SOTHEBY'S: Portrait of an Auction House by Frank Herrmann

SOTHEBY'S: Portrait of an Auction House

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This first, official, monumental history of Sotheby's succumbs finally to a surfeit of success: too many landmark sales, too many record-setting prices, too total a triumph, even, over the competition. But along the way from bookseller Sam Baker's first auction, in 1745, to Sotheby's global presence, occasions are notable. Item: ""the unsettled state of Europe,"" attendant upon the French Revolution, brings to Leigh & Sotheby, successor to S. Baker (the original Sotheby was his favorite niece's husband), the library of Prince Talleyrand and, in time, the Napoleon's book-stock on St. Helena. Item: from 1870, British foreign trade declines; heirlooms are legally freed for sale; the purchasers include ""American steel and railroad magnates, French bankers and Ruhr barons""; Sotheby's becomes the leading auctioneer of ""literary properties""--ancient codices, fine printings, autograph manuscripts. Item: the firm passes into the hands (1910) of an ambitious, well-educated, well-connected triumvirate; the Browning estate comes on the block (""Lot 166: THE LOVE LETTERS. . .""); and the Morrison ""autograph"" collection (""In the second day's sale, the B's end""--they include Michelangelo defending the design for St. Peter's--""and the C's begin. Cranach is followed by Cranmer, Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, and he by Oliver Cromwell""); and the Isaac Newton papers (many picked up for a pittance by Maynard Keynes). By this time, though Herrmann hews closely to the firm's personalities and activities, the lineaments of the latter-day scene are coming into view. Sotheby's and Christie's have, between them, made London the world center of the art market (with an assist from A. Hitler). Heavy death duties are furthering the dispersal of British holdings. Sotheby's partners conduct the auctions in style; Sotheby's experts produce reference-worthy catalogues. The firm benefits from, and fosters, increasing specialization: see Herrmann's fascinating section of the explosion of interest in Japanese netsuke. But the ultimate breakthrough comes with the great postwar painting sales (Weinberg, Goldschmidt), the upsurge in prices (sparked by the demand for modern French masters), the acquisition of Parke-Bernet. ""The apparent youthfulness of the English invaders"" occasioned surprise, Herrmann notes with some satisfaction, as did their ""energy and long working days."" It's a success story that he unabashedly tells, but stocked with zealous, idiosyncratic collectors and dealers, a panoply of anecdotes, and much 14-carat detail.

Pub Date: Feb. 23rd, 1981
Publisher: Norton