by Tim Atkin

Hammer and cycle

No one, as far as Michael Broadbent knows, has ever died in one of his auctions.  But in twenty years at the Christie’s rostrum, just about everything else seems to have happened to him.  His first sale was particularly traumatic.  ‘I was put into the box at half an hour’s notice’, he remembers, ‘and I was literally sick with nerves.  The first five lots were liqueur miniatures lying in bond.  And there is nothing harder to sell than liqueurs lying in bond.

‘To my amazement one chap in the front row bought all five lots.  We took his name and address and he left.  Then a fortnight later we had a letter saying “My friend Mr So-and-So found himself sitting in the wrong sale:  he thought they were picture miniatures. Unfortunately, he was only recently let out of an institution, so would you please let him off”.  Had I known at the time, I would have lost my nerve completely.’

On another memorable occasion in the 1970s, Broadbent was taking a sale of great wines in King Street.  Aware of the threat of practical jokers attempting to scupper an auction, he became worried when ‘a rather informally clad young man came in and started bidding for all the lots.  I didn’t like the look of him, so I asked for references in the middle of the sale, which I’ve never done before.  I sold him a few but then I stopped taking bids from him because I thought he was going to wreck the sale.

‘The minute the auction was over I was ‘phoned up and told, “My client has never been more insulted. You are of course liable for defamation of character for not accepting his bids”.’  The client in question was one Andrew Lloyd Webber. Broadbent still winces at the memory.  ‘It was acutely embarrassing.  But actually the same week at Sotheby’s, one man bought the first 14 lots in an Old Masters sale, and then told the clerk it was all a joke and that he couldn’t pay.’

An informal and animated conversationalist, Broadbent is happy to tell stories against himself, emphasising a point with sweeps of his hands. Both anecdotes contradict the impression one gets of him from the salesroom floor. Part actor, part headmaster and part conductor, at the rostrum he is a commanding and seemingly unflappable presence. In person, he is more skittish and far less forbidding, sides of his personality which he indulges a little more at American auctions.  ‘In London, one tends to just get down to it.  You have 400 lots to do in two hours, so you really can’t loiter.’

It is difficult to think of a less idle man. Born into a mill-owning family in the West Riding, Broadbent hates waste and circumlocution. Every morning he listens to the weather forecast before setting off to cycle from Hammersmith into the West End.  ‘I’ve worked out the shortest route, and it takes me 25 to 30 minutes. I dress according to the weather and keep suits here in King Street.  Everything I do is a time and motion thing, whether I’m shaving in the morning or cycling to work.’

Famous for his inveterate and even obsessive note-taking, Michael Broadbent is the ideal combination of worrier and perfectionist. Although he is respected all over the wine-making world as an auctioneer, taster, writer and lecturer, he still takes criticism very personally. On the day before we met, he had been up half the night writing a letter to someone who had questioned his impartiality as a taster. This, remember, is the man who has arguably tasted as great a range of fine wines as anyone in the world, and whose books Wine Tasting and The Great Vintage Wine Book have sold a combined total of nearly 400,000 copies.

Michael Broadbent came comparatively late to the wine trade.  After a fairly undistinguished academic career (‘I can think of no one who enjoyed a longer period of education to less effect’), he decided at the age of 25 that studying architecture was not really what he wanted to do and applied for a job with wine merchants TA Layton, a post that his mother had seen advertised in The Times.

It was his handwriting (an Italianate architectural style) as much as anything that got him the job, he was told several years later. For unlike many young men entering the wine trade at the time, he had no family connections. ‘My father drank wine when he gave a dinner party, but he didn’t know anything about it,’ he says. There was nothing for it but to knuckle down: ‘I had a lot of catching up to do, and |I think that give me the stimulation to apply myself.’

Interestingly, Broadbent feels that his unconventional education, away from the Eton to Oxbridge conveyor belt, did him no end of good. ‘I feel I was untroubled.  A lot of people I come across are rather restricted by their conventional upbringing. My philosophy is that if you can imagine it, it can be done. Americans have a bit more of this than we do.’

Well, Michael Broadbent imagined getting to the top of his belatedly chosen field and set about doing it.  In his year at Layton’s he began as a factotum, sweeping out the cellars and delivering wine while learning as much about the trade as he could, reading, travelling and tasting. Nowadays, he does not have the energy to read very much in the evening, and finds most wine books reworkings of familiar material and therefore dispensable. Holidays tend to be spent in the States, ‘a few days en route to a sale in the sun somewhere’, rather than specifically in winemaking regions.  But he is still learning, he says.  There are always new wines to catalogue in that neat script.  And lecturing about wine teaches him an enormous amount.

A spell at Saccone & Speed was followed by a move to Harvey’s of Bristol, the training ground for many senior members of the trade.  And it was here that he began to blossom under the eye of Harry Waugh, who remains a great friend.  With his passion for detailed and methodical note-taking, Michael Broadbent gradually began to establish a reputation as a taster.  It was during his 11 years with Harvey’s that he wrote a pamphlet entitled ‘Notes on the Techniques of Tasting’, which later became the hugely influential and innovative Wine Tasting.  He also became a Master of Wine in 1960, a mere nine years after joining the wine trade.

