We are all spending much more time now in our houses and apartments because of COVID-19. To give our readers an idea of what some of their colleagues, fellow collectors, and other readers surround themselves with in their abodes—on the walls, floors, or ceilings—we have introduced this new column, “Hanging with…,” because we all might enjoy staring at someone else’s walls for a change.
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When you’re an auctioneer and the specialist head of the department for private and iconic single-owner collections at Christie’s, being exposed to beautiful objects is part of a day’s work. Translating that inspiration to one’s home is a task that Gemma Sudlow has done with a light touch but a seriousness of purpose.
Gemma Sudlow in action at Christie’s, at the sale of the David Gilmour guitar collection, 2019.
“I’m inspired by the extraordinary collections I see. Where I can emulate, I try to do that. With each collection I learn something new,” she explained. For instance, the duck decoy that rests on top of a stack of books in the window of her living room “was tucked in a corner at Brimfield and came home with us.” The inspiration behind “Morgan, the one-eyed decoy, whose head has been glued back on,” came from her work on the enormous and successful sale of the Peggy and David Rockefeller collection in 2018, which had an installation dedicated to a preeminent collection of decoys. Sudlow confided that most objects in her home have been named. “I love decoys!” the auction specialist said. “It’s hard not to be passionate about objects.”
That was not always the case, however. When Sudlow was a young girl her parents would “drag” her to flea markets in Paris and London, she said. Her paternal grandmother, who is 99 years old, “is artistic and an interior designer. She’s immaculate and was a model and poster girl for the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army during World War II]. She was photographed by Cecil Beaton and is a legendary figure in our family. She had beautiful and interesting things...but the ‘look, but don’t touch’ kind.”
A long-desired Eames chair in the living room was purchased at Clarke Auctions in nearby Larchmont, New York. A neighbor who helped Sudlow switch off her car alarm one day mentioned that he worked at the local auction house, and she checked it out. “I always wanted the chair, and the stars aligned, and I got it for a good price.” The Heriz carpet was found at a flea market on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Acknowledging that she “is not so grand a collector,” Gemma Sudlow said she surrounds herself in her Tudor-style house in Bronxville, New York, with objects “that have a personal association that go with them. That’s what makes them special.”
After graduating from the University of Edinburgh with an M.A. in art history, she traveled and taught English in Japan for a year. Returning home, she applied to museums, galleries, and auction house internships. Earning a spot in Christie’s internship program in London was the beginning of her career. As for becoming an auctioneer, she explained that Christie’s used to hold tryouts—similar to American Idol or a talent show. The top auctioneers from Christie’s locations around the world would come to New York to hold elimination rounds. She was one of four finalists, all of whom were friends. “We all moved forward. The others have moved on but have stayed in the auction world, and we stay in touch.” After a rigorous 12- to 18-month training program, she became licensed in New York state in 2012. “Christie’s takes it seriously,” she noted.
In her living room is a tufted Anatolian wool pillow that is a tribute to Robert Kime, an English decorator and vintage textile designer. After working on the collection of Paul F. Walter in 2017, she bought a book on Indian folk art. “It was a discipline I hadn’t come across.” Buying a book each time she works on a collection and is introduced to something new has become a tradition. “I learn something new each time,” she said. The pillow is placed on an Eames chair found at Clarke Auctions, Larchmont, New York.
Gemma Sudlow and her daughter, Erica, in the dining room in front of an 18th-century Welsh dresser, bought in an online sale at Christie’s. “I’d been looking for one since we moved into our house three years ago, and they come up quite infrequently at auction! Staff are only allowed to bid in sales where they’ve had no involvement,” Sudlow noted.
Having a three-and-a-half-month-old baby (Erica was born just before New York was locked down for the pandemic) has kept Gemma Sudlow busy. Although on maternity leave until the end of August, she is working on two sales that were rescheduled from the spring to the autumn—the private collection of Jayne Wrightsman and items from the family firm Dalva Brothers, as well as sales yet to be announced. Looking ahead, she anticipates the sales will be a mix of live and online. “Our clients are increasingly engaging with us digitally,” she noted. When asked about the future of printed catalogs, she said, “They still have a place as a marketing tool. But what role will the catalog play in this ‘new normal’? Only time will tell.”
A basket by Plum & Sparrow awaits baby Erica. In the corner is an Aesthetic Movement ebonized chair purchased from the collection of Paul F. Walter at Stair Galleries, Hudson, New York. A limited-edition print by Cornelia Parker, RA, was a wedding gift from a friend who had worked for the Royal Academy of Arts and invited Sudlow to an event where she met the artist. “It’s the personal association that goes with the object that makes it special,” she mused.
Originally published in the August 2020 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2020 Maine Antique Digest