The subtitle of Nicholas Faith's new history of Sotheby's appears to declare a prejudice that is most emphatically not the author's. To anyone remotely familiar with the art world, the "fall" tacked by Macmillan onto a book published in England with the subtitle "The Revolution in the Art Market" must suggest a notional decline in some aspect of the great auction house traceable to its 1983 acquisition by an investment syndicate headed by a Detroit shopping-center developer.
Now it is true that Sotheby's today seems to stand in relation to the art world as the investment banking firm of Drexel Burnham does to corporate finance: determined to teach the lot of us the truth about the unswervable power of money. But it is not to this that Faith addresses himself. In a way, that is too bad; quite apart from the contagious vulgarity and ethical flexibility the new regime has invested in the business, there is probably a pretty good story in the potential conflicts of interest with which Sotheby's board is littered.
Essentially, however, the tale Faith tells is that of the coalesced destinies of Sotheby's and its guiding genius since the war, Peter Cecil Wilson (1913-1984).
Faith does not use the word "genius" advisedly in describing Peter Wilson, and he is right not to do so. It used to be that the art world prized above all a quality called "flair." It came in many flavors, but it was shared by all the really important figures in the trade: connoisseur-dealers such as Eugene Thaw, the late Rudolf Heinemann and the late David Carritt; scholars such as Sir John Pope-Hennessy and Sydney Freedberg; and museum directors such as Francis Henry Taylor, Edmund Pillsbury and J. Carter Brown.
It was a quality Peter Wilson possessed in spades. In him, stylishness was married with shrewdness, persuasiveness with polish. It added up to genius. At the top of his game, Wilson could be hypnotic. I had the privilege in June 1959 of watching him sell the second Duke of Westminster's great Rubens altarpiece (now -- thanks to the generosity of its eventual purchaser, Major Allnat -- a principal ornament of the chapel of King's College, Cambridge). It was dazzling.
The Westminster Rubens is here in Faith's rich feast of history, anecdote, gossip and episode, as are the Hirsch sale (at which West Germany paid the moon to reacquire its patrimony), the goings-on with the British Rail Pension Fund, the Goldschmidt Ce'zanne, which may be said to have kicked off the whole foolishness, and much else.
Institutions tend to the sum of the people who guide them, and Faith parades a very large cast on stage and puts them through their paces. In the end, one is convinced that the managerial decrepitude that left Sotheby's vulnerable to takeover was, as is usually the case, more the consequence of quirks of personality than a failure of managerial controls.
The book is a feast of other people's reminiscences. It is the work of a painstaking journalist, and as such it is singularly unjudgmental. This is not a bad thing; the reader is spared lengthy excuses or lamentations about the interplay of art and money, digressions that must inevitably rehash what others surely have said before and may have said better.
This is a book about the development of a business firm made interesting by its connection to an unarguably delightful and intriguing human activity. It seems to me comprehensive, and compelling as well, with all the attraction of first-class gossip: a good book for a chilly winter forenoon with a fire and a glass of sherry. As for the larger issue of whether Sotheby's has indeed declined and fallen, that is a question of style, not money, and so only time and memory will tell.