Do What You Love and Love What You Do
Ben Hanbury-Aggs ’11 finds his way through the hallowed halls of Sotheby’s
by Tony Moore
December 4, 2012
Walk through the front door of Sotheby's in New York City and the first person you'll encounter is Ben Hanbury-Aggs '11, client liaison.
Wandering away from the podium, Ben Hanbury-Aggs '11 began his
recent talk with Dickinson students by joking, "Thank you to the
Africana-studies department for allowing me the opportunity to bore
you all to death."
But in a presentation that covered everything from his early
love of Antiques Roadshow to art auctions to the most
expensive painting in the world, no one was bored. And what in fact
lay at the heart of Hanbury-Aggs' message is to not be bored in
life—to pursue what you love day to day and make it your life's
Recalling his first year at Dickinson, Hanbury-Aggs later says
he was determined to be an economics or business major—to "learn
the finance world, and everything would be wonderful." Maybe his
lack of commitment to a life of finance was apparent when he met
with his advisor, Provost and Dean Neil Weissman, because Weissman sent him to
the bookstore to see if anything else there grabbed his
"So I started alphabetically, and I picked up this book on
Aegean art, sat down with it, and I thought, 'This is absolutely
fascinating,' " he says. "And I fell in love with archaeology and
became an Africana-studies major and never looked back."
Truth be told, his love of the old and the collectible began
Antiques Roadshow and New York
"My first interest in all of this was Antiques
Roadshow," he says. "I grew up with it and was a complete
antiques nerd. The show was coming to my local auction house, and I
begged my parents to go. It was first
auction I'd ever been to, and I was hooked: the people, collectors,
all the beautiful objects."
Cut to Hanbury-Aggs' sophomore year abroad in Cameroon, where he
discovered African art, and then to the summer after his junior
year, when he flew from his home in England to New York City and
went door to door at auction houses looking for
"I stayed with a friend in New York and knocked on doors: 'Do
you need help? Is there anything I can do?' And I ended up
interning with three different dealers," he says. "It was office
work, grunt work. But I had fantastic opportunities to put myself
out there and make connections—connections I made sure to
One of them was with his future Sotheby's boss, Molly
"I went into Sotheby's—after being referred by a friend of a
friend of a friend—and again asked if there were any
opportunities," Hanbury-Aggs says. Cyphers told him that there was
an internship program but that he had missed the January deadline.
"And she asked if I had a resumé." He shakes his head at the
memory. "I was horribly underprepared. But I kept in contact and
came back just before I graduated—in a suit and tie with a stack of
resumés and incredibly prepared and was welcomed into the
"It's a dream to be doing what I'm doing," Hanbury-Aggs begins,
"and with my experience at Dickinson—the exploring, learning about
all these wonderful things that the liberal arts has to offer—I
was able to find what it was that I love."
What Hanbury-Aggs has found is his position inside the front
doors of Sotheby's as a client liaison. "Anyone who comes in has to
stop by me, where I try to make the imposing name
Sotheby's accessible to everyone." This is most
likely easier than it sounds, especially if anyone thinking
Sotheby's is even vaguely imposing has been to one of its highly
imposing evening sales.
"These are when the most fantastically wealthy and glamorous
people in the world descend on our sales floor for one night,"
Hanbury-Aggs says. "And over the course of an hour and a half
they'll buy and sell $350 million worth of the most exquisite
artwork in the world."
The most expensive painting ever sold
During a recent evening sale, Sotheby's hosted the auction of
Edvard Munch's The Scream, and Hanbury-Aggs was on hand
for an event so monumentally thrilling that he only can manage to
describe it in fragments. "The atmosphere, the buildup ... one of
the great works of art, and to be a part of that, a part of the
company," he says, flustered with the memory. "The excitement of
the painting simply being in the building."
Apparently, The Scream was in the building before
Hanbury-Aggs was aware of it, as he recalls nearly tripping over
the crate that contained it more than once before discovering what
was inside: "While I was doing research for the Fine Arts Department, I had
to go kicking past this crate, and it turned out that it had been
holding The Scream for God knows how long!"
that was his first encounter with one of the world's most famous
and important works of art, it wouldn't be his last.
"I was in the auction room when it was being sold, crammed in
the back with the rest of the staff," he recalls. "The atmosphere
in the room was amazing, building to a crescendo. It was the first
time an auctioneer had announced $100 million as an actual price."
At the end, when the winner was declared at $107 million ($119.9
million with buyer's fees), it was the most expensive painting ever
sold at auction, and the audience burst into applause.
The unknown emerges
Antiques Roadshow is filled with stories of people
uncovering treasure in their grandmother's attic, and, oddly,
Sotheby's gets some of that action as well. "Someone came in with a
piece, an emperor's seal from the Qianlong period, and it went for
millions and millions ($3,495,500)," Hanbury-Aggs says. "And
it was just from someone who came in and said, 'Is this worth
Hanbury-Aggs at this point sees a connection with this sort of
serendipitous discovery and his own experience with Dickinson and
beyond. "There are instances where my Dickinson education, lo and
behold, does come in use," he says with a laugh. "It's only looking
back that you make those connections, that you remember thinking,
'Is this thing that I'm studying going to have any ramifications on
what I do?' and the real answer is, 'Who knows?' "
But for Hanbury-Aggs, the real answer is clearly yes.