then I’ll have a lie down and close my eyes for half an hour, and then I’ll emerge relaxed and ready for action. It’s important to get the right mental state. The worst thing you can do is come in feeling so nervous you can’t move. I’m always apprehensive but I don’t get panicky.”
We’re in the woods above Chatsworth now, following a grassy track that cuts between the metalled forest roads. Wyndham stops to select a walking stick (looking even more like Gandalf in the process), telling me that he has just returned from Cuba, where he picked up a bug. Yet despite feeling below par he shows no signs of flagging, keeping up a steady conversation that ranges from discussing his three sons to how the art market has shifted dramatically in the past 20 years as Russians and Chinese have started buying.
We stop near a tall chimney, hidden in the trees. Out of sight is the remains of Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory, a vast glasshouse that was the forerunner of Crystal Palace and was once heated by eight subterranean boilers. The smoke from these furnaces was then funnelled a few hundred yards underground to this stack to be released discreetly. Beyond the chimney we pass through the car park beside the great house and make for the bridge that crosses the Derwent. Here we pause to survey the estate and the ducks floating on the glassy river.
A major renovation is under way at Chatsworth; the stonework is now pale and clean, and the windows glitter thanks to an application of gold leaf. The house has also been replumbed and rewired, Wyndham tells me, paid for in large part by the attic sale and the sale of Raphael’s “Head of a Young Apostle” from the Chatsworth collection for £29.7m, the highest price ever achieved for a drawing. The bidding on the latter lasted 17 minutes – a lifetime in the auction room. Just how much difference does the auctioneer make, I ask. “I’d say a good auctioneer makes a big difference. Sometimes you can surprise yourself by giving it one more push and there’s another bid in there. In the case of the Raphael, there were moments when I could have closed it down and therefore lost out on several million pounds but by the end I think we exhausted it. It took a long time but there was a lot of drama.”
Chatsworth also hosts regular sculpture exhibitions in the grounds. Currently in situ is an exhibition of pieces by William Turnbull, who, it turns out, Wyndham collects. “I have a few sculptures by Turnbull, and I also collect 1960s British art by the likes of Allen Jones. I also have one or two lovely Cecil Beaton photographs.”
Wyndham started collecting stamps as a teenager before growing into art, and he’s always surprised that the young people he interviews profess a love of art yet collect nothing.
We’ve followed the Derwent across a field, stopping to inspect the old bakery, and admired the hunting tower that pokes above the forest canopy behind Chatsworth. Then as we cross a seemingly never-ending field back to Beeley that, to our bad luck, has been freshly spread with muck, Wyndham outlines his latest project.
In May, he will spend 14 days completing the 190-mile coast-to-coast walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay in Yorkshire, raising funds for Orbis, a charity that helps save the sight of people in the developing world. In August last year, Wyndham nearly lost his own sight in a grouse-shooting accident. He was hit in the face by 52 pellets – and all that prevented him from being blinded were his glasses. “When I woke up and found I’d not lost my sight,” he says, “I felt like I’d won the lottery.”
Is he normally much of a walker? “I can see myself in my old age becoming more enthusiastic about walking,” he says. “I don’t really like going for a walk for the sake of it but the idea of a walking holiday of three or four days really appeals. Whether I want to go for 14 days is another thing. Too late now … ”