T he story of Sotheby’s mirrors that of the great collectors. As Philip Hook wrote in Breakfast at Sotheby’s: “The best collections are works of art in their own right, appreciably more than the sum of their parts.” Therefore, the auction house has always celebrated the great collectors, figures such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Paul and Bunny Mellon, Gianni Versace and Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, just as it has masters like Rubens, Rembrandt, Picasso and Warhol.
Having offered many of the great private libraries in the 19th century, Sotheby’s became synonymous with great art collections in the 20th century. In 1958 it redefined what an auction was with the Goldschmidt sale: a London auction of European pictures collected by an American. The seven Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings – masterpieces by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne and Manet – from the collection of the New York banker Jakob Goldschmidt were presented in a ‘black tie’ gala auction. They sold in just 21 minutes – in front of stars such as Kirk Douglas and Dame Margot Fonteyn – for record prices.
Houses of History
If the Goldschmidt sale introduced event auctions of picture collections, then the sale at Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire, England, in the summer of 1977 – a nine-day extravaganza staged in a marquee on the estate’s lawn – set a new benchmark for house sales. Lots ranged from Chippendale furniture to Gainsborough paintings. The Countess of Rosebery recalled it as “the sale of the century”.
Mentmore heralded a new era of superb collections emerging after centuries cocooned out of sight in great British country houses. These auctions continue to attract vast numbers of viewers and enthusiastic bidding in Sotheby’s salerooms and at on-site auctions. In 2010, Chatsworth – the magnificent seat of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire – hosted an in-situ sale of objects and artworks from the attics and storerooms of the great house.
Some 20,000 items were presented across 1,000 lots, from a Russian sleigh to a George II carved marble fireplace. Buyers, noted The Times, claimed “a slice of history tied to one of England’s greatest country houses”.
Six years’ later, Sotheby’s hosted a celebration of the life of Chatsworth’s most beloved resident with Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitford Sisters. This personal collection presented objects that touched on extraordinary friendships – with President Kennedy, Cecil Beaton and Evelyn Waugh, among many others – and plenty of idiosyncratic interests (she raised poultry and loved the music of Elvis Presley).
"Collectors possess the principle of delight..."
It’s not always the marvellous – and sometimes unusual – chattels that emerge from great estates. It is also their treasures. In 2015, Castle Howard, the Baroque stately home near York, presented a select group of masterpieces from its collection at Sotheby’s London. This selection of Old Master paintings, sculpture and antiquities, included a monumental quartz granite vase made for the Roman Emperor Nero and a magnificent view of Venice’s Grand Canal by Bernardo Bellotto. The collection achieved £12 million.
The triumph of British fortitude was celebrated in the landmark sale, Daughter of History: Mary Soames and the Legacy of Churchill. The private collection of Winston Churchill’s last surviving child, Mary Soames, this selection of pictures, furniture and personal effects provided a familial window on one of the icons of the 20th century. Appropriately, the auction created a new world auction record for a painting by Sir Winston (a view of his goldfish pond at Chartwell).
- The Goldschmidt Sale, 1958
- The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, 1987
- Elton John, 1988
- Castle Howard, 1991
- Jewels from the Princely Collection of Thurn und Taxis, 1992
- The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1996
- Jewels from the Estate of Betsey Cushing Whitney, 1998
- The Collection of Gianni Versace, 2001
- Jewels from the Collection of Maria Callas, 2004
- Property from the Royal House of Hanover, 2005
- Damien Hirst, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008
- Chatsworth House, 2010
- The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-Chien, 2011
- Daughter of History: Mary Soames and the Legacy of Churchill, 2014
- Property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon: Masterworks, 2014
- Bowie / Collector, 2016
- Chinese Art through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō, 2013-16
- Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitford Sisters, 2016
- The Vivien Leigh Collection, 2017
- Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family, 2018
- Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams, 2018
- NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1, 2019
- Michael Jordan | Shattered, 2020
The Goldschmidt Sale, 1958Where it all began. The Goldschmidt sale was an event like no other, and marked the reinvention of the auction format altogether. The collection of remarkable paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne and Manet were from the collection of the New York financier Jakob Goldschmidt, who had amassed a number of museum-quality works, that here burst on the world stage, in the first auction of its kind. The very concept of an ‘evening sale’ started here, when Peter Wilson elevated the normal, functional saleroom to a high-octane, formal black-tie event with all the drama of a theatrical production.
