Back to top

Fine Art & The Ultra Wealthy

In Conversation with Alina Hannah of Christie’s


We’d like to thank Alina for taking the time to speak with us this month about her work as a Senior Client Adviser at Christies, which involves advising Christie’s top clients on art, jewellery, fine and rare wines.

Q. Tell us about your role at Christies, what does it involve?

I help Christies’ ultra-high-net-worth clients, from Russia and the Middle east, build their art, fine wine and jewellery collections. The job involves understanding my client’s tastes and facilitating opportunities for them to indulge in their passions. For example, an Arab client of mine was recently looking to purchase a rare tanzanite and platinum pendant, so I arranged for them to fly to New York for a private hands on experience with the jewellery. This kind of opportunity to try on and wear the jewellery is incredibly special, as it isn’t available to the everyone. That’s where Christies’ connections and reputation can help unlock these rare opportunities for our clients. If my clients are more interested in Art then similarly I’ll arrange for them to attend previews of all the top auctions and exhibitions taking place in cities like London, New York, Paris and Dubai. So no day is ever the same for me.

Q. What’s more important to your clients; the investment decision or a passion for art?

Most of the private collections I have helped to build, started out spontaneously. When a piece of art speaks to you and you realise you want it, it won’t be long until all your walls are filled. Everyone has to start somewhere. Buying art is firstly an emotional purchase, and secondly an investment. My clients have to appreciate a painting to want to acquire it, but they’ll rarely make blind [financial] decisions. For those who are more focused on acquiring art as an alternative investment, then they’re are art investment funds, but that’s not the same as building a private collection, which is what my focus is at Christies.

Q. You’ve worked in particular with Russian and Middle-Eastern clients. How different are these two sets of ultra-wealthy?

There are actually lots of similarities between these groups. New collectors from both areas like to buy art that’s originated from their culture or part of the world. At first many new Russian clients will prefer Russian art and my Arab clients often acquire Islamic art. As both types of collector become more experienced and exposed to art, their collections expand into other areas such as contemporary and impressionist art, which is an massive trend in the art world currently.

Q. What is trending in Art currently?

High net worth interest in impressionist and contemporary art is what’s trending, particularly in Asia but also for my Russian and Middle East clients. To know this is the case, all you have to do is to look at the type of private collections being opened up around the world right now. They are all contemporary. Look at Garage in Moscow, established by Mr. Abramovich and Dasha Zhukova and Art Jameel in Abu Dhabi. It’s very positive for us all that these private individuals are willing to open their collections to the public. The art world benefits especially, because otherwise these works would remain hidden away to gather dust.

Q. You were involved in the sale of Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi last November, which auctioned for a record $450m. Why did this take so many in the art world by surprise?

Yes, I was actually on the stage next to our CEO when the final hammer fell. The excitement in the room was palpable, lots of gasps with every $100m increase in the bidding. I couldn’t quite believe the figures I was repeating to one of our telephone bidders. You  have to remember that this artwork is one of fewer than twenty surviving original paintings completed by the hands of Leonardo Da Vinci. The last Da Vinci painting, before this was discovered in 1909. There were several bidders in the room that were prepared to pay at that price, so the final price reflected the market value. In the end I’m glad that it went to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, because it means it will be on display for people to see.

Q. What are the criteria Christies use when they have to value such pieces, prior to auction?

As humans we fall in love with great stories and epic tales. Stories that tell us what has been the life of a particular artwork, who was its maker, where has it been, who previously owned it and at what point in history. Undoubtedly these details add to the romanticism, value and worth of a painting in the market. It’s our job to check these details, the provenance of a work and of course any previous auction history helps us to accurately value a piece before going under the hammer.

Q. When there are questions about the authenticity of the pieces, as some suggested about the Salvador Mundi, what methods are employed to determine originality?

Initially we will check various Catalogue raisonné – these list all the known artworks ever completed by a particular artist. If the artwork isn’t featured, then that is a worry. The provenance of the art is of course checked and we will very often consult with any of the artists’ heirs that are alive. Globally there are also established panels and committees that are experts on the works of certain artists. To be even more conclusive in our findings today, we can employ technology. We might x-ray the painting or send samples of the paint off for chemical analysis. It is certainly getting easier to determine authenticity.

Q. What is happening in London this summer that we should know about?

In early summer you can expect to find contemporary art auctions landing in June and July, whilst those who are into their old masters should visit the city in October. In London there will be a Russian Art sale in the beginning of June, which will feature some beautiful mid-19th century portraits. Make sure you’re in town then.