How has the trade changed since those days?  ‘Oh enormously, and I think not for the better really.  On the other hand, I’ve seen things go almost full circle. First of all the brewers muscling in and buying up all the family firms. Then the brewers getting into trouble in the early 1960s when the supermarkets started getting licences.  And now the supermarkets and these boring off-licences with limited ranges have left the field wide open for small individual merchants to start up again.’

It is hard to imagine him putting away a litre of vin de table at supper.  He never gets drunk or even tipsy, one suspects, and has never been the sort of person who enjoys parties or pubs.  His business is fine wines, and he admits that he is fortunate to be in a job where he tastes virtually nothing else. ‘I do shy away from supermarket wines if by supermarket wines you mean litre bottles of plonk and so forth. I just don’t waste my time. I prefer the classics and I certainly don’t waste my time drinking wine that is cheap and nasty.’

Does he drink so-called New World wines then – Californians and Australians?  ‘I’ve had lovely Australian and Californian wines, but really one comes back to the great Burgundies and, for me, more often to Bordeaux.  It’s the sheer variety of Bordeaux that makes it interesting; there are so many dimensions.’  Though he is a committed Francophile, he speaks only halting French.  (‘I’ve tried, I’ve tried.  I’ve been to Berlitz: I’ve done all sorts of things.  I can order a meal, but I’m terribly bad.’)

Of all the great wines he has tasted, his favourite was the 1847 Château d’Yquem (which was certainly not on my local off-licence’s shelf the last time I looked).  ‘I’ve been spoiled, but the Yquem must be about the greatest. The bouquet was unbelievably good. Not just sound, it was magnificent.  It was peaches and cream and everything all rolled up into one: it was a fantastic mouthful of wine.’

Most of the ‘spoiling’ has been done in the 20 years since he joined Christie’s as head of the wine department.  (He got the job when he wrote to the chairman, having heard that the auction house was thinking of re-introducing wine sales.)  In these 20 years, he reckons that the sale of a single bottle of 1787 Château Lafitte (sic) for £105,000 last year was his most spectacular coup.  ‘It didn’t strike me as a huge sum at the time as I was concentrating on not getting out of step, as it were.  But it was fairly sensational.’

For all his obvious love of performance, what Michael Broadbent enjoys most is converting the contents of ‘a really dirty, cold, damp cellar into a catalogue.  My wife Daphne and I have packed up all the great pre-phylloxera cellars that we’ve had here.  Doing a catalogue like this is actually what I find most creative.’

Slightly surprisingly, Broadbent’s own cellar at his home near Bath is not extensive.  He keeps case stock at Trapps in London and a few rarities to drink with friends.  ‘It’s only in the last ten years that I’ve been able to afford fine wine,’ he says.  ‘And also really I’m glad that I’ve never been that rich because I’d have bought it instead of letting other people buy it.  Fortunately, I’ve now reached the stage where when people buy these wines they tend to open them when I’m there.’

It’s easy to see why collectors choose to share their treasures with Broadbent.  He is a witty and charming companion who loves to gossip. The people who work under him at Christie’s clearly like him, referring to him affectionately as ‘JMB’.  Though he can be irascible and even intemperate at times, his outbursts are usually short-lived. A sense of irony precludes pomposity.  Rival auctioneers at Sotheby’s undoubtedly respect him and talk of him as one might a slightly eccentric uncle.

One of them tells a particularly endearing story about the buyer’s premium, a ten per cent charge which Sotheby’s introduced unilaterally on wine in 1984.  Christie’s, Broadbent thundered, would never follow suit.  Never.  And if they did it would only be over his dead body.  Two years later, for a variety of reasons Christie’s did introduce a premium, prompting a slightly contrite JMB to ‘phone Sotheby’s and tell them, ‘You are talking to a dead man’.

For all the publicity and renown his hard work has brought him, Broadbent does not like large gatherings.  ‘I have always been a bit of a loner, and therefore my imagination has not been influenced by other people.  I am a performer, but I’m not gregarious.  I don’t waste my time with sports, team games or anything like that.  I feel that I am creative.’  He is an accomplished pianist by all accounts and likes to paint when he has the time, which is seldom these days.  Chopin and Mozart are his favourite composers.

He claims to be terribly unpractical; his wife mends the fuses.  Similarly, he has never had the desire to make wine.  ‘This is why I have a tremendous feeling of guilt. I feel like a theatre critic who doesn’t write plays.  It’s much easier to be at my end, on the receiving end, as it were. Emile Peynaud made the point in an article once: “Lucky old Broadbent, he deals with the beautiful women. I have to cope with the pimply babies”.’

As he approaches his 60thbirthday, Michael Broadbent has been awarded nearly every honour the wine world can bestow.  He is particularly and understandably proud to hold the French rank of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite. Retirement still appears to be some way off: he is tanned, hale and as lively as ever.  But when he does put away his gavel for the last time, how, one wonders, would he like to be remembered, as an auctioneer, a taster or a writer?

The reply is not immediately forthcoming.  Those large, surprisingly powerful hands are still.  ‘Uhm … I think really as a communicator.  I don’t think I’m one of the great tasters of all time.  That would be like me saying I’m the greatest lover in the world when I just talk about it a lot. I’m also sure that there are lots of better writers.  But the ability to communicate something is what I hold most dear. In my lectures I always say I’m not doing the talking, the wine is.  I’m merely doing the translating.  I feel a missionary zeal to try and get over the point of a wine to other people.’

First published in Wine Magazine in February 1987; image courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd

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