We sat down with the Head of Fine Art, auctioneer extraordinaire and Antiques Roadshow fixture Alasdair Nichol to find out how he came to Freeman’s, his favorite museum in the world and what he’s currently reading.
Introduce yourself! Your full name (embarrassing middle names and nicknames included), and job title:
Alasdair Norman Macpherson Nichol, Chairman
How long have you been at Freeman’s?
What was your path to getting here? (Where did you work/study previously)
I trained as a painter and printmaker in Aberdeen in Scotland and then received my Masters in Fine Art in Belfast. When I left art school there in 1984 I returned to Edinburgh where I had a studio and continued to paint and exhibit.
At this time I also started working with Phillips auctioneers as a porter mainly setting up antiques sales although I also did silver, Asian art, dolls and textiles, jewelry, European ceramics and—it was so long ago—even fur coats. I subsequently moved to Glasgow as head of the Fine Art department and thence to London where I specialized in Modern and Contemporary. Finally I moved to Phillips in New York to head up the fine art department in 1997 before joining Freeman’s two years later.
What first attracted you to your current field? Was there a specific work of art that initially sparked your interest?
I have no idea but I used to draw constantly and was always attracted to the arts and the visual arts in particular—odd as everyone else in my family was of a much more scientific bent.
I was taken to my first exhibition which was of work by the sculptor Jacob Epstein in Edinburgh the year I was born in 1961 so perhaps something rubbed off!
Where do you live (city/neighborhood)? If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Greenwich Village, New York City.
The Isle of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland (preferably in the summer).
Favorite artist? (Or artists, if you can’t pick just one)
The two artists who influenced me most as a painter were Max Beckmann and Philip Guston. I find their work endlessly fascinating so I will stick with them. We would be here all day if I listed all my favorites.
Favorite artwork Freeman’s has sold?
Too many over the years but ones that spring readily to mind at the moment are Cathedral by Richard Pousette-Dart dating from 1944 that we sold in 2013. The fact that it had a small tear in it caused by the young man of the house lobbing a copy of Nietzsche at it in a fit of angst only added to its appeal! A beautiful small Lee Gatch oil ‘Study In White’ sold back in 2004 was one that I coveted. I was also rather obsessed with ‘Blue and Opal, The Photographer’ by Whistler which went under the gavel in 2011.
One of the pleasures of this job is that it gives one the opportunity of living with some wonderful artworks even if only for a short time.
Favorite artwork you own? How did you acquire it?
This is moving into ‘who is your favorite child’ territory. I have narrowed it down to three: an Alan Davie oil painting that I bought from a NYC gallery, a Frank Auerbach drawing acquired at auction and a portrait of Anthonin Arthaud by Mark Reichert, an American artist who gave it to me as a gift after I helped to put on a show of his work in Glasgow.
Have you ever bought anything at an auction here at Freeman’s?
We have all sorts of rules governing Freeman’s employees bidding in our sales but once I had cleared all the requirements I found myself buying several pieces—lamps, sideboard, chairs etc.—to furnish our empty NYC apartment. I highly recommend this method to new homeowners! Our Collectors sales are a good gateway for those new to auctions.
I also bought a painting by the Philadelphia artist Bill Scott who has become a friend over the years. I am a great admirer of his work and enjoy the painting on a daily basis.
If you didn’t work in your current department, in which other department at Freeman’s would you most want to work? (Applicable skillset not a prerequisite!)
Books and manuscripts
What’s the last great exhibit you saw? (When, where)
I have been fortunate to see several exceptional exhibitions recently including: "Michelangelo - Divine Draftsman and Designer" at the Met. I was fortunate to get in early ahead of the crowds via a friend who works at the museum. One of the great exhibitions of recent years. "Edward Munch - Between The Clock and The Bed at the Met Breuer" - an artist who has always resonated with me. It’s a ‘Northern thing’...Cezanne Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London. A magnificent show that made me see the artist in a wholly different light.
What book are you currently reading?
Just started "The Rub Of Time" by Martin Amis, one of my favorite writers. Still dipping into Theft By Finding - Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris. I’ve also got Munich by Robert Harris going on my iPhone.
Favorite book (fiction or non-fiction) about art?
"Interviews With Francis Bacon by David Sylvester"
Favorite museum in Philadelphia?
Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Barnes Foundation
Favorite museum anywhere in the world?
MoMA in NYC and the Tate Modern in London. I also enjoy visiting the new Whitney Museum of American Art which is near to where I live in NYC.
You’re hosting a dinner party, and can invite any three celebrities (artists, authors, actors, etc.), living or dead. Who do you pick?
Sorry but you can’t have a good dinner party with just four people at the table so I have picked the following five guests for a party of six: George Orwell, Vivian Stanshall, Dorothy Parker, Robert Hughes, David Bowie
A friend is visiting Philadelphia for the first time and only has two days. What sights—museums, galleries, restaurants, shopping—do you recommend?
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Barnes, the Rodin Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts are all essential. Book early to try and get a table at Zahav which lives up to and even surpasses all the hype. Check out South Street and have a beer in Dirty Franks. Stop by and see us at Freeman’s and then go around the corner to our favorite British gastropub, The Dandelion. If you prefer Italian food then try Dante & Luigi’s. Philadelphia is an exceptional restaurant city so they won’t be short of great places to dine. If they have time it’s a short drive to Bucks County to see the landscape that inspired the Pennsylvania Impressionists and then see their work in the Michener Museum in Doylestown. That should keep them busy for a couple of days…