Read more about the Goldschmidt sale
The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, 1987As with modern royal and noble provenance go, there is perhaps no finer example of buyer excitement than for the extraordinary property owned by the Duchess of Windsor. From the Cartier Panthère brooch commissioned by the Duke of Windsor, to one-of-a-kind pieces by Van Cleef & Arpels, the group was dubbed “the most important jewelry collection put together in the 20th century”. The auction was led by the famous Ruby, Sapphire, Emerald, Citrine and Diamond ‘Flamingo Clip’, that the Duchess was photographed in on several occasions, fetching £1,721,250.
Explore Icons of Design: Cartier
Elton John, 1988Throughout his meteoric career, Elton John has made a name for himself as not just a performer with boundless energy and flair, but also as a connoisseur of fine art and objects. In 1988 he sold many of these in a four-part auction that comprised more than 2000 lots; Stage Costumes and Memorabilia, Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture and Jewelry, demonstrating the diversity of his passion and tastes. Prior to the sale, the objects were placed on display at the V&A museum, allowing visitors the chance to get up-close and personal with these eclectic lots.
Castle Howard, 1991An extraordinary collection of paintings by Hans Holbein, Bernardo Bellotto and Sir Thomas Lawrence demonstrated the sheer breadth of the collecting aptitude across three generations of the Carlisle family in this remarkable auction, securing their reputation as leading patrons and collectors of their time. The Castle Howard sale marked a pivotal moment in the story of this historic house, and showed that collaboration with the custodians of exceptional objects is where Sotheby’s expertise in valuations, storytelling and relationship building over generations comes in to its own.
Jewels from the Princely Collection of Thurn und Taxis, 1992The sale of 300 lots from the prestigious collection of Thurn und Taxis was the perfect example of Sotheby’s delivering an outstanding result, whilst sensitively communicating the calibre of jewelry of this provenance coming to market. The sale included pieces such as the pearl and diamond tiara commissioned by Napoleon III for his bride, Empress Eugenie in 1853, and worn by Princess Gloria at her wedding to Johannes von Thurn und Taxis, which sold for more than $1 million.
The Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, 1996The 1996 Auction of items from the Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis garnered huge interest from buyers enthralled by the opportunity to acquire an object once owned by Kennedy Onassis, perhaps at once stage the most famous woman in the world. With a life as First Lady of the United States, her decor, style and appreciation for fashion was often under the spotlight, and this sale allowed a glimpse into the very personal choices this iconic figure made when creating an elegant home. The auction, that saw fierce bidding from buyers across the world, was led by her 40-carat Lesotho diamond engagement ring from Aristotle Onassis that sold for $2.6 million
Jewels from the Estate of Betsey Cushing Whitney, 1998Many of the pieces in this collection were gifted to Betsey Cushing Whitey by her husband, the late John Hay "Jock" Whitney – celebrated publisher, venture capitalist and ambassador– and a great many were commissioned by him as unique pieces for his wife. The couple were known for their philanthropic efforts, supporting museums and cultural initiatives such as The National Gallery, The Museum of Modern Art and The Yale University Art Gallery. The highlight of the auction was a pair of Fancy Vivid Blue Diamond and Diamond Earclips by Cartier which sold for $5,172,500, and ended up being dubbed “ The Whitney Blue and White” thereafter.
The Collection of Gianni Versace, 2001Known for his bold, colourful and richly-textured aesthetic, the flamboyant interiors of Gianni Versace’s Miami mansion were an homage to the opulence of extraordinary objects. With a well-rounded collection of neoclassical sculpture, Old Master drawings and Orientalist paintings, subjects that fascinated the designer adorned the walls of Casa Casuarina; the male nude, exotic landscapes and perfectly proportioned forms. As well as works from his art collection, one-of-a-kind couture creations by the designers own had were included in the auction – which went on to raise more that $7.8 million.
Jewels from the Collection of Maria Callas, 2004Maria Callas, arguably the world's most famous operatic soprano, was also a passionate and discerning collector of fine jewellery, and the sale of exquisite pieces such as many of which were fresh to market, having been in the her collection since they were first gifted to her by her husband, the Italian industrialist, Giovanni Battista Meneghini. Though the sale included just eleven lots, with Sotheby’s Jewelry specialists at the helm, the impact of the dazzling group was enough to secure 200 bidders in the room, and a record-breaking result for the stunning marquise diamond solitaire engagement ring, selling for 461,600 CHF.
