Rencontre avec Harold Hessel, d'Affaire Conclue

Meeting with Harold Hessel, from Business Concluded

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Auctioneer, Harold Hessel has made his mark on rue Drouot where, under the paneling of the famous hotel of the same name, the most precious treasures are sold. A world of velvet and old traditions where it is a question of evolving first of all like a character in a great novel of yesterday, with elegance, but never without doing too much. An art that Harold Hessel always masters in a suit, and always in navy blue. When he's not busy doing his job in the spotlight of the show Affaire Conclue on France 2, which means he indulges in a few eccentricities which, ultimately, suit him rather well.

What place does clothing play in your life as an auctioneer?

Clothes are important, because it's always good to be comfortable in life. And having style is not something prohibitive. However, I am not a full-fledged fashion fan. What interests me, more than clothes, are objects. That’s where all my attention is focused, the paintings, the furniture. The auctioneer's job consists of presenting the object that is to be sold. It is the object that should be the center of attention, not the auctioneer. You must therefore know how to remain discreet and not wear outfits that are too flashy. You have to be less elegant than the object, in a way. From this point of view, I see clothes more as a kind of uniform. I like navy blue suits.

Does this uniform say something about your character?

I come from a family of German origin, and some of my ancestors were pastors. Lutherans. Subconsciously, I think I have Lutheran reminiscences. Navy blue is a discreet color, which says something of a certain righteousness, and even rigor. It fits who I am, my character. Thinking about it, I'm a little lacking in audacity. I never had the curiosity to buy red or mustard yellow for my wardrobe. My eccentricity is in my objects. I have some completely crazy watercolors at home by a great-great uncle who was a student of the great painter Girodet. Images bordering on science fiction comics dating from 1810, with dragons, witches and bats.

What role does costume play in the auction world?

The Hôtel Drouot, in Paris, constitutes a classic, even very conservative world. We still live there as in the 19th century, a bit like Balzac. Strict costume has always been required there. It’s a code that cannot be said. It's like that. When I started working as an auctioneer's clerk in a small Parisian firm, I bought a series of suits with very light shades of navy blue and gray. And then I only wore dress shoes. This is what was expected of me. It went very well with this study, where all the furniture was in mahogany, where everything was very cozy.

Those who win the best prizes are those who remain discreet, who are always at the back of the room, where they are not noticed. This is like a form of bluff.

But there are exceptions ! The famous auctioneer Pierre Cornette de Saint-Cyr, for example, likes to wear colored pants. One color per day of the week. He was one of the first to do this and, at first, it was experienced as a terrible transgression. I also think that our Anglo-Saxon counterparts have a sartorial superiority compared to us French. They have a slightly more marked concern for elegance. But it's not a showoff. This is reflected in the choice of cuts and materials. I have real admiration for my London colleagues.

Are there people in the auction rooms whose bidding power is not suspected because they do not have any particular appearance?

In a room, when you want an object, you don't want to be seen. Those who win the best prizes are those who remain discreet, who are always at the back of the room, where they are not noticed. This is like a form of bluff. These people want to do everything not to excite their competitors in the room. If we are spotted, we attract jealousy, we arouse the envy of others, we take the risk that someone else will outbid because they think there is a good deal there, whereas he has no idea what it is about. In an auction room, everyone is on the lookout for a good deal, and everyone is on the lookout for each other. Today, major collectors or the most recognized galleries prefer to send agents on their behalf to bid. We don't necessarily know who these people are. Drouot is a world where we like anonymity.

Is clothing an item for which there are high bids in Drouot?

Until the 1990s, clothing was not really considered in the auction world. People weren't interested in that. And then in large families, we threw away, or gave to the people of the house, the beautiful old clothes we received as inheritance. We were not aware of their heritage value. This has changed. Like many other things, we realized that old linen could be worth money and even more than new linen. There are therefore more and more fashion sales in Drouot. There is a real craze for vintage things, like wardrobes from the 90s or 80s. Not to wear them, of course, but to display them.

There is an element of dream in that. A piece of clothing is a story, a universe.

Three years ago, I sold, as part of an inheritance, a set of knitted sportswear made by Hermès, for playing tennis or going to the beach. The pieces were estimated with the help of fashion experts, just as one might call upon an expert in philately or Far Eastern art. It wasn't easy to estimate, precisely, because we don't see that often on the market. 20th century fashion doesn't really have any points of reference. It is much more difficult to estimate than an old dress or a 19th century parasol found in an attic, pieces that are found more frequently. The starting price of these Hermès clothes ended up being set at around 500 euros for each of them, like a sort of poorly cut rib, and they were sold in the room at 5,000 euros. These are museums which have mainly been buyers.

Organizing a clothing sale is expensive. You have to make a particular selection, which takes into account the origin and the brands. We can't sell second-hand clothes. Today, there is a real craze for pieces worn by celebrities. When you know that you are selling something by Joséphine Baker or Mistinguette, it provokes a certain sense of wonder, and it doesn't matter if the garment pills. There is an element of dream in that. A piece of clothing is a story, a universe.

Finally, can we say that it was on the set of Affaire Conclue that your attitude, let's say, relaxed?

Quite. You have to know how to adapt to your audience. I sometimes, for example, disguise myself according to the objects for sale: I can thus find myself wearing a Storm Trooper costume or that of a bullfighter. This makes me laugh. For our Christmas show, every year I also wear what we call a Christmas sweater, with designs that are always more absurd than the others. This is my side step. It's an idea from our producer. I was very reluctant at first. I never found a Christmas sweater beautiful, it wasn't my style at all. And then I got a taste for it, and I think the viewers did too. The uglier the sweater, the more sympathetic it makes me, I think. I still wore one with flashing loupes around an embroidered Christmas tree.