Sibbie O’Sullivan is a writer on the arts.

During this beastly presidential campaign, it’s helpful to remember that great power can be effected by a strategic whisper and a graceful gesture. So let’s cheer for the auctioneer Simon de Pury, the classy international star of the art world. For more than 40 years, de Pury has observed the vital signs of what he calls the “beautiful illness” that infects the super-rich to buy art.

In “The Auctioneer,” co-written with Vanity Fair writer William Stadiem, de Pury tracks his rise to the top of a business that emerged from the rubble of postwar Europe to capture the world’s attention with beautiful objects bought and sold by beautiful people. This rarified world rivaled Wall Street because, as de Pury reminds us, “money became the measure of art.” His story shines an unflattering light on the art world — and unwittingly on himself.

Born in 1951 in Switzerland, de Pury was a lazy student with artistic leanings, bountiful charm and grand ambition. Apprenticed to Peter Wilson, Sotheby’s master auctioneer, de Pury learned how to “deal with the sacred monsters of the art world” and to navigate the rivalry between Sotheby’s and Christie’s. By the time he became the private curator for Baron Hans Heinrich Agost Gabor Tasso Thyssen-Bornemisza, “the greatest art collector in the world,” de Pury was equipped to handle anything and on his way to becoming an auctioneer of “Oscar-worthy finesse.” These chapters about Wilson and the baron are the best in the book, brimming with history and intrigue.

Though the book often reads like a Vanity Fair article full of yachts and “spray-painted Playboy bunnies,” de Pury tethers such irritants to enough real-world events to prick the reader’s attention. Hitler stole great works of art, and so did Stalin; getting them back is the trick. The 1973 Arab oil embargo nearly destroyed the fine-art business, but it also boosted the price of paintings and created new buyers. The rise of Middle Eastern interest in art helped create demand for contemporary artists Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. De Pury brokered many of these deals, including one for new Russian oligarchs that he calls “nothing less than a turning point in the cultural history of Russia.”

"The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade" by Simon de Pury and William Stadiem (St. Martin's)

De Pury isn’t shy about listing his accomplishments and makes few judgments about the people he’s served — though he’s quick to reveal how rich they are and even quicker to identify who’s gay, an unnecessary detail that foregrounds his own hetero status in a milieu where the “presumption [is] that everyone in the art world [is] gay.” But, really, who cares?

Raised on the Old Masters, de Pury now sells online and dines with Kanye West. He’s on YouTube, too, wielding his gavel. If I were auctioning de Pury’s book, I’d start the bidding low. “The Auctioneer” is informative and catty, but so unrelatable to the lives of normal human beings, it almost gives art a bad name.

The Auctioneer
Adventures in the Art Trade

By Simon de Pury and William Stadiem

St. Martin’s. 228 pp. $25.99