Smart Art

William, Kate, and Jay Z’s Favorite Art Star: Alexander Gilkes' World of Rock Stars and Royalty

The handsome Alexander Gilkes is one of the best-connected tastemakers on the art scene. The auctioneer talks about knowing and employing royalty, and celebrity big spenders.

Is it nice to have your friends in New York this week? I ask Alexander Gilkes, referring to Prince William and Kate Middleton, whose wedding he attended. In a meeting room at Paddle8, the online auction company he co-founded with Aditya Julka in 2011, Gilkes’s handsome face, lightly tanned from a weekend in Miami attending Art Basel, clangs very politely shut.

The dashing, 35-year-old Gilkes, who unsurprisingly made Vanity Fair’s 2014 International Best Dressed List, is one of the most charismatic players in art. He is friends not just with the heir to the British throne but also Kate’s sister, Pippa, whom he was photographed with at Soho House when she visited the city in 2012. Gilkes also moves in the kind of rarefied celebrity circles you might expect from a man who as a teenager was “genuinely star-struck” when he met Tom Cruise on the Pinewood set of Eyes Wide Shut.

Gilkes’s brother Charlie was a classmate of Prince William’s at Eton, and Pippa and Prince Harry were photographed at Charlie’s Italian wedding two months ago.

Alexander Gilkes has partied with Jay Z in Paris and toured vineyards with the rapper, too. In Paddle8's early days, Robin Williams curated the site's first online exhibition (Paddle8 has since pivoted to focus exclusively on online auctions), and Gilkes is close friends with Williams’s son Zak. “Robin had us blubbing with laughter all the way through one dinner,” Gilkes recalls. “He made endless jokes about guacamole, and my arms, which are significantly less hairy than his, which he traced back to an ape that wasn’t as hairy as the ape he was descended from. It was an honor and a pleasure to work with Robin—his curation reflected not only his trademark wit, but a deep sensitivity to the dialogue between works of art.”

At Paddle8—where lots are generally priced between $2,000 and $100,000, featuring hot contemporary artists and the cheaper “editions” work of star names like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst—Gilkes has employed Princess Eugenie, daughter of Prince Andrew and the Duchess of York.

He is as well-connected with rock stars as he is with royalty. Lana Del Rey played at his wedding to the fashion designer Misha Nonoo, while James Middleton, Kate and Pippa’s brother, as well as Eugenie and her sister, Beatrice, were in attendance.

On Tuesday, Gilkes—dressed when we meet in a gorgeous cream sweater and blue trousers—was photographed, besuited, embracing Kate Middleton at a lunchtime function, and was also at the final New York social engagement William and Kate attended Tuesday night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an evening in aid of their alma mater, St Andrews University in Scotland. Part of it was an auction, overseen by Gilkes, with lots donated by such luminaries as golfer Jack Nicklaus and novelist Ian Rankin.

Later this week, one of Gilkes’s team—he is too busy—will travel to Los Angeles to oversee Rihanna’s charity auction in aid of her Clara Lionel Foundation. Gilkes is Elton John’s go-to choice of auctioneer at his Oscar night viewing parties, and for the auctions at his annual New York AIDS fundraising gala, which this year raised $3.7 million.

“I can’t comment,” Gilkes says firmly when I ask if he is seeing William and Kate when they are in town, before ’fessing up to overseeing the St Andrews auction. “I’m the son of a doctor, and the key to working in the art world is to have boundaries of discretion,” he adds, looking down and very serious for a moment. “If you can’t act in a discreet manner, you won’t have a long career. I respect people’s privacy. Celebrity is not something I consciously pursue.” There is charm, oodles of it, but also a steeliness about Gilkes.

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It is not strictly true that he forswears celebrity. He was asked to a join a raft of trendy male faces for Ferragamo’s latest campaign, “A Man’s Story,” featuring, among others, the actor Douglas Booth and artist Ryan McGinley, who have—the company says—“made their own rules in finding success in their passions.” The pictures of Gilkes emphasize, quite rightly and inevitably, his classic good looks.

But he demurs on whether this self-promotion means anything more than something nice that he feels flattered to be asked to take part in. His wife tells him off “’cos I don’t tell her anything. I’m a bit of a vault of secrets. I’m a victim of English reserve, which is slightly in contrast to how I communicate when I auction.” (Translated: On stage, he’s an energetic, joke-telling riot.)

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As for Princess Eugenie working for Paddle8, and the tabloid attention the appointment received, Gilkes says: “She has been nothing but an amazing asset. We operate with a full meritocracy. She has been formidable from start to finish, and is one of the hardest workers in the company. We’ve tried to be very respectful of her privacy.”

As for her getting “papped” relentlessly on New York’s streets when the job was first announced, Gilkes says he wasn’t expecting so much attention in the States: “Maybe in Britain, but not here. We turned down every request for interviews with her.”

