Warning signals begin flashing in the first couple of pages of Jeffrey Hogrefe's "Wholly Unacceptable: The Bitter Battle for Sotheby's": The "salesroom hums with the sound of wallets opening and closing"; the very rich are different from you and me, they have musical wallets. "Outside black limousines idle knee-deep by the curb." Kiddie cars?
In another two paragraphs, things get serious: "Elisabeth of Yugoslavia, who would be queen of the Balkan nation had not Stalin claimed it." No, she wouldn't and no, he didn't.
Imprecision of language runs throughout. British diplomats did not "receive hazard pay for working in America"; it was hardship pay. There is a difference.
The fuzziness on facts continues. The "Guggenheim Museum, Peggy Guggenheim's Museum." Well, no, it is not Peggy Guggenheim's museum, as both she and officials at the museum have vociferously insisted.
The linguistic imprecision and factual fuzziness often come together. For example, there is a mysterious reference to the "German Expressionist art of Kierkegaard." I suppose you could make out a case that the Danish philosopher relates somehow to the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, and that Munch in some ways relates to the German Expressionists, but why do it? Especially why do it in what is essentially a throwaway line?
Hogrefe also has the gift of getting his cliche's not just wrong but backward. In deep crisis, Sotheby's has called in a corporate hot shot to rescue the firm: "After a methodical analysis . . . he discovered that surgery was the only route open -- spare the limbs and save the life."
The trouble with all this is not just that it is an irritating and distracting style but that the book is about an art world of allegedly exquisite taste -- in language as in everything else -- and about art expertise and a devotion to getting things right. Moreover, the author, who has reported on art auctions for The Washington Post among other publications, appears to despise that world and invites us to do so too. If you are going to despise people you had better at least use the language as well as they do.
Hogrefe's reporting is a big part of his problem in pulling together his complex story. In spite of his experience he brings to his task no background at all, at least none that gets into the book. For him the American art world began with the arrival here of Sotheby's and never got much beyond it. He seems to pass on the assumptions of the people he interviews without a thought.
Context is what is missing, and its absence is painful.
Like its rival, Christie's, Sotheby's is an ancient London auction house that came to America and suffered from the difference in culture -- more the financial culture than the art culture. Overextended, the firm was ripe for takeover. The book is the story of the battle between the Old Guard at the old firm and a couple of guys from New Jersey, Marshall Cogan and Stephen Swid, who had made a fortune in felt. That in itself made them "wholly unacceptable" to the Old Guard. It was compounded, apparently, by the fact they were both Jewish.
The two apparently had the shares and pledges of shares to take over Sotheby's when the Old Guard played its last trump, possibly Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, possibly Queen Elizabeth II. We never really learn. That, however, has only saved Sotheby's from Cogan and Swid. The ultimate savior turns out to be another rich American Jew, apparently less unacceptable because he is an associate of Henry Ford II. After reporting that, the book fizzles out into an expose' on the savior and his wife.
There is a first-class business adventure story here and it cries out for the sophistication, the perception and, for that matter, the language of Ken Auletta or John Brooks. None of that is to be found here.