Property from the Royal House of Hanover, 2005The 2005 auction was overseen by Dr. Philipp von Württemberg, then Managing Director of Sotheby’s Germany, and took place in the dramatic grounds of the historic Schloss Marienberg itself, allowing clients to appreciate the setting that had been home to many of the objects offered – and a fitting backdrop for the calibre of objects from this exceptional provenance. The House of Hanover highlights included, glass and porcelain, silver, arms and armour, paintings and furnishings that all belonged to Kings and Princes of England and Hanover, dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries.
Damien Hirst, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, 2008As the headline-grabbing enfant terrible of the YBA scene it was only fitting that Damien Hirst would dream up an idea to reinvent the auction format and turn the art world on its head. Always one to shock and surprise, Hirst collaborated closely with on the studio sale, allowing the property to come directly from the artist, to the market, removing the step in between. It was the first time works had been created to be sold at auction, and the resulting exhibition was akin to a retrospective of the most exciting work to come from Hirst’s studio in decades. “I think the art world is definitely already going in this direction, and my auction is just a fast-forward” The sale raised £111 million and set a record for a single-artist auction, and stands as a seamless example of artistic innovation, supply, demand and poetry in motion.
Chatsworth House, 2010Treasures from one of Britain’s most famous estates were offered for sale in a major auction that comprised some 20,000 objects in over 1,000 lots. The pieces went on view in the grounds of the house prior to the sale, and included Books, Carriages and Cars, Ceramics and Glass, Collectibles, English and Continental Furniture, European Sculpture, Natural History, Jewelry, Old Masters, Tapestries and Wine. Buyers were given the opportunity to acquire historic pieces from one of the most important and influential houses in Britain.
Watch the award-winning series Treasures from Chatsworth
The Mei Yun Tang Collection of Paintings by Chang Dai-Chien, 2011This unrivaled collection of paintings by one of the most celebrated Chinese artists of the 20th century, Chang Dai-chien, set the saleroom alight, achieving a total of 680 million HKD against an estimate of 130 million HKD. The collection was developed by Mr. and Mrs. Kao Lingmei, who were close friends and patrons of the artist. The top lot of the sale, Lotus and Mandarin Ducks, sold for nearly 200 million HKD, setting the auction record for Chang Dai-chien that still stands today.
Daughter of History: Mary Soames and the Legacy of Churchill, 2014The collection of paintings and drawings by her father, Winston Churchill, was kept and treasured by Mary Soames throughout her life, including The Goldfish Pool at Chartwell that had Hung in pride of place in the Drawing Room at West House. The lots soared well above pre-sale estimate of £3.6-5.5 million, and made a total of £15,441,822, demonstrating the enduring interest in works by the former Prime Minister, in whom fascination continues to grow.
Property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon: Masterworks, 2014The collection of Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon, was somewhat unrivalled in its quality and breadth of ambition, and went on to reach a total of $159 million. The works demonstrated Mellon’s position as the quintessential horticulturalist and tastemaker for American high society. She has a keenly trained eye for the exceptional, and this lead her to be entrusted with the redesign of the White House Rose Garden for her friend Jacqueline Kennedy. The art in Mellon’s collection spanned many genres, revealing Mellon as a true connoisseur. From masterpieces of 20th Century Abstract Expressionism such as Mark Rothko’s 1955 canvas Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), and titans of Impressionist and Modern painting such as Giacometti, Pissarro and Magritte, through to American Icons such as Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper.
Bowie / Collector, 2016Musician. Actor. Icon. David Bowie was one of the most recognisable and revered artists in the world, and someone who operated at the height of his creative powers. The legendary performer was also a passionate collector with deep connections to modern and contemporary artworks, 20th century Design and their makers. The white-glove Bowie/Collector three-part auction included some 400 objects owned by a man who approached collecting with the same inspired sense of individualism that defined his own fiercely original output.