It’s an odd tightrope for Gilkes. He cannot be too discreet because, as he all too well knows, he is building a brand, both professional and personal, much of which is contingent on his and Paddle8’s proximity to celebrity, the rich, and the super cool.

The auction industry hasn’t changed in 300 years, he says, and starting the company in New York rather than London wasn’t just about New York being “the true center of the art world” but also because “there is an abundance of the word ‘yes’ here. It’s a very transactional society. Everyone finds ways to connect.” Sixty-five people work in Paddle8’s open-plan New York office near Astor Place, with smaller teams in Los Angeles and London.

“The intention is to create a 21st century auction house,” Gilkes says. With Paddle8 you don’t need a physical space to exhibit work, or auctioneers, installations, installation teams, or expensive catalogs. Paddle8 already has a “sticky collector base who are addicted to the site,” he says.

Initially these were individuals “from higher net worth circles,” he says, especially as the site launched with benefit auctions. “We wanted to service major museums, foundations, and galas, and the members of their boards and trustees. I think now we have the very occasional buyer who sacrifices their annual holiday for an art purchase.”

Paddle8 works better than a smaller regional auction house because it is nimbler and its costs—to the seller and buyer—are lower. If an item doesn’t sell, there is no public record. People just can’t go online and bid willy-nilly, Paddle8 conducts credit checks on all its users: “We have to make sure every bid is legitimate.” Its first sale was a Dan Colen work, which sold for “something like $120,000 or $150,000.”

Next, as long as the items featured Paddle8’s “standards of taste and trust,” the site will launch verticals for sneakers, watches, and jewelry. Aware that what the site misses is the sense of theater and cliffhanger excitement that memorable live auctions have, Paddle8 is looking to conceive of ways to replicate the live drama of bidding, of telling those involved, “You’re currently the winning bidder” and such. Artists like Hirst, a Paddle8 backer, and Emin realize, Gilkes says, that Paddle8 serves as a “great platform and audience” for their lower-value works, while Paddle8 benefits, obviously, by association.

The most intriguing of high-spending buyers entering the art market now, he says, are not the Russians, as many might think, but the super-rich of Silicon Valley. “There is such a vein of intelligence and deeply steeped expertise among them,” he says. “They do not like to be called out on their ignorance in any field. In terms of entering the art market, that can create a barrier, but the online movement in art-buying provides channels to them to improve their knowledge and enable them to be better informed when they make that first purchase.”

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The debonair Gilkes grew up in London, the older of two brothers and the son of a prominent dermatologist (father), and “great connector and mother hen” (mother). His father, he says, was a very practical man “who always fixed the punctures of our bike tires, allowing us a little more time to be creative. My father said, ‘You can work extraordinarily hard in medicine like me and have a private practice, which is a hard slog in many ways, but the most important thing is to do what you love.’”

Gilkes attended Eton, the powerhouse finishing school of the upper classes, famed for creating business and political leaders like British PM David Cameron and superstar actors with floppy fringes like Eddie Redmayne. Yes, Redmayne and Gilkes are buddies; Gilkes attended the New York premiere of the Stephen Hawking drama The Theory of Everything and wished Redmayne good luck for awards season.

“I’m aware, and very thankful, of the opportunities Eton gave me,” says Gilkes. “At 13, you’re sitting next to a former prime minister, listening to the Three Tenors give a live performance, and your rowing lake [Dorney] becomes the rowing lake for the Olympic Games.”

Gilkes’s father “made it very clear” he should make the most of his time at Eton, and as well as firing his entrepreneurial urges, says Gilkes, the school provided the foundation for his commitment to Paddle8’s philanthropic efforts, in the socially minded work it encouraged its pupils to do.

The first art show that moved Gilkes was the headline-grabbing, controversy-courting Sensation at London’s Royal Academy in 1997, which featured such works as Tracey Emin’s tent of stitched sexual confession and Damien Hirst’s severed cow’s head surrounded by flies. Then Gilkes immersed himself in the Old Masters at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg.

Early jobs at Krug and LVMH acquainted Gilkes with the luxury market, and brands were beginning to realize the lucrative associations that celebrity and art, and art and fashion, could yield. His mentor, former Krug CEO Mark Cornell, told him before taking him on that he could see Gilkes was “young, naïve, and clearly very ambitious.”

Gilkes says from an early stage he enjoyed spotted trends. He told Cornell that Daniel Craig would be the next James Bond before that was a reality. He took Jay Z to Krug’s vineyards when Jay Z was a passionate wine collector.

Now, just as avid an art collector, Jay Z spoke about the meeting of cultural worlds (and rapped about them) in “Picasso Baby”.

