Alexander Gilkes has been in New York City for eight years, so by local tradition he’s an official New Yorker. He’s one of those Brits who give our town a special luster with his particularly mellifluous London accent, his impeccable taste, dashing good looks and almost infernal modesty.
He’s a doctor’s son who graduated Eton, the college that has produced more prime ministers than any other, and there Mr. Gilkes, naturally blessed with an orator’s gifts, sharpened them to a fine edge. But he will not be Eton’s twentieth prime minister or an actor like one of his celebrity classmates. At his admission interview he declared his ambition “entrepreneur.” And that’s what he’s doing in New York. “London is a great place to live,” Gilkes declares, “and Paris is a great place to dream but New York is where you make things happen. I mixed my work experience—keeping my parents happy by doing banking jobs, and keeping myself happy doing everything from working on Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to working with Mario Testino. I loved the mixture of creativity and commerce and I knew that New York would give me a chance to mix the two in the collecting and luxury economies.
Through a friend I was lucky enough to get a position with the brand Krug, where I learned everything from brand repositioning to distribution to building a team. At the same time I became fascinated by the art world and collecting. I had contact with wine collectors and I began looking at ways of modernizing collecting. I sought out a modernizer in the art world, and I found Simon de Pury who was turning around the age-old auction traditions at Phillips. We had a meeting in Paris. I sold him on the idea of doing an advert for Krug and he sold me on the idea of becoming his protégé and learning how to auctioneer and run marketing for Phillips. The timing was serendipitous. My girlfriend (now my wife) and I wanted to move to New York, so we did. I picked up the gavel and eventually made it digital.”
Gilkes was a natural, and his rapid ascent in this rarefied world could only have come about in a city that moves fast, New York minute by New York minute.
“My first auction was a baptism by fire, not knowing what a reserve was or an absentee bid.” He had, however, watched de Pury work and spent considerable time in the rooms watching sales dramas unfold. He learned how to commandeer the room, to drive the bids up. He absorbed market wisdom from Tobias Meyer, he watched Christopher Burge and studied his elegant style. Finally, Mr. de Pury announced that it was his moment. Gilkes still treasures an email from de Pury, who calls auctioneering “walking a tightrope without a net,” saying “in all my years as an auctioneer that was the best debut auction I’ve ever seen.” Gilkes adds, “It’s not very British of me to say that,” but he’s a New Yorker now. Anyway a torch was passed, and soon it would go digital.
Ironically it was Gilkes, the great young showman, the shy extrovert, who would turn the auction room virtual with his startup company Paddle8—the first fine art online auction house. It’s not Christie’s but it’s far from eBay. It’s an entirely new way to buy art and extraordinary objects. For the bidder of stealth wealth it offers anonymity. For the new art buyers and advisors it circumvents snobbery and cuts out the middleman, or at least reduces his cut. It revolutionized overhead, and above all it appealed to a generation of collectors with confidence in their own taste.
Mr. Gilkes is a collector. He always was by nature, and as his job involves the complex intersection of taste and value, he has been forced to continually educate his eye. “I’ve gone from being a magpie maximalist collecting everything from long case British clocks, to Georgian antiques, to contemporary art, to 18th-century oil painting portraits of the military, to some of the great Abstract Expressionists from America and the U.K. But I have retreated into being something of a minimalist. I want to live with fewer things.”
Fewer, perhaps, but at the same time Gilkes and his lovely wife Misha Nonoo recently converted a 19th-century French birthing table into a liquor cabinet, and he’s added artists like Franz West to his burgeoning collection while coveting Twombly and Rothko.
Mr. Gilkes is in demand, which happens when you’re successful, handsome, charming and tasteful. He loves things, almost in a spiritual way, and watches are high on his list. “The mechanical watch is a great gadget and the one piece of jewelry a man can get away with. I especially love the gray CT60. It’s masculine but has just the right formality for evening.” As an entrepreneur Gilkes lives on a tight schedule, and he relies on his watch for his impeccable punctuality. It keeps him on schedule, yet there is zero chance that it will start beeping or talking to him when he has a gavel in his hand and the next lot may bring seven figures. EXPLORE MEN’S WATCHES