Put it in your suitcase

Nicholas Penny

  • Sotheby’s : Bidding for Class by Robert Lacey
    Little, Brown, 354 pp, £20.00, May 1998, ISBN 0 316 64447 1
  • Sotheby’s : Inside Story by Peter Watson
    Bloomsbury, 325 pp, £7.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 7475 3808 5

Most great Old Master paintings have been sold several times at public auction over the last three centuries, many have been sold more frequently and only a few have escaped auction altogether, usually by passing through some other form of public sale or by changing hands privately. I thought this was common knowledge but in Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class Robert Lacey assures us that there had never been a ‘tradition of selling ... classic, museum-quality masterpieces at auction – at Christie’s or anywhere else’ before the end of the First World War, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s became rivals in auctioning Old Masters. His book is intended for those who watched the sale of the Windsors’ possessions on Channel 4 last year and much emphasis is placed on the novelty of selling the sherry glasses and cuff-links of celebrities – bits of the ‘brilliantly flawed lifetimes’, as he puts it, of the dreadful Duke and Duchess.

Peter Watson’s Sotheby’s: Inside Story is also related to a television programme – one that appeared the year before, in 1997. Here the auction house was accused of conniving in the sale of illegally excavated and exported antiquities and of organising the smuggling of Old Master paintings. By contrast the Windsor sale was squeaky clean. No problems with provenance. The stuff was bought from the Duchess of Windsor’s executors by the owner of Harrods (net proceeds went to the Dodi Fayed International Charitable Foundation). However, it doesn’t take much imagination to predict a lurid future for this sort of auction: the Princess’s underwear; Monica’s dress; toothbrushes of the stars. Perhaps they could be auctioned on the Internet. As with the craze for autographs in the 19th century – in which Sotheby’s also played a large part – pilfering, forgery, the shady supplier, the scientific test will soon add interest to the business.

Some artists reluctantly disposed of their stock by auction in the 16th century, but the art auction as we know it was probably invented in the Netherlands in the 17th century. It was the most efficient way to sell a complete collection after death or bankruptcy. Paris was the first modern city where magnificent collections were formed by the nobility without any strong desire that they should remain for ever part of the family’s property. The major auctions of such collections held there in the 18th century were highly fashionable events (with elegantly produced and highly informative catalogues), which attracted international buyers, many of whom attended in person. The most important and glamorous sales have always been posthumous dispersals of great collections or great houses – the latter have a special poignancy, stimulating both nostalgia and democratic vengeance, satisfying all sorts of curiosity. The Windsor Sale, although it involved relatively little art, belongs in this tradition.

Another reason for the invention of the art auction, and a more important factor in its evolution in the 17th and 18th centuries, was the convenience of dealers. Once a large international art trade had developed, auctions, and auction houses with compendious premises for storage, exhibition and bidding, became essential, especially as few dealers in 17th-century Holland or 18th-century London had their own shops – many of them were speculators in, or exporters of, a variety of luxury goods. Routine auctions, the ones that don’t usually attract newspaper coverage, have traditionally been conducted for the benefit of the art trade.

The best part of Lacey’s book is the portrait of Peter Cecil Wilson, third son of Sir Mathew ‘Scatters’ Wilson, Bart. PCW became a porter in the furniture department at Sotheby’s in 1936, was allowed to catalogue and market an important sale of antique rings the following year, and then, in December 1938, used some of his wife’s inheritance to purchase a shareholding and become a director. After the war he was made head of the paintings department. Then, as chairman, he engineered the expansion of the firm, most notably its purchase of Parke-Bernet of New York in 1965. He retired to the South of France in 1979, two years after the firm became a public company. Lacey describes Wilson’s charm and his tantrums, his cheerful cynicism and fierce ambition, very well. But his analysis of Wilson’s achievements is thin: ‘the business that he wanted was the huge mainstream of the art market. He thirsted for the retail trade dominated by dealers, buying at auction and selling on to customers.’

The Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures from the Goldschmidt collection sold by Wilson in 1956 and 1958 might well previously have been sold by dealers; and by then Sotheby’s and Christie’s were also handling individual sales of great Old Master paintings: Velázquez’s Juan de Pareja, sent by the Earl of Radnor to auction at Christie’s in 1970, was just the sort of painting that would have been sold before the war to the dealer Duveen. The introduction of a buyer’s premium at London sales in 1975 by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s made the new strength of the auction houses clear to the outraged dealers. But some of the information Lacey supplies doesn’t quite fit this simple tale. It transpires that during the Sixties, in order to retain the flow of good Impressionist and Post-Impressionist pictures, Wilson relied on advance payments to the Parisian dealers Stephen Higgons and his wife, who obtained paintings from other dealers and runners who wanted immediate payment. The full extent of the Higgons account was concealed from the firm’s financial director. Then, during the mid-Seventies, there was a row with the next financial director over the extended credit allowed to favoured dealers who were buying regularly from the firm, an arrangement Wilson regarded as essential. Most interesting of all is Wilson’s own conduct in retirement, when he sold shares in Sotheby’s without warning, and at a highly damaging moment, in order to invest in the Sevso treasure, the spectacular late antique silver ewers and platters to which his attention had been directed by the dealer Rainer Zeitz. When Wilson died in 1984 he himself had become a dealer, confident that the Getty Museum would buy the treasure (and unaware of the fact that the Museum had discovered that the Lebanese export licences were forged).

Shortly after Wilson sold his shares Sotheby’s had to fight off a takeover bid launched by Marshall Cogan and Stephen Swid, kings of the felt underlay industry. The firm was acquired instead in September 1983 by Alfred Taubman of Detroit, whose fortune derived from shopping malls. Lacey met ‘Chairman Al’ on the ‘38th floor of his elegant Fifth Avenue office tower’. Taubman was in ‘philosophical mood’, musing over plans for ‘an art merchandise marketplace unlike any other in the world’. Lacey was impressed. Art dealers, he tells us, are already like ‘high-street grocers trying to square up to the supermarkets’. It’s an odd analogy, because supermarkets aren’t thronging with grocers, and yet auction houses today are – as they always have been – chiefly populated by dealers (except perhaps when Jacqueline Onassis’s shoes are on view). Very few people who aren’t dealers (and very few dealers who are acting for collectors or museums) go to sales. Moreover, most sales consist largely of goods consigned by dealers.

The auction houses have made major contributions to scholarship. The special exhibition of Rembrandt etchings mounted by Sotheby’s several years ago was a landmark in the study of this artist’s technique. The catalogue of Christie’s furniture department almost always includes some exciting new research – unpublished information on the activity of a neglected ébéniste or the origin of mother-of-pearl veneer. These publications do more to promote curiosity about how things were made and used than many museum displays. The knowledge possessed by dealers has never been so publicly available and they have never had the advantage of the very close relationship with curatorial scholarship that the staff in auction houses have enjoyed.

Lacey devotes an early chapter to Charles Bell, Keeper of the Department of Fine Art at the Ashmolean Museum, who between 1920 and 1924 spent one day a week cataloguing Old Master drawings and paintings (especially British portraits) at Sotheby’s to a completely new standard. Lacey depends here, as in all his pre-Wilson chapters, on Frank Herrmann’s superbly researched and richly detailed 1980 history of Sotheby’s. Thereafter his book pays little attention to the experts, but they are an important reason for the powerful position of London auction houses. A great scholar of Renaissance art, Philip Pouncey, left the British Museum in 1966 to work for Sotheby’s: this could only have happened in London – in the USA a curator of his standing would have been far better paid and thus unlikely to be tempted by such an offer, and a state employee on the Continent (certainly in Paris) would never have contemplated a move of this kind.

Such expertise does mean that it is far safer for a collector to buy at auction than it used to be. Perhaps more important, it makes it feel safer to collect as an investment – this may be something for which Wilson was responsible. The danger lies in the information available on the work of art’s recent history. At the sale of a single collection the recent history of the objects is perfectly clear, but in other sales it tends to be anything but. A dealer does not want it known that an item has languished unsold for a decade in a shop, or that another item was offered but did not sell at auction the previous year, nor does he want the price he very recently paid for a third item in Oslo or Monaco to be easily discovered. Private consignors may wish to be anonymous for other reasons: above all, a reluctance to publicise their wealth or their loss of it. There are of course other, less reputable reasons for obscurity.

Lacey, it seems, has been listening to the people in marketing: ‘Gucci, Moët, Hermès, Chanel and Polo by Ralph Lauren – they all play the same game.’ Sotheby’s will doubtless be following these ‘possessors of perceived poshness’ in franchising their name and we can look forward to Sotheby’s chocolates and life insurance. The original prestige of a label relates to the product it identifies. Moët controls what goes into its bottles. Sotheby’s cannot be so sure about what goes into its sales. The important label, furthermore, isn’t Sotheby’s but Windsor or Rembrandt. The more the marketing people push the idea that you are buying from, not merely through, the auction house, the more they insist on the Sotheby’s label, the more liable the house name is to be damaged by the discovery that the Corot you bought was confiscated by the Nazis or that that little bronze was smuggled out of Turkey. It would be interesting to know how the expanding ‘client advisory’ departments propose to cope with this increasingly difficult problem, currently paralysing curatorial departments in museums.