Gilkes saw the convergence of art, fashion, and celebrity up close: He notes Louis Vuitton’s design partnerships with artists like Takashi Murakami and Richard Prince, and Lady Gaga collaborating with Jeff Koons for the art for her ARTPOP album. Miami Art Basel is packed with celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Miley Cyrus.

Jay Z, Leonardo DiCaprio (also in Miami, sighted leaving a club with 20 women), and Owen Wilson are all dedicated art collectors. Many of DiCaprio’s purchases hang, or are situated, in his Hollywood home, Gilkes has heard. Each world—celebrity and art—gets what Gilkes calls “cultural validation” from the other.

In 2008, Gilkes joined Phillips, eventually becoming its chief auctioneer. Working there gave him his first experience of attention (he was much younger than your typical auctioneer). So Gilkes must like performing a bit, I josh. He does, but again insists he’s not doing anything to gain attention, even if he is. He’s just trying to do it in the least obnoxious way possible. “It is important for people to know about Paddle8. We need to be visible,” he says.

The company’s PR team filters most of the offers that come in for Gilkes, “because we can’t overshadow the brand.” Those clients who come to Paddle8 to buy and sell works privately for fees in excess of $100,000, something that is happening more and more, have to feel such sales are being handled with discretion.

Gilkes doesn’t see Paddle8 supplanting the big auction houses, in terms of the blockbuster price records seen last month at Christie’s. “For your $30 million Ruschas and $60 million Rothkos, you need to see the quality of the frame and brushstrokes,” he says. “We want to be the global auction house for the new collector at lower price points and create a more liquid market.”

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Gilkes and Nonoo have been married for two years and were together for 10 years before that. He converted to Judaism for her. They don’t have children. Does he want them? “Very much,” he smiles. “I am pushing that agenda.” He was 23 when they met, she 17, and both working at a luxury services company, Quintessentially. “She was on an internship, I was building a Russian buyer base. Most of our time there was spent courting each other,” he says.

The couple lives in a townhouse in Greenwich Village on a street Gilkes marked as the one he wanted to live on five years previously. The home is filled with much-cherished “bric-a-brac,” as Gilkes puts it: a 19th century birthing table, French farmhouse tables, 18th-century portraits, and the work of their favorite contemporary artists—his current is photorealist painter Mike Bouchet.

“One trend I am seeing is a move away from abstract to figurative works,” says Gilkes, as well as a concordance in prices for work by much-hyped first-time artists alongside the smaller works of blue-chip names like David Hockney and Barbara Kruger.

If Art Basel in Basel is about the “stealth wealth of the serious collector,” Gilkes says, and Miami, the more ebullient, party-loving gaudily-dressed cousin, the celebrities getting involved in this high-spending circus have been canny enough to find good advisers to filter out what will accrue value and accord with their clients’ aesthetic tastes. “There is a certain cultural kudos attached to collecting today,” Gilkes says. “But while that level of ‘haute couture’ is building the market, we want to be seen as more prêt-à-porter.”

Fine, but there are lunatic sums of money being spent on art, surely? “It is extraordinary that in one week of contemporary art auctions almost $2 billion worth of art was sold,” he says. “My father questioned the hundreds of thousands spent on cans of feces [by Piero Manzoni]. It’s hard for outsiders to imagine, but internally it’s become a desirable asset class.”

Some might say there is also an obscenity to it, given the amount of poverty in the world. “There’s a similar reaction to all kinds of über-luxury purchasing habits,” he says, “but the luxury world is built off what we don’t need to have, the non-essentials of life, and seeing so much money spent on those creates a negative reaction.”

Gilkes says the charity auctions Paddle8 does are “extremely important” for this reason. “Selling a $900,000 artwork to someone who made that money in a week, knowing that $900,000 is going towards combating AIDS, is immensely rewarding,” he says.

By 36, Gilkes says, he would like to have children, with his first entrepreneurial success behind him. If his 20s were about traveling and his 30s “about taking stock,” he hopes his 40s will be about “building and expanding.” He’s very interested in Spotify, and tech and innovative, landscape-reshaping media companies born out of dorm-room beginnings. He would like to set up an independent film distribution company that targets consumers directly.

If his life sounds absurdly glamorous, he says the glittering nights out are payoffs to “the earnest quality of my day-to-day output.” He is still awed at the silence in a room when David Beckham (“that silence is 70 percent female”) or Bill Clinton (both genders) walks in.

Whatever, when his life of art, fame, and flashbulbs has calmed, Gilkes has one dream. “I want to retire in Minorca, to an old, coastal Iberian farmhouse, with donkeys and llamas, surrounded by children, grandchildren, friends, and interesting company.” Of course that “interesting company,” alongside the grazing goats, will probably number the odd royal and Hollywood celebrity. It will be the hottest farmhouse for miles around.