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).
Building a Legacy: A History of Celebrated Collections at Sotheby's
The Goldschmidt Sale, 1958
Read more about the Goldschmidt sale
The Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor, 1987
Explore Icons of Design: Cartier
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
Watch the award-winning series Treasures from Chatsworth
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
Watch The Beautiful Networks in Bowie's Art
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
Explore highlights of the collection
Royal Jewels from the Bourbon Parma Family, 2018
Watch The Spine-Tingling Allure of Marie Antoinette’s Exquisite Jewels
Creating a Stage: The Collection of Marsha and Robin Williams, 2018
Watch Marsha and Robin Williams: A Lifetime of Collecting
NIGOLDENEYE® Vol. 1, 2019
Michael Jordan | Shattered, 2020
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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