Sotheby’s - Bidding for Class

Robert Lacey has rummaged in dusty stockrooms and ferreted through ancient company files and with a sure touch has wrought from his findings a highly readable chronicle of acumen, expertise, and acquisition. The first chapter sets readers mingling with the rich and famous at the private view before the effects of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis go under the hammer. A taste of high life, it is also a virtual marketing primer in concepts like added value and positioning of goods, sharpening the appetite for the more substantial course to come.

Lacey’s subsequent chronicle of the firm’s two hundred year history makes for just as engaging reading. As thrilling as the auction room atmosphere and the ongoing proximity of beautiful objects and the extraordinary amounts of money generated when they exchange hands, is to encounter the people who have taken Sotheby’s to its dominant position in the world art market. Most fascinating of all, perhaps, is to ponder how the business of sniffing out buyers and sellers, racing to acquire and dispose of other people’s treasures, came to be regarded as a gentlemanly pursuit.

The history of Sotheby’s is the history of the modern art auctioneering trade itself. Lacey shows the firm developing from its book-dealing origins to its first incursions onto the fine art market, hitherto dominated almost exclusively by Christie’s and by private dealers. The necessary compression of centuries reveals the almost organic way a company like Sotheby’s survives and prospers, riding out the art market’s boom years of spiraling prices and its sudden collapses, uncovering new categories of desirable objects to feed the apparently insatiable appetites of collectors.