Watch The Beautiful Networks in Bowie's Art
Chinese Art through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō, 2013-16Few individuals have shaped the market for Chinese antiquities as forcefully as the legendary collector, dealer and connoisseur Sakamoto Gorō (1923–2016). With a career that spanned almost 70 years, his journey to become one of the world’s greatest dealers of Asian art is as colourful and illustrative as the pieces he so admired. The series of sales, which spanned two years, explored Ceramics, Early Buddhist Bronzes, Early Chinese Art and Porcelain, with the finest examples offered in each category, to the delight of collectors around the world.
Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire: The Last of the Mitford Sisters, 2016The youngest of the Mitford Sisters, Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire became one of the most loved figures of the 20th-century. For half a century the chatelaine of Chatsworth, one of England’s greatest stately homes, she was a patron of the arts, author, countrywoman and – famously – a great poultry enthusiast. Her friends included President Kennedy, Winston Churchill, Lucian Freud, Evelyn Waugh, Hubert de Givenchy, Oscar de la Renta and Cecil Beaton. Over 1000 bidders took part in the sale, which included a first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and went on to achieve a total £1,777,838, tripling the pre-sale estimate.
The Vivien Leigh Collection, 2017With a name and a career as famous as Vivien Leigh, it was only right that her collection of art, furniture and treasured objects was brought together and displayed in an elegant celebration of this screen icon’s life. With objects such as Leigh’s personal copy of the Gone with the Wind script, the sale captured the magic of her personality and status as a revered figure in cinematic history.
Explore highlights of the collection
Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family, 2018A group of Magnificent jewels owned by Marie Antoinette were among the lots sold in the auction that reached a total of 53,535,375 CHF. Descended from Louis XIV of France, the Holy Roman Emperors and from Pope Paul III, the Bourbon-Parma family is linked by blood to the most important ruling families of Europe - from the Bourbons to the Habsburgs. Members of the lineage include Kings of France and Spain, Emperors of Austria and the Dukes of Parma.
Watch The Spine-Tingling Allure of Marie Antoinette’s Exquisite Jewels
Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams, 2018Over the course of their marriage, Robin and Marsha Williams built an remarkable collection that showcased interests and achievements from both of their lives, from film memorabilia, awards, props and costumes through to the leading lights of Modern and Contemporary art such as Max Ernst, Sam Francis, Niki de Saint-Phalle and street art by Banksy and Shepard Fairey. Williams’ influence was felt far beyond the world of entertainment, delighting audiences with his trademark humour and quick wit throughout his career, and this auction gave a glimpse in to the personal passions of this much-loved entertainer.
Watch Marsha and Robin Williams: A Lifetime of Collecting
NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1, 2019Tomoaki Nagao, also known as Nigo, is one of the most celebrated fashion designers working today. The Japanese entrepreneur came to prominence with his streetwear brand A Bathing Ape (BAPE), which he founded in 1993, and saw him collaborate with artists and entertainers such as KAWS, Pharrell Williams and Kanye West. His collection of Contemporary art, Street art and limited-edition streetwear is one of finest examples to ever come to market, and an explosion of interest in a relatively new category for the traditional auction business, soaring to 219,944,750 HKD. The 2019 sale is the second installment of the NIGO collection, with part one, NIGO® Only Lives Twice , being sold in 2014 achieving a result of 34,788,750 HKD.
Michael Jordan | Shattered, 2020Coinciding with the hit Netflix tv series, The Last Dance, the sale gave buyers the chance to own a piece of history from one of America’s sporting heroes. Led by Jordan’s historic game-worn and signed ‘Shattered Backboard’ jersey, the auction included a stunning assemblage of Michael Jordan memorabilia, such as a 1985 game-worn and signed pair of Nike Air Jordan 1s.
Explore the legacy of Michael Jordan
Of Royal Descent
Royal and Noble collections are a magnetic draw at Sotheby’s, particularly when they dazzle. The Jewels of The Duchess of Windsor, which made headlines in Geneva in 1987, and the 2018 sale of Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family (including jewels owned by Marie Antoinette) made consecutive records for any sale of royal jewels.
But it’s not only jewelry that possesses majestic charm. Jewels from the Princely Collection of Thurn und Taxis saw silver and snuff boxes presented alongside her magnificent jewels (1992) and in the landmark Royal House of Hanover sale (2005) – an event to rival Mentmore – some 20,000 objects were sold, totalling more than €40 Million, nearly four times the pre-sale estimate, during a ten-day auction at Schloss Marienburg in Lower Saxony, Germany.
