The Record, April 2006 -- THE LIFE OF AN ART EXPERT certainly includes a cocktail party or two, but Christopher T. Apostle '85 has been known to get down and dirty.
"There is a lot of crawling around on wet basement floors in my suit looking for paintings," says Apostle, a senior vice president at Sotheby's. He is their New York director of Old Master Paintings (European paintings from before 1820), a position he has held for the last six years.
"Sotheby's has two major Old Master auctions each year, one in January and another in May. The January auction of Important Old Master Paintings took in around $70 million, including Study of an Elderly Woman in a White Cap by Rembrandt, which sold for more than $4.2 million.
On the other hand, many works sold for considerably less. "You don't have to be a multi-millionaire to buy these paintings," says Apostle. "You can get a good painting for 10 or 15 thousand dollars, something around which you can build a collection."
Much of what Apostle does is talking to collectors and dealers and valuing paintings. His love affair with art began as a child; his parents often took him to museums. "I remember being 9 or 10 years old at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich with my parents when I saw the Rubens painting The Fall of the Damned. It's this intense picture of sinners falling into Hell. It was the first time that I thought, 'This is an amazing picture.' "
At Hampden-Sydney, Apostle studied Greek and Latin and Humanities. This curriculum included "General Art Survey" with Dr. Graves Thompson '27, a course Apostle found particularly interesting (and easy) considering the appreciation he had already developed for art.
Like many graduates, Apostle did not know exactly what he wanted to do after finishing college. "I thought about teaching Greek, but I decided to take a year off. After that year, I enrolled in Sotheby's Works of Art course in London. They taught how to look at objects-we actually got to hold art, to feel it, and to turn it around in our hands." He credits this course with teaching him the art of connoisseurship, understanding what makes good art good.
After the course in London, Sotheby's asked Apostle to begin working as a trainee in the Old Masters department in New York.
Apostle's work is a combination of art and business, finding treasures with the intention of getting the best possible price for them. "The part that I love the most is the art, but I have to make Sotheby's money," he says.
"Old Masters are the 'blue chips' of the art world," says Apostle about the investment quality of art. "There is a solid, continuous group of people who are always going to have an interest in Old Masters. We are in a strong market right now, but the market is focused on the condition of the piece. That's what people are looking for right now."
As the pool of available desirable paintings in good condition gets smaller, Apostle thinks investing in Old Masters paintings makes a solid long-term investment. He adds, "Art is an investment, but it is a hard investment to turn back into cash." He advises, "Buy wisely and never buy solely for investment. Art is not like other assets."
The market for Old Master painting is a broad one. Institutions tend to focus on finding the best pieces, while dealers look for work they can clean and restore before selling. Meanwhile, American collectors "tend to buy fantastic pictures," according to Apostle.
Finding art to sell is a tricky part of Apostle's job. Sometimes one of the clients he has cultivated calls him, wanting to sell a personal collection; other times he is contacted by a dealer. Sotheby's also welcomes inquiries from the general public. It is common for a person to send a picture of something he or she owns, asking whether or not it is valuable. "It's not unlike the TV show Antiques Roadshow," he adds.
Of course, there are times when something precious falls in your lap. "I had been looking for a picture that I had seen a photograph of in the mid-1980s," recalls Apostle. "It was a big picture, Mary Magdalene contemplating a Skull. I was always looking for it, but I could never find it. One day someone e-mailed me a JPEG and said, 'You might be interested in this.' And there it was." In fact, the painting is a masterpiece by the Italian artist Corrado Giaquinto, and was purchased from Sotheby's at auction this January for the world-record price of $1,360,000. It is now the property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
The business world of art is naturally competitive, but Apostle argues that the parties involved work together. He says, "Museums, auctions houses, and dealers are all on the same continuum. The auction houses and dealers find the pieces; dealers restore them. We all rely on scholars to determine attribution and age of the work."
"You have to be a businessman, an art scholar, a connoisseur, and good with people," says Apostle of his job at Sotheby's. "I love my job. There are days when you wake up and find a masterpiece. You are sitting there and all of the sudden you discover a painting that has not been seen in a hundred years. That's the part I love."
Apostle visits art shows across the U.S. and Europe as he prepares for Sotheby's next big auction-one week he is in Florida, the next week he is in London. As the desire to own Old Master paintings spreads around the globe, so does the search for long-lost works.
Who knows what masterpiece he might find today?