IN 1958, AT the great Goldschmidt sale at Sotheby's, London, an anonymous buyer paid 220,000 pounds for Cezanne's Garcon au Gilet Rouge. In our day, when Juliet and Her Nurse by J. M. W. Turner went for $6.4 million, the Cezanne seems a bargain. But in 1958, the 220,000 pounds was the largest price ever paid for a modern picture at auction.
Shortly after, John Carter of Sotheby's lunched at the Metropolitan Club in Washington with Paul Mellon, the collector and philanthropist. Frank Hermann in Sotheby's: Portrait of an Auction House, writes that the conversation went like this:
Would he, Carter asked, "be right in congratulating Mr. Mellon on buying a certain wonderful picture -- the Garcon au Gilet Rouge?"
"Did I," Mellon asked by way of reply, "pay too much?"
Before Carter could say no, Mellon added, "You stand in front of a picture like that, and what is money?"
This story about the National Gallery's great benefactor explains best why Sotheby's worldwide auction sales last year amounted to $573 million. In this world where money means less and less, people are going back to the ancient habit of laying up treasures on this earth. Though the blockbuster-auction sales attract the most attention, almost 80 per cent of the goods sold by the American Sotheby's have brought less than $1,000, and some 60 percent were sold for less than $500, according to the recently published, The Official Sotheby Parke Bernet Price Guide to Antiques & Decorative Arts, edited by Charles C. Colt Jr. (Fireside Books/Simon and Schuster, $9.95). Another similar and equally useful book is The Kovel's Antiques Price List, by Ralph and Terry Kovel (Crown, paperback, $9.95).
Great collections, such as Bernice Chrysler Garbisch's, auctioned not long ago on the Maryland Eastern Shore, are increasingly sold at auction rather than given to a museum or kept by the fortunate heirs. A new accumulation seems to go under the ivory hammer every day.
Sotheby's had its start as a book auction house, founded in 1745 by Samuel Baker, a London bookseller. Baker was later joined by his nephew Samuel Sotheby who gave his name to the company. Perhaps Sotheby's bookish beginning accounts for the fact that Herrmann's history of the house includes long lists of volumes sold, which seem to fascinate Herrmann, a bookseller himself, but were wearisome to me.
Herrmann is the fifth person to start a history of Sotheby's and the first to succeed at the job. His book is obviously the authorized version, with the full cooperation and encouragement of the company. Still, he says the research alone took him seven years, and after reading the meticulous detail, the inexhaustible facts and figures in the book, I am surprised he was able to complete it in that time. The problem, he says, is the company's poor records. Presumably Christie's, Sotheby's great rival, suffers less from such gaps in record-keeping, for it has been the subject of many books.
Herrmann's history is itself almost a cataloguing job, not too far removed from those magnificent full-color catalogs of auction treasures which alone would justify Sotheby's existence. The book is full of marvelous glimpses.
In 1823, Sotheby's sold the books Napoleon took with him to St. Helena. In 1848-49, the house auctioned the property of Richard Plantagenet Temple Nugent Brydges Chandos Grenville, the bankrupt 2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. Just before the duke fled England (his debts amounted to near 1 million pounds), he had played host to a royal visit to Stowe House, his estate, by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. To protect their financial interests, the local bailiffs apparently dressed as the duke's servants and kept an eye on the goods while the queen was there. Sotheby took 24 days to auction off the Stowe House library, which included among its manuscripts a letter describing the Gunpowder plot, dated 9 November 1605.
Sotheby's sold the love letters of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning in 1912. In 1914, it sold a contemporary copy of the Magna Carta for only 50 pounds, but a letter from Lucrezia Borgia brought 245 pounds.
The sales of the great country houses began just before World War II. The trick, Herrmann says, was to keep the house as much intact as possible before the sale, so people could see the libraries, the muniment room, the breakfast nooks, morning rooms, music rooms, minstrels gallery, drawing rooms, nurseries and salons. During one of these sales, a chandelier from Lord Rothschild's house was catalogued as gilt bronze. A Paris dealer bought it, having recognized it as having been made by his family in the 19th century of solid gold.
In 1952 former King Farouk''s properties were sold through Sotheby's by the Nasser government. The king's belongings not only included 8,500 gold coins and medals but 20 rooms of erotica and pornography. The cataloguers reported he had 10,000 ties as well as a collection of early aspirin bottles.
Sotheby's came to the United States as the behest of Peter Wilson who had been a part of a joint Anglo-American Intelligence operation. Wilson, became chairman of the company in 1957, a few years before the great Rene Fribourg sales in London. The Fribourg collection, including the marriage bed of Napoleon I and Empress Marie Louise, was sent from New York to London by chartered plane as well as ship.
In July, 1964, following a story planted by that supreme public relations man, Stanley Clark, threatening the American Parke-Bernet with a rival Sotheby's auction house in New York, Sotheby's bought 78 percent of Parke-Bernet shares for $1,525,000. Today, there is general agreement that soon New York will surpass London in auction sales, though Herrmann's book treats the American Sotheby's as a poor cousin.
For auction fanciers, two other books are immensely valuable. Art at Auction: The Year at Sotheby Parke Bernet 1979-80, edited by Joan A. Speers (Sotheby Parke Bernet, $45) includes an interesting biography, also by Herrmann, of Wilson, who recently retired as chairman, as well as expert dissertations on important sales. A companion volume, Christie's Review of the Season, 1980, edited by John Herbert (Rizzoli, $40) chronicles its worldwide sales of $352,852,000 which includes the sale of Rubens' Samson and Delilah for $5,474,000.
These two compendiums, published every year, are by far the most satisfying ways to keep up with the auction scene. Their lavish photographs tell better than Herrmann's words the reason for the continuing fascination with the auctioneers's chant of "going . . . going . . . gone."