Jussi Pylkkänen, Christie's blockbuster auctioneer and Global President, will leave the auction house next year after 38 years of dedicated service.
Over the years, he has wielded the gavel for countless million-dollar artworks, including the US$450.3 million Salvator Mundi, a work by Leonardo da Vinci that still holds the auction record for a work of art.
After his departure, Pylkkänen will step into a new role as an independent art advisor. He will take Christie's rostrum for the final time in London at an Old Masters evening sale on 7 December; prior to that would be New York's marquee 20th-century art evening sale on 9 November.
Jussi Pylkkänen has been one of the most recognisable auctioneers
Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi | the most expensive painting ever auctioned
Over more than 20 years as Christie's auctioneer, Pylkkänen has presided over some of the most important sales:
- Francis Bacon's Three Studies of Lucian Freud | Sold: US$142.4 million, 2013 | Auction record for a work of art
- Jeff Koons' Balloon Dog (Orange) | Sold: US$58.4 million, 2013 | Auction record for a living artist
- Pablo Picasso's Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) | Sold: US$179.4 million, 2015 | Auction record for a work of art
- Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couché | Sold: US$170.4 million, 2015 | The second-most expensive work of art then; the buyer of Liu Yiqian, the billionaire founder of Shanghai's Long Museum
- Leonardo da Vinci's Salvator Mundi | Sold: US$450.3 million, 2017 | Auction record for a work of art up to the present
- David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) | Sold: US$90.3 million, 2018 | Auction record for a living artist
- Jeff Koons' Rabbit | Sold: US$91 million, 2019 | Auction record for a living artist up to the present
- Andy Warhol's Shot Sage Blue Marilyn | Sold: US$195 million, 2022 | Auction records for a 20th-century work of art and an American artist, both up to the present
He has also sold many of Christie's high-profile single-owner collections, including those of Elizabeth Taylor (US$115 million, 2011, auction record for a private collection of jewels); Peggy & David Rockefeller (US$835 million, 2018, auction record for a private art collection); and the legendary Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen (US$1.6 billion, 2022, auction record for a private art collection up the present).
Les Femmes d'Alger (Version O) still holds an auction record for works by Pablo Picasso
Pylkkänen presided over the sale of Andy Warhol's Shot Sage Blue Marilyn, the most expensive 20th-century art ever auctioned
The Chief Auctioneer of Christie's, Jussi Pylkkänen has been highly recognized for his charisma at the rostrum, his stage presence akin to that of an excellent actor. Deploying a combination of energy, numerical agility and crystal-clear diction, he holds the room like nobody else.
In some previous interviews, he has shared his secrets of becoming a top auctioneer:
“You need poise, control and an element of openness because you’re inviting people to this thing. You’re making them compete without pushing too hard.”
“It’s the glint in their eye, and intuition. It’s about the posture of the client, how they sit forward on the chair, how they make eye contact with you. As I look up, I know the four or five people that are definitely going to bid. Particularly at the top of the market, the stakes are very high, and you have 60 to 90 seconds to sell a very major work of art.”
“It’s a hell of a lot easier when you personally know the people that are bidding and you know, to some degree, how far they’re going to go, why they’re bidding and when they’ll stop bidding.”
Pylkkänen taking a photo with Liu Yiqian, the billionaire founder of Shanghai's Long Museum
Pylkkänen's more casual side is shown on social media
During an evening sale in New York in 2013, the billionaire jeweller and collector Laurence Graff was bidding on a Roy Lichtenstein and decided to leave at US$40 million, raising his hands in a gesture of surrender.
Knowing that he might actually want to continue, Pylkkänen looked at him, opened his hands, and said, “Are you sure?” Graff paused and replied, “All right, 42.” In the end, he went all the way to 50 and snapped up the piece.
Graff later recalled, “Jussi called me a few days later and he said, ‘You and I created history in that room.’ I’ve known auctioneers who don’t have a clue about what they’re selling but he knows every piece. He is very relaxed, holds his audience, surveys it. He’s seeking bids from the wealthiest people in the world but he’s the man.”
Pylkkänen preparing for an auction
Pylkkänen holding a tote bag with a print of David Hockney's Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)
Another attribute that makes him a blockbuster auctioneer is his composure on stage. In 2018, Christie's brought David Hockney's famed Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) to the block without reserve and any guarantee – a risky strategy that generated a buzz in the market.
Carrying an unpublished pre-sale estimate of US$80 million, ahead of the sale it was almost certain that the work would set an auction record.
The air was tense as Pylkkänen took to the rostrum for the highly anticipated sale. And Pylkkänen, in his usual playful yet tactful manner, quipped, “Everyone wants to know where I can start it, right?”
A burst of laughter followed, and he started the bidding at US$18 million. It was immediately met with a volley of bids, the price shooting up to US$70 million within a minute.
The bidding war eventually lasted for nine long minutes before Pylkkänen brought his gavel down at US$80 million. With fees, the work's final sum came to US$90.3 million, a new auction record for a work of art by a living artist.
Pylkkänen taking part in the charitable event, Old Masters Run to Beat Cancer
Pylkkänen was born in Finland, his father a copper trader in Helsinki and his mother a textiles engineer. He moved with his parents to Britain as a baby, where he has stayed ever since.
He was educated at King's College and earned an MBA in English Literature from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. During his university years, he would make money by buying minor works at Christie's and selling them to his friends' parents.
In the mid-1980s, he joined Christie's Old Masters Department and later became a specialist at the Impressionist and Modern Art Department, where he was Director from 1995 to 2005. After ten years serving as President of Christie's Europe, Middle East and Russia, he was appointed Global President in 2014.
While a top auctioneer, he is at the same time an impressionist and modern art expert, possessing deep knowledge and a vast client base in the field. In fact, his contact details are still available in that department's directory on Christie's official website.
Pylkkänen watched the sale of Van Gogh Sunflowers in 1987
Back in 1987, Christie's sold one of Van Gogh's Sunflowers in London and took home an auction record at £24.7 million. (That buyer was SOMPO, a Japanese insurance holdings company.)
At the time, Pylkkänen had just joined the firm and had to watch the sale at the top of the saleroom's grand staircase, but that bidding scene left a mark on his mind.
As he worked his way up at the leading auction house, Christie's then-chief executive Christopher Davidge spotted his talent and told him, “Jussi, people have got to know who you are. The best way to do that is to stand in front of collectors four times a year. They’ll get to know you and they’ll tell you about the works they own.”
From there onwards, Pylkkänen began his journey as an auctioneer.
After leaving Christie's, Pylkkänen will become an independent art advisor – a move in line with other former heavyweights at major auction houses.
Brett Gorvy and Dominique Lévy, for instance, formed the leading art gallery Lévy Gorvy after they departed from Christie's. They were later joined by former Asia Chairman Rebecca Wei, and the firm was renamed as LGDR & Wei in Asia.
As for Sotheby's, Amy Cappellazzo and Yuki Terase left the auction house in 2021 to form the international advisory firm Art Intelligence Global (AIG); while ex-chairperson Patti Wong launched the Hong Kong-based advisory firm Patti Wong & Associates with two former Sotheby's colleagues in 2022.