F ounded in 1744, Sotheby’s is the oldest and largest internationally recognised firm of fine art auctioneers in the world. It has a global network of 80 offices and the company’s annual worldwide sales turnover is currently in excess of $4 billion.
Sotheby’s founder, Samuel Baker, was an entrepreneur, occasional publisher and successful bookseller who held his first auction under his own name on 11 March 1744. The dispersal of “several Hundred scarce and valuable Books in all branches of Polite Literature” from the library of Sir John Stanley fetched a grand total of £826.
Baker concocted enticing advertising campaigns and produced authoritative catalogues. He was, as one colleague noted, a “joyous fellow” with a fondness for plum-coloured coats.
Early Days: Books, Dukes and Emperors
For more than a century, Baker and his successors were to handle all of the great libraries sold at auction, including those of the Earls of Sunderland, Hopetoun and Pembroke and the Dukes of Devonshire, York and Buckingham. Following Napoleon’s death, Sotheby’s sold the books he had taken into exile to St Helena – the final lot was the Emperor’s tortoiseshell-and-gold walking stick.
In 1767 Baker went into partnership with George Leigh. Leigh was a natural auctioneer with an actor’s sense of timing. His ivory hammer is still on display at Sotheby’s London galleries. On Baker’s death in 1778, his estate was divided between Leigh and Baker’s nephew John Sotheby, whose family remained involved in the business for more than 80 years. During that time the company extended its role to take in the sale of prints, coins, medals and antiquities.
In 1842 John Wilkinson, the firm’s senior accountant, became a partner and when the last of the Sotheby family died in 1861, Wilkinson took over as head of the business. Three years later he promoted Edward Grose Hodge, and restyled the company Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge, the name it carried until 1924.
The Impact of the World Wars
Following Hodge’s death in 1907, his son Tom brought in new associates: Montague Barlow, a Barrister and MP, Felix Warre, a banker, and Geoffrey Hobson, a young Foreign Office official. Their first great success was the sale of the Huth library, which was dispersed over 12 sales, from 1911 to 1922, and netted £300,000.
Their second triumph, during the summer of 1917, was to move the company’s premises from Wellington Street – off the Strand – to 34-35 New Bond Street in Mayfair. This took Sotheby’s from the heart of the book world to the hub of the art world.
The building had been, variously, the galleries of the French artist Gustave Doré, a parfumiers and a hostelry called the Black Horse. The wine cellars were turned into picture stores and an ancient Egyptian bust of the lion-goddess Sekhmet – Sotheby’s unofficial mascot – was installed above the front doorway.
The move generated other changes. The First World War saw many of the male members of staff enlist in the Services and, for the first time, women joined the company, both in support and specialist roles. Emily Millicent Sowerby, the firm’s first female books cataloguer, observed: “It is the most stimulating and educating experience it is possible to have.”
During the interwar years, Sotheby’s turned its focus to the sale of pictures and decorative works of art. This coincided with the beginning of the end of a way of life for many of the owners of Britain’s country houses. Sotheby’s became so skilled in staging swift onsite sales of their contents that its specialist team became known as “The Flying Squad.”
Throughout the Second World War, Sotheby’s continued to trade successfully in London, turning its basement into an air-raid shelter – although collectors refused to leave the saleroom in case they missed a bid.
The Great Change: Stars in the Galleries
Peter Wilson, a pre-war trainee in the furniture department, proved an inspiring chairman during the postwar years. He opened an Impressionist and Modern art department in the mid-1950s and wooed private buyers as well as trade. The successful auction of the Weinberg Collection in 1957 – viewed by Queen Elizabeth II – was, the following year, eclipsed by the landmark sale of the Goldschmidt Collection of seven Impressionist masterworks.
A gala black-tie evening event – with Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and Lady Churchill in the audience – the Goldschmidt sale created a new world record for a fine art sale. It was a media sensation: “like a Covent Garden great occasion” declared the Western Mail.
This milestone was followed, during the late-1950s and 1960s, by further high-profile consignments, including Rubens’ The Adoration of the Magi and Somerset Maugham’s Impressionist collection (including a Tahitian shack door decorated by Gauguin). In a few years Sotheby’s, with Wilson at the helm, had redefined the presentation – and potential – of art auctions forever.
Going Global and Going Public
Having already opened an office in New York, in 1964 Sotheby’s bought Parke-Bernet, America’s largest fine art auction house. This launched a programme of expansion, with the company becoming the first international auction house to conduct sales in Hong Kong (1973), Russia (1988), India (1992) and France (2001), and the first to have a presence in China (2012).
Meanwhile, in 1977, the great house sale at Mentmore Towers, Buckinghamshire, proved to be Peter Wilson’s swansong. That same year the company “went public” (with shares over-subscribed by 26 times). Wilson retired in 1980 and with his sudden death in 1983 an era came to a close.
A new chapter began when Alfred Taubman acquired the company that autumn, taking it once again back into private hands. New flagship salerooms opened in New York at 1334 York Avenue and Sotheby’s went public again in 1988, listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Iconic Collections and the Contemporary World
The 1980s through the 2000s saw record prices at Sotheby’s for 20th-century masterpieces, including Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe, which sold in New York for $104.2 million (2004) and Warhol’s Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster) for $108.4 million (2013). Meanwhile, in London, Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents achieved £49.5 million in 2002, which remains a record for an Old Master painting.
The sale of collections of renowned personalities – Andy Warhol (1988), Greta Garbo (1990), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1996), the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (1998), Gianni Versace (2001) – highlighted the appeal of a prestigious provenance. And the Damien Hirst auction Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2008), a radical sale of works direct from the artist, became emblematic of the supremacy of the Contemporary art market.
A series of celebrated auctions in recent years has secured the company’s reputation for staging groundbreaking events. In 2012 the sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream – described by The New York Times as an “irresistible trophy”– made headline news around the world. And, in 2016, the hugely anticipated single-owner sales Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitford Sisters and Bowie / Collector – the private collection of music icon David Bowie – each drew unprecedented auction participation.
A Bigger Picture
Today, Sotheby’s remains synonymous with innovation. In addition to its auction business it presents private sale opportunities, including S|2, Sotheby's gallery arm; two retail businesses, Sotheby’s Diamonds and Sotheby’s Wine; Sotheby’s Financial Services, the world’s only full-service art financing company; and the collection advisory services of its subsidiary, Art Agency, Partners.
Advancements in technology have been a recent focus for the company, with the launch of online initiatives, such as Sotheby’s Museum Network, a collection of video content from the world’s most renowned institutions, including Tate and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and a growing series of online-only sales.
In 2016 a drive to attain the finest technical and statistical knowledge saw Sotheby’s acquire two internationally renowned businesses: Orion Analytical – the firm founded by James Martin, one of the art world’s leading forensic scientists and experts in art-authentication matters – and The Mei Moses Art Indices, widely recognised as the preeminent measure of the state of the art market.
Undoubtedly, these are all developments that would have appealed to the pioneering character of Samuel Baker.