Five decades in the art world

James Kayll.
James Kayll. / SUR
  • James Kayll, the new chair of the Arts Society Benahavís, reflects on his upbringing and his experience of what is a demanding industry

It was at the age of 18 that a fresh faced James Kayll first joined the world of auctioneering.

The public school boy was wandering down London's Bond Street with his father when by chance they passed Sotheby's auction house.

After asking his father if they could go in, they watched an auction together - and by the end of it James was hooked.

"I remember it very well," James told SUR in English.

"At the end of the sale I said this is what I want to do. So we managed to get an interview with one of the directors and he asked me what I could do for Sotheby's? I said very little, but I can be a porter. He told me that they didn't have public school boys as porters, as they were professional porters. I said I don't see why not, because if I'm a porter when there's a gap in one of the departments, as I'm there on the spot I can be suitable for it."

Three months later James got a letter saying that if he was still serious about becoming a porter, there was a vacancy.

James, who was born in London, said: "So I told my dad I was leaving school and I rang up the headmaster who went absolutely berserk, as I was due to go to Cambridge after I finished my A Levels. He told me that I was wasting my life and that it was ridiculous. I said in three years time after I've done Cambridge, I'll still be thoroughly well qualified to be a porter at Sotheby's, so I might as well do it now."

And so in 1960 James joined one of the world's most famous auction houses, where he worked for two years.

During this time he was privy to a number of amusing anecdotes, such as porters breaking expensive items prior to auctioning.

James, 75, whose father was a vicar, explained: "I haven't dropped any expensive items, but I've certainly been present when other people have. There was a Thomas Tompion long case clock, which had made a world record price at Sotheby's, and the porter that was carrying it unfortunately tripped up and fell on the clock. There were bits of clock all over the god damn gallery. It was the most expensive clock ever sold at auction at the time. It made 40 odd thousand pounds in 1961.

"Then there was another time when someone tripped and a whole tray of Chelsea porcelain seals worth a fortune flew down the stairs. But they didn't fly when they hit the bottom."

Another anecdote happened after James had been at Sotheby's for a couple of months when there was an evening soiree where Christian Dior was showing off his spring collection.

James added: "For the evening large tapestries had been hung, cutting off the end of the main gallery so all the ordinary chairs could be stacked there as this was a gold chair affair. Being a vicar's son, champagne was not my normal tipple but another porter and I purloined several bottles and hid them and ourselves behind the tapestries and proceeded to get thoroughly drunk. I was moving into new digs that day, so turned up at 2.30am. I hammered on the front door until I was admitted and was given my notice over breakfast the next morning."

James described his experience at Sotheby's as the "best training in the world".

He said: "One day you'll be handling a piece of Paul de Lamerie silver, the next day you'll be handling a piece of Ravens Cross Glass, the next day a piece of Sheraton furniture. You get to have them in your hands and that's the way to learn what things are. But after two years I decided I wanted to do pictures. They put me into the porcelain department and I couldn't' see the rest of my life handling pretty little porcelain pieces and so I walked directly across the road to a company called Wildenstein's, the biggest picture dealers in the world. I said I'm at Sotheby's at the moment and I'd like a job. He said you're a bit young for us, we don't normally have 21-year-olds as sales men. But a month later I started there."

James went on to work there for four years before moving on to Frost and Reed for 14 years, one of the oldest dealerships still in operation in the UK today.

From there James became independent, before joining Richard Green, one of the biggest picture dealers in the UK. During this time James said he did "very well", working all over America in cities such as New York, Chicago and Pennsylvania.

"I was with Richard for another 12 to 13 years and that was interesting because one of my main jobs there was sourcing pictures throughout the world that we would be interested in buying. So I had to read a huge amount of periodicals and find out if auction sales were going on in distant parts of America."

Prior to moving to San Pedro in Marbella in 2011, James worked for a firm called Oakam Gallery and a company called Ackermann's, who are best known for sporting pictures.

Reflecting on his long career, James said: "I was very fortunate in that I had the best of the art world. It's changed so very much now the auctioneers have become more and more prevalent rather than the dealers since they brought in the buyer's premium. That switched the whole emphasis as they could go to a client and say we won't charge you any commission if you give us your picture, as they know they are going to get 15 per cent from the buyer. Whereas before 50 per cent would go to the dealer and 50 per cent to the auction rooms.

"It was much more fun in those days. I remember the first year I was at Sotheby's and it got to Christmas time and Peter Wilson called the staff into the main gallery, there were just over 200 of us and he said we have actually turned over eight million pounds this year, we will probably never do it again, so we are going to have a big Christmas party for you all. Eight million pounds doesn't even buy a three quarters good picture these days. Things have just changed so, so much."

Since moving to Spain in 2011 with his wife Lynda, James has taken a step back from the art world and is now semi-retired. Apart from his love of wine, he has also recently taken the helm as the new chairman of the Arts Society Benahavís - taking over from the previous chair Betty Fooks last September.

He told SUR in English: "I'm quite keen on my wine and so that is a definite bonus being here rather than being in England where they charge you 80 per cent tax. The Spanish are a bit more enlightened on that score.

"I still try to keep an eye out for decent pictures but to keep up with the market is quite impossible unless you're on the ground there, you have to be in it every day to keep up with prices. I mean pictures such as Victorian landscapes which are one of my specialities, you can hardly give them away today, they've gone right down in price and other things have come soaring up, its swings and roundabouts."

As for his new role at the Arts Society Benahavís, James added: "I am absolutely delighted to have been asked to be the chairman of The Arts Society and I hope that my experience of the art world can be put to use to take the society forward in the years to come."