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by Robert Lacey

Pub Date: June 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-316-51139-0
Publisher: Little, Brown

If the world’s oldest auction house is still reeling from the art smuggling sting in Peter Watson’s Sotheby’s: The Inside Story (1997), it won’t enjoy Lacey’s gossipy, page-turning history. Lacey, author of books on Grace Kelly (Grace, 1994) Henry Ford’s automotive empire (Ford: The Man and the Machine, 1986), and Meyer Lansky’s gangster life (Little Man, 1991), is triply equipped to deal with Sotheby’s colorful directors and employees, its schemes to get the highest prices (whether for van Gogh’s Irises or Jackie O’s costume jewelry), and its sharp, sometimes dubious business practices in pursuing its ruthless rivalry with Christie’s. While Sotheby’s origins go back to Samuel Baker, a bookseller who opened his business in 1733, credit for originating modern auctioneering—particularly for cultivating the intangible value of “taste” and profiting from it—goes to James Christie, who began in 1766. The two houses coexisted peacefully until a change in Sotheby’s ownership in 1908 introduced real competition, and here Lacey’s account takes off into something like Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies crossed with Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Sotheby’s new owners quickly changed it from a collegial, somewhat pokey enterprise into a suave, cosmopolitan clearinghouse for Old Masters and objets d’art. The real force behind Sotheby’s modern transformation, and its shifting into ethical gray areas, was Peter Wilson, who joined in 1936. The mercurial Wilson, ambitious and irresistibly charming, won over the wealthy as clients and customers during the postwar art boom and established Sotheby’s in America with the takeover of Parke-Bernet, New York City’s premier auction house. Wilson also not only turned a blind eye to objects of questionable provenance, but even engaged in rules-bending directly, with the sale of the Sevso Roman silver for which three countries claimed ownership. As smooth, beguiling, and speedy as any auctioneer’s patter, Lacey’s account mounts in excitement, ending in Sotheby’s successful sale of a slice of the duke and duchess of Windsor’s wedding cake. (b&w photos, not seen) (Author tour)