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.

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