Part of Christie’s art handler team, Kevin O’Brien sees hundreds of artworks each week. Here, he discusses New York, moving Jeff Koons — and why he’s stopped going to museums
Christie’s is a whole other world. I first started working here in February 2000 but there are some people who’ve been here longer than me. Before I came, I worked in a small gallery mostly dealing with works on paper. Going from that to Christie’s was a huge difference. I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon. I like the people, and I like working in the art business. I’m happy here.
Some days you might handle five things — other days you may handle 30. It all depends on the season. Here at Rockefeller Center, we have close to 50 art handlers. In spring and fall you deal with a large number of paintings each day — sometimes hundreds, if you’re moving an entire sale between galleries.
I’ve seen a lot. Two seasons ago we had a Picasso that sold for over $150 million dollars — and two years ago, we had a Francis Bacon that sold for over $100 million dollars. I was the supervisor for those sales, so got to handle them pretty much on a daily basis. Being around these works every day for weeks, then finally seeing them sell — that’s always pretty exciting.
Handling artworks can be nerve-wracking. There are always extremely large or fragile things that come in. Jeff Koons sculptures — and especially ‘Balloon Dogs’ — are always very delicate to handle and move, and things like Donald Judd stacks can be a bit of a headache. The works aren’t always that easy to install — sometimes they have to go 10, 12, 16 feet up in the air. But when all’s said and everyone comes in and thinks it’s beautiful, it’s great — that’s when it pays off.
There are difficult times. We’ve worked extremely late at night, or had art handlers stay over to get something set up in time for the next sale. There can be very tight deadlines and unforeseen challenges, like the recent snowstorm, that mean artworks we expect to come in can’t. You’ve just got to make sure it’s all choreographed properly.
‘I see so many things at Christie’s that there’s really no need for me to go to an exhibition’
I try to break for a coffee with the guys. Our break room has a TV, so we usually sit down and watch a bit of sport — maybe some ESPN, something like that.
I don’t go to many galleries or museums because I work here. I see so many things at Christie’s that there’s really no need for me to go to an exhibition. When the galleries are set up ahead of a sale, I always try to walk through and look at the art — whether it’s Impressionist, American or Old Masters. We see it in the warehouse on a daily basis, but when it’s up on the wall and lit properly — that’s when you really enjoy seeing it.
New York is a one of a kind place. I’m from New York — born and raised — and I never really want to leave. I know everything here.
Art has changed. When I first started working here, we didn’t really see the type of works we do now — it’s only in recent years that we’ve really seen works in the high tens of millions. I think people have just got better at knowing the art business. The evening sales can make you stop and think ‘wow’.
I’m quite partial to 19th century paintings. The 19th century European department was one that I worked in early on as an art handler, and they had a lot of really beautiful works. There’s a lot from that period I really like, especially an artist by the name of Unterberger who does these really great cityscape scenes. I love those paintings — if I was going to collect anything, it would be that.
Pictured in group shot (left to right): Rob Hernandez, Kevin O’Brien and Greg Moncada, art handlers in Private Sales at Christie’s New York. Photography by Mark Babushkin
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