Icons & Innovations: Sotheby's: Sales if the Centuries
March 1744Samuel Baker conducted his first auction, a book sale, in London; today he is credited with having founded Sotheby’s at this time. However, the name Sotheby did not appear until 1778, when Baker died and his nephew John Sotheby inherited the company.
This was the year in which Sotheby’s began gaining notice for more than book sales. In May, Sotheby’s auctioned the effects of poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the prize of which was the collection of love letters they wrote to each other before they eloped. In addition to generating great public interest, the total sale garnered £28,000 (the letters accounted for £6,350 of that figure), which, according to Robert Lacey’s 1998 book Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class, exceeds $3 million in modern dollars. Lacey also reports that the following month, Sotheby’s sold a Frans Hals portrait on the same day that Christie’s auctioned two other works by the Dutch artist. Sotheby’s fetched £9,000 for its Hals, a handsome sum that outpaced the prices paid for the rival house’s offerings.
The sale of the Goldschmidt collection of Impressionist and modern paintings handily trumped the records Sotheby’s had set just 15 months earlier with its £326,520 sale of Wilhelm Weinberg’s van Goghs. Sotheby’s first evening auction since the 18th century and its first to specify black-tie for attendees, the event included only seven artworks and lasted only 21 minutes, but it earned a staggering £781,000. Noted collector Paul Mellon, acting through an agent, set a new record for a painting at auction when he bid £220,000 for Cézanne’s Garçon au Gilet Rouge (Boy with the Red Waistcoat).
New York auction house Parke-Bernet sold one of Rembrandt’s finest works, Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, to the city’s Metropolitan Museum for $2.3 million, then an astronomical sum to pay for a painting. For years, Sotheby’s had been attempting to merge with or acquire the American house, and in 1964, it finally purchased Parke-Bernet but retained the name. Less than two decades later, Detroit native A. Alfred Taubman acquired Sotheby’s. He eliminated the Parke-Bernet name and shifted the auction house’s headquarters from London to New York.
On the surface, it was an auction of Impressionist and modern paintings, and it did very well indeed, fetching a then-record total of $37.4 million for the Matisses, Degases, and Cézannes that went on the block. More significant was the sale’s effect on one audience member, Taubman, a mall-building magnate from Detroit. The glittering event helped convince him to purchase Sotheby’s itself, which he did five months later. Taubman introduced innovations that transformed Sotheby’s, but he stepped down as chairman in February 2000 following his conviction for his role in the price-fixing scandal that ensnared Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Although Taubman served 10 months in prison and was fined $7.5 million, he retained financial control of Sotheby’s until September 2005, when he sold his 14 million shares of Class B stock and 7.1 million shares of common stock back to the auction house for $168 million. (The Class B stock, also called “super-voting” stock, was designed to protect Sotheby’s from an outside takeover.)
Sotheby’s sale of the late Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis’ effects obviously was going to draw attention, but nobody could have predicted the incredible spectacle that it became. Sotheby’s sold 105,000 copies of the 28-pound sale catalog, more than 40,000 people visited the presale exhibit, and bidders displayed a remarkable willingness to pay absurd prices for a memento of Camelot, however trivial. A lot featuring five etiquette books, which Sotheby’s estimated would sell for as much as $600, ultimately went for $18,400; the first lady’s engraved silver Tiffany tape measure, estimated at $500 to $700, was hammered down for $48,875; and perhaps most notoriously, a three-strand fake pearl necklace of hers sold for $211,500, far more than the $700 to $900 value Sotheby’s had assigned it. Together, the 1,301 lots drew $34.5 million, more than eight times the total presale estimate of about $4 million. The auction house’s president and CEO, Diana “Dede” Brooks, wielded the gavel during the four-day sale. Brooks later was convicted for her part in the price-fixing scandal that tarred Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and resigned from the company in February 2000 on the same day that Taubman relinquished the chairmanship. She served six months’ home detention, performed 1,000 hours of community service, and paid a fine of $350,000.
Sotheby’s was readying for an epic April sale of the late Malcolm Forbes’ 180-piece Fabergé collection, which included nine of the 50 known Fabergé eggs, when Russian billionaire Victor Vekselberg purchased it privately. No one involved with the transaction has disclosed the price Vekselberg paid, but the collection’s presale value had hovered around $90 million, with one item, the Coronation egg, expected to fetch as much as $24 million before Sotheby’s canceled the auction. The house announced the sale in early February and exhibited the Fabergé pieces in New York later that month, to allow Americans a last look at them before they departed for their new home. Russia had 10 eggs in its possession prior to the Sotheby’s sale, all of which belonged to the Kremlin.