Life’s Work: Christopher Mason, sculpture specialist, Sotheby’s, London
A discovery in Ireland in 2014 ‘caused a sensation in the saleroom’
As a Sotheby’s Specialist, I am involved in sourcing high quality sculptures for our auctions in London
Christopher Mason is a Deputy Director, Head of Auction Sales, Specialist, European Sculpture and Works of Art, Sotheby’s, London. Sotheby’s, founded in London in 1744, is a leading international auction house, with 80 offices in 40 countries including Ireland. Auctions are held in 10 salerooms including London, New York, Hong Kong and Paris and the company also offers a private sales service. Sotheby’s is the oldest company listed on the New York Stock Exchange where its ticker symbol is “BID”.
What do you do?
As a Sotheby’s Specialist, I am involved in sourcing high quality sculptures for our auctions in London. I travel around the UK and Ireland providing free and confidential valuations. This often involves substantial research, which can lead to exciting discoveries. When clients consign objects to our sales, we work tirelessly to achieve successful results. I visit Ireland regularly, usually every two or three months. We recently had a particularly exciting set of 18th-century bronzes from an Irish country house, which sold in our December 6th, 2016, London auction of “Old Master Sculpture and Works of Art”. The highlight was a bronze group with Venus and Cupid attributed to Massimiliano Soldani-Benzi, which sold for £28,750 (€33,365) – almost double the top estimate.
What’s your background?
I grew up in the North of England, in Yorkshire, where I attended Leeds Grammar School. From a young age I had a guiding interest in the visual arts, and when I was 18, I achieved one of the top marks in the UK for A-Level Art and Design.
How did you get into the business?
I am a graduate of the Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London (BA 2008, MA 2009). Just before I finished my MA, Sotheby’s invited me to interview for a work placement. Once I started I knew I’d never want to leave! I joined as a Junior Cataloguer in European Sculpture, where I learned my craft, researching and writing our catalogues. I was made Specialist in 2013 and Deputy Director in 2014, last year taking over as Head of Auction Sales for Sculpture at Sotheby’s.
A wonderful visit to Ireland, in 2014, when Arabella Bishop (the Head of Sotheby’s Ireland) and I visited a collector with a lost bust of the poet Homer by Francis Harwood. It caused a sensation in the saleroom and was widely featured in the press, eventually selling for 242,500 (€281,452) against an estimate of 70,000- 100,000 (€81,244-€116,073) in our “Old Master Sculpture & Works of Art” sale in London on December 3rd, 2014.
What advice would you give collectors/investors?
My principal specialism is marble sculpture. The key thing to look for are marbles with their original surfaces. A marble with its intended surface, which has not been lost due to weathering or over-cleaning, is likely to retain its value. The Irish Neoclassical sculptor John Hogan (1800-1858) was renowned for his beautiful polished surfaces. Born in Co Waterford, he was trained in Rome, where he was regarded as one of the most promising sculptors of the day. His most famous works include the Dead Christ at St Teresa’s Church in Clarendon St, Dublin. It would be a great find if one were to come across one of his marbles in good condition. In general, I’d say, buy what you like and buy quality. There will always be a market for quality artworks.
What do you personally collect and why?
I love the prints of Egypt and the Near East by the 19th-century Scottish artist David Roberts. I have two beautiful engravings by Roberts, including a charming scene of men measuring the level of the River Nile at a so-called Nilometer.
What would you buy if money were no object?
A portrait bust or statuette by the Russian sculptor Prince Paul Troubetzkoy. His fashionable bronzes depicting society figures have marvellous textured surfaces, which mirror the glittering portraits of John Singer Sargent. Troubetzkoy (1866-1938) was a Russian prince who grew up in Italy. He became a celebrity artist during his lifetime, and was known for his fashionable friends, who included early film stars. Some of his finest bronzes can be found in the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, while many of his plasters are in the Museo del Paesaggio di Verbania-Pallanza in Como.
What’s your favourite work of art and why?
A difficult question, but one contender would be the remarkable life-size ancient Greek bronze statue of a Boxer at Rest in Rome’s Museo Nazionale Romano. Very few large bronzes survive from antiquity, and this one is a real cracker.
[The 2,000-year-old statue was excavated by archaeologists in Rome in the late 19th century. When it was loaned to the United States for a temporary exhibition in 2013, New York’s Metropolitan Museum described it as “one of the most stunning statues from antiquity” and explained its importance: “The statue was excavated in Rome in 1885 on the south slope of the Quirinal Hill near the ancient Baths of Constantine, where it is thought to have been displayed. The sculpture was buried intentionally in late antiquity, possibly to preserve it against the barbarian invasions that ravaged Rome in the fifth century AD. The broad-shouldered, lanky pugilist is shown seated, resting after a match. His gloves – which are highly detailed – identify him as a boxer.
“The athlete’s many head wounds are consistent with ancient boxing techniques, in which the head was the main target. The copper inlays, indicating blood, heighten the effect. The boxer’s right eye is swollen, his nose is broken, and he breathes through his mouth, probably because his nostrils are blocked by blood. His scarred lips are sunken, suggesting missing teeth. The ears, swollen from blows, indicate possible hearing loss. Drops of blood from the wounds on his head have trickled down his right arm and leg. Wear on the foot and hands suggests that they were touched frequently in antiquity, possibly in veneratio.n”]
In conversation with Michael Parsons