T he art world changed on the evening of 15 October 1958. A huge throng of people gathered outside Sotheby’s galleries on New Bond Street in London waiting to get in to the Goldschmidt Sale. Ladies and gentlemen queued – dressed up in dinner jackets, furs, brogues shined and heels high – as newspaper photographers popped their bulbs at the waiting VIPs. The police had to hold the crowds back. Sotheby’s was staging the first black tie gala auction. It would forever alter the landscape of art sales. And all in 21 minutes.
The seven Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings offered – masterpieces by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cézanne and Manet – had arrived from the collection of the New York banker Jakob Goldschmidt. The group included Manet’s landscape La Rue Mosnier aux Drapeaux and an elegant portrait of an Italian boy by Cezanne. Every painting was remarkable.
Today, the sale has acquired semi-mythical status, spoken of in awe, while more seasoned collectors ask: “Were you there?” The event was the masterstroke of Sotheby’s recently appointed chairman Peter Wilson. He was a man of many parts: charismatic and astute businessman, enigmatic auctioneer, wartime Intelligence officer, friend of 007 author Ian Fleming, and a passionate art collector in his own right.
Wilson orchestrated a press and marketing tour de force in which he injected celebrity into the arcane art market. “I shall be accepting bids from three galleries and praying hard that everything will go smoothly,” he told the media. Television crews filled the back of the auction room and the audience shimmered with a constellation of stars, including Oscar-winner Anthony Quinn, novelist William Somerset Maugham and ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn, resplendent, according to The Daily Express, in an “off-the-shoulder, eau-de-nil dress”. Kirk Douglas, who only two years earlier had played Vincent van Gogh in Lust for Life, watched as the artist’s Jardin Public à Arles flew over its high-estimate.
In quick succession, the pictures tumbled to winning bids and rapturous applause. The record for a work of art at auction was broken twice in one night. Wilson ascended the rostrum at 9.35pm and it was all over by 10pm.
The evening was “like a Covent Garden great occasion”, declared the Western Mail. And so, overnight, Sotheby’s created a glamorous new platform, one which continues to capture the world’s imagination. Over the years, Sotheby’s has drawn crowds and headlines with landmark auctions of the collections of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Duke and Duchess of Windsor, David Bowie, and many more. But it all started with that whirlwind night in 1958.