John D. Ward (MA 1998) is a senior vice president and head of the silver department at Sotheby’s, which he joined in 1997. During his tenure, he has presided over the strong slate of silver sales the company has offered in New York including the Charles L. Poor sale of Early English silver, the Jaime Ortiz-Patiño sale of Lamerie silver, and the Jeffords Collection of Early American silver. His sale of the Thyssen Meissonnier Tureen was the second-highest price ever paid for silver at auction. In addition, he catalogued the English silver of the Royal House of Hanover when that was offered in Germany in 2005. He has placed works with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Gilbert Collection, Winterthur, and other major institutions in Boston, Chicago, St Louis, Dallas, Houston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, and the British National Trust. He recently talked about the BGC and his career.

What attracted you to the BGC’s graduate program?

It’s been twenty years ago now, so it is hard to remember exactly. I was in the third entering class, so there wasn’t a reputation yet. When I first visited the BGC, I perceived great energy and potential—in the building renovation, the aggressively acquiring library, the efforts the staff and faculty were talking about to develop a relationship with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the slate of upcoming exhibitions. This was in contrast to Cooper Hewitt ‘s program, which I visited at the same time and had heard more about. But that program seemed to present more of a divide between the museum and the graduate program, which was disappointing. Plus, the BGC seemed a lot more interested in me!

What was your focus of study here? How did you find yourself involved with it?

I entered as a specialist in eighteenth-century French decorative arts, which is what I had studied as an undergraduate and the area in which I most wanted to work. I tried to slant every assignment in that direction—which was difficult in Americana classes. During the summer between my two years of coursework, I had a wonderful opportunity to intern in the European decorative arts department at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I worked with the Elizabeth Parke Firestone collection of French silver, which the museum had just acquired. This was an incredibly rare chance to get my hands on pre-revolutionary French silver. I thought at the time it would be just another string to my eighteenth-century French bow, but when I graduated and was looking for a job, I had the choice between working with French furniture at Christie’s or silver at Sotheby’s—and chose the latter! It was getting to know all of the other areas of silver—from seventeenth-century German, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American, nineteenth-century European—that I realized just how sound and well-rounded my general decorative arts education had been. While I might have to still learn to read the marks, I was well aware of the stylistic trends for each of these areas.

You are head of the silver department at Sotheby’s. Describe your position.

My work is mainly relationship building; this is how we best acquire property to sell and persuade clients to buy. You have to start as a cataloguer and really learn the material—expertise is key, or why should clients listen to you? Plus, educating a client is the most subtle way of upselling them.

With my clients I just try to be frank, honest, and encouraging. And it seems to have paid off. The more you get to know collectors, or collecting institutions, the more you learn what they want or are looking for. One of the greatest feelings is when you can match the right piece with the right person. I once persuaded a collector of good nineteenth-century silver to buy a piece that he didn’t have a chance see and was unsure about. He bought it on my word, and I was happy and relieved when he called immediately upon its arrival to tell me how thrilled he was with it. Another time, a museum was so excited to get a piece at auction that they exploded into whoops and cheers in their skybox when the hammer came down. This makes for a fun job! And, of course, it is always validating when an extraordinary object makes an extraordinary price.

What projects are you currently working on?

We have just sent to press the catalogue for the Ruth Nutt collection of early American silver. This is the finest group of pre-Civil War American silver ever to come to market; we selected just over 400 lots from a collection of over 800 pieces. Cataloging, photographing, and promoting such a group has been an enormous undertaking. Ruth was an amazing and scholarly collector, a real cheerleader for American silver both in her own collecting and her work with the Seattle Art Museum. The desire to do her justice has added to the excitement. Having gone into this just after just finishing the Bunny Mellon sale, I’m relieved to have a break after the January Americana week. Next I will be getting property together for the twentieth-century Works of Art sale in March, and an English and Continental silver offering in April. The pace in the auction world can be grueling.

What’s next for you professionally?

Deadlines are always coming on you in the auction business, and I would like to have a few projects where I can take a little more time and be a little more scholarly in my approach. I hope to work with some clients on catalogues not tied to immediate sales, where there is more time to explore the provenance or other aspects of the pieces. Also, I have a list of articles I want to write and subjects I want to explore that keeps growing longer. It’s great when I can dovetail this with something I am scheduled to sell, as I can take the paid time and put the resources of the company behind it, but there are other areas I want to delve into for my own interest. When you work full time at a major auction house, these always have to come in second to the demands of the next sale or proposal.