We are lucky enough to have exhibited some of the most valuable objects of their kind in the world, usually when they come up for auction. We usually get brought in when the object doesn’t necessarily speak for itself. It might be small – like the Sunrise Ruby (£30 million) – or have incredible historical value but not be physically attractive – like the Magna Carta (£15 million) or even be just a few pages of paper with holes punched in them – the Rules of Basketball ($4.3 million)
The designer’s job in these cases is to make the objects speak to people. We ask ourselves ‘what is it about this object that would appeal to the kind of person who is likely to buy it?” and then try and amplify that emotional response. Never presume that the viewer is an expert, just because he is prepared to spend a very large amount of money. The best exhibitions teach as well as show and tell.
If our display can engender an extra bid, pushing the amount up by a couple of %, then items of this value that can make a significant difference to the profit. Of course, you can also knock off a few percentage points just as easily so the pressure is on.
Telling stories is our trade here. Our designs often lead up to the object, getting the viewer immersed in its history before they see it. We also need to be aware that most people will not be able to touch the objects so we need to show what it does, as well as what it is.
The major headache in working with high-value objects is the security. Dealing with security takes time – working within the ring of steel at Davos we had to allow an additional hour to all the tight logistical scheduling to get in and out – you make sure you have everything with you on the first trip.
It’s also about minimising risk. When we work on a diamond show the room is cleaned and the bins are emptied before the jewels arrive. That way, if something does get misplaced, we don’t have to go through an extra ten rubbish sacks. What do we do when the high value item arrives? We take a tea-break. It’s a critical time, everyone is anxious and the guards and auction houses staff have enough to deal with without us.
For some jobs you just have to be confident. I was once asked to put a logo on a wall above an incredibly expensive French bureau – refusing to lean over it with a drill I was told “you can stand on it – just remember to take off your shoes”. Another strong memory is drilling into a mirrored wall on a 12 ft ladder suspended over Messian porcelain under the incredible heat of 80 spotlights.
It also helps if you don’t get nervous around guns.
Here are four career highlights and some tricks of the trade:
1. Ruben’s Massacre of the Innocents – sold for £49 million
This is such a stunning work the trick was to allow it to be the focus of everything. We rebuilt the room so the proportions were exactly right, realigning the gallery so that the fire door was not in the same eye-shot. We made the room disappear and the painting took your breath away.
2. The Graff Pink – sold for £30 million
There are two challenges here. The first is the size – the diamond is just 3cms high. We used giant graphics with images of the diamond magnified100 times being particularly careful with the colour rendition – too pink graphics can wash out the actual jewel colour; it’s the same with the lighting. To focus the eye in on the diamond we framed it in a case and placed it on a rotating base to catch the light and re-cast its own beams.
3. The Third Lost Imperial Fabergé Easter Egg – sold for £24 million
We were spoilt for stories here. The American metal dealer who brought the egg for scrap, paying $14,000 at a bric-a-brac market and discovered its true worth by contacting specialists Wartski, and the story of the 8cm tall egg’s Imperial Russian history and doomed Royal Family. We went with the latter – and the small room in Wartski’s Grafton Street gallery was wrapped with historic photographs demonstrating its impeccable provenance, while the egg stood proud in a showcase allowing the hoards of visitors 360 degree views.
4. Henry Graves Patek Phillipe Supercomplication – sold for £14 million
This is my favourite piece ever, an astonishing piece of engineering which we’ve written about in an earlier blog post. Despite being over 80 years old it is still the most complicated handmade watch ever created. We based our design on the multiple dials of the watch – in particular the view of the night sky as seen from the Graves’ flat by Central Park in New York. The exhibition showed the range of what the watch could do, without you having to touch it.