Oliver Barker joined Sotheby’s in 1994, moving to the Contemporary Art Department in 2001, and rising to Chairman, Sotheby’s Europe, Senior International Specialist in 2016. He is a key figure on the rostrum at the major auctions in both London and New York, and was described by German news magazine Der Spiegel as ‘a figurehead of the art market’.
In 2004, he oversaw the market-defining sale of the contents of Damien Hirst’s restaurant Pharmacy: “As the sale started it was clear we were definitely on to something… The sale had an estimate of around £3 million and it made £11 million with everything sold. Importantly it established a bond of trust between Sotheby’s and Hirst.” In 2008, he brought works to auction directly from the artist’s studio for the landmark Hirst sale Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, which achieved £111.5 million and established a world record for a single-artist sale. His command of the Hirst market together with the strong relationships borne of these sales, led to Yellow Ball: The Frank and Lorna Dunphy Collection, an auction celebrating the extraordinary collection of Hirst’s business manager, mentor and ‘partner-in-crime’ Frank Dunphy, which brought a total of £10.1 million, surpassing its pre-sale estimate.
In 2008, Barker led the $40 million (RED) Auction, a major sale arranged by Bono and Damien Hirst to raise money for the United Nations Foundation to support HIV/AIDS relief programmes in Africa. Buoyed by the success of the inaugural sale and under the aegis of the charismatic Barker, the (RED) auction which was staged again in 2013 and 2018, has raised more than $71.7 million in total.
Barker has played a pivotal role in the growth of the global market for post-war British art, including for Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and the London school. The many exceptional results and records for British artists orchestrated by Barker include the 2018 sale of Lucian Freud’s late masterpiece Portrait on a White Cover which realised £22.5 million, making it the most valuable work by the artist sold in London. Previously, in 2015, Barker sold the artist’s postcard-sized painting Four Eggs on a Plate from the collection of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, estimated at £100,000–150,000, for around £1 million.
He has also taken to the rostrum many of the company’s most prestigious sales, including the landmark Bowie/Collector auction in London in November 2016, which was 100% sold, totalled £32.9 million and attracted 1,750 bidders. In our New York sale room in 2018, Barker hammered down Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, 1982 for $110.5 million – a new auction record for a work by an American artist. The following year, he sold Kerry James Marshall’s Past Times for a record-breaking $21.1 million, almost quadrupling Marshall’s previous auction record of $7.3 million.
Most recently, Barker presided over the sale of ‘the’ Banksy – retrospectively titled Love is in the Bin – which caught the imagination of the worldwide media when it was shredded by the artist at the moment the canvas hammered for £1.04 million. Displayed in Sotheby’s London galleries, the famed work by the British artist attracted 1,000 visitors per hour who came from across the globe to see the work created in what Barker termed “a brilliant Banksy moment”. In the same auction, Barker also oversaw the sale of Jenny Saville’s Propped for £9.5 million / $12. 5 million, achieving a new auction record for a work by a living female artist.