These ‘client advisory’ departments alert you to suitable works coming up for sale, bid for you, supervise framing and cleaning, tell you what to sell when your mother falls ill – services also provided by dealers. They offer financial advice as well. You may feel so relieved after hearing their advice on school fees (I’m surprised, by the way, that no one has thought of founding a Sotheby’s or Christie’s boarding school in North America) that you take a cruise with Sotheby’s lecturers, leaving your works of art in their security warehouse.

If you have inherited a castle, some Canalettos, a library, some Chinese porcelain, a wine cellar and a lot of ancient farm machinery, as well as dilapidated cottages and a complicated dispute with the Inland Revenue about family trusts, then the expert advice the great auction houses can provide is sure to be very welcome. But there is, or should be, a question of how disinterested their advice can be, given their need to sell major works at record prices. It’s not hard to find small specialist firms that advise on ‘chattel management’ as well as art investment, and are run by staff who have recently left the auction houses. In fact, one of the biggest problems the auction houses have is the efficiency with which they breed their own competitors. The art world changes all the time, but not in the ways Lacey suggests. The biggest institutional spender on art in recent decades, the Getty Museum, has consistently bought at auction (using dealers), but also from dealers and (most often using dealers) from private collectors. It is no closer to the auction houses now than it was twenty years ago.

The really big change is the shrinking of the colossal London art market, which is estimated to employ between forty and fifty thousand people. ‘The guiding principle has always been to follow the money,’ Lacey tells us. But if that were true the art market would have left for New York long ago. It’s going now because the EU, anxious for uniformity, insists on 5 per cent VAT for imported works of art (the UK has been permitted 2.5 per cent for the last five years) and will impose the 2-4 per cent ‘droit de suite’ levy on the sale of works by modern artists to benefit the artist’s family for 70 years after their death. Some sales will continue to be held here and perhaps many experts will stay (to keep an eye on those castles, among other reasons). But VAT, combined with the dwindling supply of major works, has already had an obvious effect. Great Old Master drawings (to take one example) are no longer auctioned in London. There must be many British artists who only sell well in London but their works can be viewed here and then bought over the telephone outside Europe. Meanwhile the nature of auctions and of cataloguing is being transformed by information technology and digital imagery. This should also facilitate the detection of stolen property and the prosecution of restitution claims.

Peter Watson tells us the British Museum was concerned more than a decade ago by the appearance of Apulian vases with no provenance at Sotheby’s sales. The Italian police have abundant evidence of the methodical and ruthless destruction of archaeological sites by illegal excavations. Watson, making careful use of documents illegally removed from Sotheby’s by a disgruntled employee, identifies the dealers responsible and their warehouse in Geneva. Even as we congratulate him we must marvel at the complete indifference, or incompetence, or impotence, of the British authorities. Then there are the sculptures torn by force from obscure villages in India, where they were still used in worship. These, too, turn up in London and there is no official agitation.

Explaining what is wrong about illegal excavations is not as exciting to watch on television as tracing the villains and exposing the hypocrisy of smooth senior executives. And anyway, as Watson reminds us, it costs a lot to take a film crew to India. But it should have been possible to establish more of a distinction between this sort of operation and the smuggling of a minor Italian painting on the initiative of a (fictional) private individual. Smuggling on a private level to avoid duties isn’t seen as any more disreputable than fine-dodging, which car-owners regard as a sport. We all feel sorry for the Sicilian at Kennedy Airport sorrowfully watching the chain of sausages extracted from his overcoat, and are thoroughly pleased with ourselves if we get a silver necklace of modern manufacture out of Asia. Modest impediments to the rapacity of the state at times of family distress – the concealing of heirlooms, for example – are also regarded as fair play, if not a natural right, at all levels of society in most countries. Sotheby’s flamboyantly cynical man in Milan, who was secretly recorded recommending the best way to get your heirlooms across a frontier, would have seemed less unsympathetic if we had been shown the forms to be stamped, the agents to be paid, the hours of waiting that legal export would have entailed. Fifteen years ago, when it was easy to buy good 19th-century drawings fairly cheaply in Paris, some dealers refused to sell them to you if you wanted to go through the correct export procedures.