In a testament to the diversity of royal collections, Princess Gloria’s friendship with various rock stars and celebrities earned her the nickname ‘The Punk Princess’ and this sentiment was echoed throughout her collection; which alongside magnificent jewels, includes contemporary works by artists such as Jeff Koons, Kehinde Wiley and Keith Haring, with whom she was close friends.
There is, of course, more than one kind of royalty. Sotheby’s has hosted the sale of collections from some truly regal American figures. The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Collection, sold in New York in 1996, was far more than an art world event, it was a global news story. Visitors snaked down the block outside Sotheby’s Manhattan galleries waiting to view the exhibition and the auction catalogue made the New York Times bestseller list.
Similarly, the auctions of Betsey Cushing Whitney’s jewels (1998) and Bunny Mellon’s uncommonly distinguished group of paintings (2014) – from 17th-century still lifes to contemporary masterpieces by Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn – beguiled buyers.
Most recently, in 2021, Sotheby’s New York auctioned a wonderful and diverse group of works acquired by the Manhattan collector Hester Diamond. Described by the Financial Times as “indefatigable”, Diamond was as drawn to the video installations of Bill Viola as to the marbles of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. She described her adventures in art as “a fabulous education” and her collection was a highlight of New York Master Week, alongside the record-breaking Botticelli’s Portrait of a young man holding a roundel which sold for $92 million.
Stars of Stage and Screen
Collectors, observed the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark, possess the “principle of delight”. And in the personal collections of iconic entertainment figures – actors, musicians, sportspersons, fashion designers – delight in a particularly pronounced way. At Sotheby’s London in 2017 the collection of Vivien Leigh illuminated the screen legend’s life from pre-war London to Hollywood success, as did A Life in Pictures - The Collection of Lord and Lady Attenborough (2009), which presented the film star's art collection as the backdrop to the couple's happy and adventurous family life. And in New York in 2018, the collection of Marsha and Robin Williams provided a window on the home life and eclectic tastes of the cherished comic entertainer (it even included his bespoke Mickey Mouse ears).
Celebrity and art have long gone hand in glove. In typical showstopping fashion, Elton John brought the house down at Sotheby’s Bond Street with his stage costumes and memorabilia in 1988; likewise, the Maria Callas auctions in Geneva (2004) and Milan (2007) saw first her jewels and then her personal effects capture the power of a true operatic original.
The flamboyant contents of Gianni Versace’s Miami mansion (2001) and a treasure trove of Michael Jordan memorabilia (2020) reflect the legacies of monumental figures in popular culture. Meanwhile, the Bowie/Collector auction in 2016 recast a musical firebrand as a visionary collector of Modern British art. “Art was, seriously, the only thing I’d wanted to own,” David Bowie once remarked. His collection, he explained, was his “nourishment”.
Asian Power Players
Sotheby’s sale calendar often acts as a barometer to collectors’ tastes, and as a platform for Record-breaking results across all categories from Contemporary Art to Wine and Whisky.
In recent years, the soaring interest in Asian art of all types has been reflected in sales of some landmark collections: including the Chinese antiques accumulated by the connoisseur, collector and dealer Sakamoto Gorō (2013–2016), the unparalleled Meiyintang collection of Chinese porcelain (2011) and the collection of contemporary art acquired by Japanese streetwear entrepreneur Tomoaki Nagao, known as NIGO (2019).
The Art of Innovation
Perhaps, however, it is the two ground-breaking Damien Hirst sales at Sotheby’s – the contents of his Pharmacy restaurant (2004) and his Beautiful Inside My Head Forever showcase of new works (2008) – that best illustrate the mutable definition of what a collection is or could be.
And indeed, that of a collector: Hirst, like Joshua Reynolds, Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud before him, is an ardent collector of other artists’ work. Elsewhere in Europe, the collection of Claude & François-Xavier Lalanne opened the doors to their unique and other-worldy approach to the creative process.
The sale included works made by the duo (widely known as 'Les Lalanne'), to pieces they collected from the other artists who were their friends and peers such as Jasper Johns, Niki de Saint Phalle, Sturtevant and Jean Tinguely.
The thread that binds together these collections is the passion with which they were all built. And that enthusiasm is echoed in Sotheby’s dedication to presenting them in fresh and remarkable ways to new generations of collectors, further adding to the sum of all these extraordinary parts.
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