I longed to believe in the roller-blading. I wanted to believe that the new chairman of Christie's International really had only stopped blading to work 'when they put the gravel down in Hyde Park; they're such spoilsports in London'. Lord Hindlip stuck, smiling, to his story, throwing in a couple of marathons as well, and it gave a much more enjoyable picture of the head of the world's second oldest auction house (James Christie opened his doors to furniture and art-buyers in London in 1766, 22 years after John Sotheby had opened his book-selling business) than the oddly Dickensian character who had seemingly been the subject of the faxed briefing I had from Christie's Hong Kong office. Perhaps it was the title, or the fact that he has been with the group for 34 years, working his way up from Old Masters to the board of directors, or that I was told in advance that a full hour was needed for staff to escort him from interview at the Conrad to lunch at the China Club. But I had imagined this ex-Etonian, ex-guardsman to be far more of a staid traditionalist. Lord Hindlip took up his new position six months ago, but was well-versed for the role, after several years as chairman of Christie's in London, which is still - just - the most important office in the new auction empire that stretches to 103 offices worldwide. However, tough new taxation measures courtesy of the European Community are ensuring that Britain's days are numbered as the centre of art sales. London's number one position is being immediately challenged by New York, 'and in the future it could be Hong Kong' that is the world centre of the international art market. 'The London market became what it became because there were no taxes on works of art, not because it was a great home market - although, ironically, it is now the best it has been since I have been at Christie's,' Lord Hindlip said. 'It was a completely free market and the great selling point for us when we went all over the world was that we could tell people they would pay a relatively small commission and no tax. 'But as well as this absurd imposition - not quite a tax - on modern art called droit de suite which is meant to benefit widows or family of artists, VAT is now 21/2 per cent, then at the end of 1998 it goes to five per cent. Which means that nothing from outside the Common Market will get sent to London to sell. 'It means that we as an organisation are automatically against the European market,' said Lord Hindlip, who is in despair that neither of Britain's two main political parties are taking a stand against such 'ridiculous' Euro policies, and who admits he likes 'the anarchy' of the House of Lords, of which he became a member two years ago. The changes in European taxation would strengthen the art markets both in New York and Hong Kong. 'If Hong Kong further establishes itself as a free market after next year then you will have a very major centre of the arts market here,' he predicted. With no purchase or sales taxes, it is a real possibility that buyers and sellers from around the world will gather in Asia rather than in Europe to exchange works of art, he said. With telecommunications so advanced, it doesn't really matter where the buyers are (even though it makes for dulled buzz in the auction room itself). Neither Christie's nor Sotheby's (whose name Lord Hindlip will not utter, referring only to 'our main rivals') have let this intelligence pass them by. Scarcely a month passes without one or both of them opening up a new representative office somewhere in the region. So far, as well as Hong Kong, which they opened in 1985 and where they held the first auction the following year, Christie's have offices in Jakarta, Taipei, Tokyo, Seoul, Bombay and Kuala Lumpur, as well as another auction centre in Singapore, which is the company's Asian headquarters. Both companies are concentrating considerable effort on looking for an opening into mainland China, even though there - more than anywhere else in Asia - are local auction houses, including China Guardian, which have already established considerable credibility around the region. Meanwhile, Christie's is also concentrating its efforts on expansion in New York, and to a lesser extent in Los Angeles. In the United States there is a tax on the buyer but not on the seller. 'It sounds terribly cynical to say this is not our problem but it's not our problem when we're talking to Mr Consigner in Tokyo about selling his Picasso. He's not too fussed about what the buyer pays, but he's jolly interested in what he pays. That's human nature.' As head of Christie's, Lord Hindlip spends a lot of time travelling (that's the problem with 103 offices - you have to see them all) and described his past couple of weeks as 'lunch in New York, lawyer and a burger in LA, trip to Singapore, then Kuala Lumpur, Taiwan, museum opening in Shanghai, now Hong Kong'. Later last week he was in Tokyo, and by today he will be back in England preparing for trips to Paris and Vienna. There is correspondingly less time for him to continue doing what - for a while, anyway - he thought he did best, which is auctioneering. The auctioneer for Vincent Van Gogh's Sunflowers - those 15 precious yellow blooms which, when they fetched GBP25.5 million ($311.86 million) in 1987, were three times more expensive than any other work of art at auction before - does not get much chance to coax the bids from the wavering collectors in the salesroom any more. 'I do a bit - some Impressionists, some country houses - but the tendency more and more is to give it to specialist auctioneers in each subject,' said Lord Hindlip, who was well-known in his big auction years for always cracking open the champagne after a sale, however disastrous or successful it might have been. At the end of the month he, and Christie's, will give one of the more dangerous sales of their histories: the sale in Vienna of more than 8,000 paintings, Greek, Roman and medieval sculptures stolen by the Nazis from Austrian Jews in World War II, and unclaimed by their owners. The full proceeds, estimated to exceed GBP2.3 million, will be handed over via the Federation of Austrian Jewish Communities to Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The sale is particularly controversial because of the lengthy delays by the Austrian Government who took 24 years even to produce a list of what they held, and 51 years to organise a sale. Christie's will not be taking a fee from the sale, and they also have rules against selling such fascist memorabilia as swastikas and Hitler watercolours, which come up for auction with a depressing regularity. Lord Hindlip, with other international art-world worthies, had just returned from the opening of the Shanghai Museum of Art last weekend. 'I'd like to put in a plug for the Shanghai Museum: they've done a superb job; it's the best I've seen in Asia, and the way they have displayed the collections is fantastic.' The shape of the building is inspired by a Han Dynasty cooking vessel, he explained. 'Not everyone likes it although I think it's wonderful.' And, unlike the miserably-stocked adjunct to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Shanghai Museum has a good shop, he said. 'I want to show you something,' Lord Hindlip said, with sudden enthusiasm. And there, in a tatty box, wrapped immaculately in ironed boxer shorts, were his purchases from Shanghai: blue and white porcelain. 'Reproductions of course, but nicely done,' he said, adding that collecting, while an interest, could never be a passion. 'I have four children which is all terribly expensive; I can't spend a lot of money on things as well.' I look again at the piece of blue and white porcelain he had shown me . . . to my highly untrained eye the flowers looked like irises. Which would be more than strange. Irises, for Christie's, have strange resonances. The sale in 1990 by Sotheby's of Van Gogh's Irises for a record GBP53.9 million pushed already poor relations between the two auction houses to an all-time low. Earlier Lord Hindlip had referred to it obliquely as the 'Irises Affair', but the affair to which he referred was one where Sotheby's loaned Australian businessman Alan Bond half of the purchase price. Soon after he bought the artwork, Bond's empire collapsed, he was not able to pay for the painting and it was sold soon after for an undisclosed sum to the J. Paul Getty Museum in California. Lord Hindlip looked again at his new purchase and laughed, 'No, they're definitely lilies: I would never buy irises.'