by Tony Moore
Walk through the front door of Sotheby's in New York City and the first person you'll encounter is Ben Hanbury-Aggs '11, client liaison.
Wandering away from the podium, Ben Hanbury-Aggs '11 began his recent talk with Dickinson students by joking, "Thank you to the Africana-studies department for allowing me the opportunity to bore you all to death."
But in a presentation that covered everything from his early love of Antiques Roadshow to art auctions to the most expensive painting in the world, no one was bored. And what in fact lay at the heart of Hanbury-Aggs' message is to not be bored in life—to pursue what you love day to day and make it your life's work.
Recalling his first year at Dickinson, Hanbury-Aggs later says he was determined to be an economics or business major—to "learn the finance world, and everything would be wonderful." Maybe his lack of commitment to a life of finance was apparent when he met with his advisor, Provost and Dean Neil Weissman, because Weissman sent him to the bookstore to see if anything else there grabbed his attention.
"So I started alphabetically, and I picked up this book on Aegean art, sat down with it, and I thought, 'This is absolutely fascinating,' " he says. "And I fell in love with archaeology and became an Africana-studies major and never looked back."
Truth be told, his love of the old and the collectible began much earlier.
Antiques Roadshow and New York City
"My first interest in all of this was Antiques Roadshow," he says. "I grew up with it and was a complete antiques nerd. The show was coming to my local auction house, and I begged my parents to go. It was first auction I'd ever been to, and I was hooked: the people, collectors, all the beautiful objects."
Cut to Hanbury-Aggs' sophomore year abroad in Cameroon, where he discovered African art, and then to the summer after his junior year, when he flew from his home in England to New York City and went door to door at auction houses looking for internships.
"I stayed with a friend in New York and knocked on doors: 'Do you need help? Is there anything I can do?' And I ended up interning with three different dealers," he says. "It was office work, grunt work. But I had fantastic opportunities to put myself out there and make connections—connections I made sure to keep."
One of them was with his future Sotheby's boss, Molly Cyphers.
"I went into Sotheby's—after being referred by a friend of a friend of a friend—and again asked if there were any opportunities," Hanbury-Aggs says. Cyphers told him that there was an internship program but that he had missed the January deadline. "And she asked if I had a resumé." He shakes his head at the memory. "I was horribly underprepared. But I kept in contact and came back just before I graduated—in a suit and tie with a stack of resumés and incredibly prepared and was welcomed into the program."
"It's a dream to be doing what I'm doing," Hanbury-Aggs begins, "and with my experience at Dickinson—the exploring, learning about all these wonderful things that the liberal arts has to offer—I was able to find what it was that I love."
What Hanbury-Aggs has found is his position inside the front doors of Sotheby's as a client liaison. "Anyone who comes in has to stop by me, where I try to make the imposing name Sotheby's accessible to everyone." This is most likely easier than it sounds, especially if anyone thinking Sotheby's is even vaguely imposing has been to one of its highly imposing evening sales.
"These are when the most fantastically wealthy and glamorous people in the world descend on our sales floor for one night," Hanbury-Aggs says. "And over the course of an hour and a half they'll buy and sell $350 million worth of the most exquisite artwork in the world."
The most expensive painting ever sold
During a recent evening sale, Sotheby's hosted the auction of Edvard Munch's The Scream, and Hanbury-Aggs was on hand for an event so monumentally thrilling that he only can manage to describe it in fragments. "The atmosphere, the buildup ... one of the great works of art, and to be a part of that, a part of the company," he says, flustered with the memory. "The excitement of the painting simply being in the building."
Apparently, The Scream was in the building before Hanbury-Aggs was aware of it, as he recalls nearly tripping over the crate that contained it more than once before discovering what was inside: "While I was doing research for the Fine Arts Department, I had to go kicking past this crate, and it turned out that it had been holding The Scream for God knows how long!"
While that was his first encounter with one of the world's most famous and important works of art, it wouldn't be his last.
"I was in the auction room when it was being sold, crammed in the back with the rest of the staff," he recalls. "The atmosphere in the room was amazing, building to a crescendo. It was the first time an auctioneer had announced $100 million as an actual price." At the end, when the winner was declared at $107 million ($119.9 million with buyer's fees), it was the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, and the audience burst into applause.
The unknown emerges
Antiques Roadshow is filled with stories of people uncovering treasure in their grandmother's attic, and, oddly, Sotheby's gets some of that action as well. "Someone came in with a piece, an emperor's seal from the Qianlong period, and it went for millions and millions ($3,495,500)," Hanbury-Aggs says. "And it was just from someone who came in and said, 'Is this worth anything?' "
Hanbury-Aggs at this point sees a connection with this sort of serendipitous discovery and his own experience with Dickinson and beyond. "There are instances where my Dickinson education, lo and behold, does come in use," he says with a laugh. "It's only looking back that you make those connections, that you remember thinking, 'Is this thing that I'm studying going to have any ramifications on what I do?' and the real answer is, 'Who knows?' "
But for Hanbury-Aggs, the real answer is clearly yes.
Published December 4, 2012