“The courteous way to conduct an auction is to treat it like a ping-pong tournament”
Peter Wilson, Sotheby’s chairman, mid-20th century
T he auction – the jostling, gladiatorial melee in which a falling hammer decides the fate of pictures, objects, country houses or livestock – changed forever in the 1950s, largely due to Peter Wilson’s va-va-voom. Big money and marketing minds got involved. Which is why LS Lowry’s masterpiece The Auction (1958) is such a fascinating picture: it shows us what was about to change.
This, in fact, was Lowry’s great subject: the elegiac qualities of the communal moment. Those shared occasions which would soon become steeped in nostalgia. “People think crowds are all the same,” he once remarked, “But they’re not, you know, everyone’s different.” He detailed those differences across works that embraced football matches, Christmas sales and race meets. In 1958, he found it in a regional auction, with its hive of commerce and chance encounters. Once again, we find Lowry – the resolutely quiet and private individual – drawn to the cacophonous public arena.
Of course, auctions have changed vastly over the centuries: in the 17th century ‘candle auctions’ ended with the random expiration of candle flame; today online bids tick down to a programmed digital gavel. An array of artists, from Hogarth to Banksy, have chronicled these changes. The dispersal of goods and chattels has also intrigued writers: the critic Cyril Connolly sought shelter from the Blitz in Sotheby’s galleries, delighting in its rolling stock. It was, he wrote, “a museum where all the objects are changed once a week like the water in a swimming pool.”
'People think crowds are all the same,” Lowry once remarked “But they’re not, you know, everyone’s different.”'
In the 1950s the auction format leapt into the modern age, a shift heralded by the Goldschmidt Sale – the presentation of seven Impressionist and Modern masterpieces owned by the American tycoon Erwin Goldschmidt, staged at Sotheby’s New Bond Street in 1958, the very same year that Lowry painted The Auction.
The Lowry and Goldschmidt scenes could not have been more different. Lowry pictures a regional auction house in mid-bustle – chairs and tables off to new kitchens, books to new shelves, watercolours to new walls – with all the mechanics of a local business in motion. Lowry saw the humour and commotion of the tableau. The antique dealer WP Way recalled finding something similar at a pre-war house sale near Carmarthen, an event held in a marquee on the lawn: “I was astonished as well as amused at the procedure. A platform of a double line of trestle tables had already been set up and on this platform, beside the auctioneer and his clerk, were seated the family solicitor, two executors, and various members of the family, both men and women. It looked more like the opening of a bazaar or a flower show than an auction.”
At Sotheby’s Goldschmidt auction, however, there were film stars, tuxedos and gowns. The press doorstepped the saleroom. This was not the domain of porcelain dealers, bibliophiles and gentlemen looking to furnish flats. This was glamour. The sale achieved a record result for an auction. In a remark that Lowry would have appreciated, Erwin Goldschmidt said: “No, I don’t know what I’m going to do with the money. All anyone can do is eat three meals a day.”
"Executed in Lowry’s signature palette of blacks, browns and greys – punctuated with delightful pops of red – this is painterly theatre in the round"
A boom in gala sales followed. Sotheby’s presented the collection of Impressionist and Modern pictures owned by the bestselling author William Somerset Maugham and sold the Westminster Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, for the highest price achieved by any picture. In 1966, the first trans-Atlantic auction, linked by live satellite television, was broadcast from its New Bond Street galleries. Ian Fleming even set a James Bond story at Sotheby’s. Seemingly overnight, auctions went from trading in culture to creating culture.
And Lowry’s depiction of an auction is culture of the highest calibre. It is a masterpiece of everyday drama worthy of Dickens. All human life is present: mothers and babies, pensioners and children, dealers and browsers. People head in every direction; a dog on a lead insouciantly watches the action. It is a composition in three stripes: a foreground of lively figures, a mid-ground of benched bidders and a faraway stage on which the auctioneer directs his hurly-burly production. Executed in Lowry’s signature palette of blacks, browns and greys – punctuated with delightful pops of red – this is painterly theatre in the round.
Several years earlier, Lowry painted the street scene Jackson’s Auction and Saleroom (1952) – in which furniture lots can be seen sprinkled over the pavement for potential buyers to view – but his 1958 painting remains his only interior auction picture. And this is its debut at auction.
In his later years, Lowry was gratified by the high prices achieved for his paintings, even if his tinder-dry wit cut through the dazzle of the auction room. As Harold Riley, a fellow artist and friend of Lowry recalled: “Once we went to a picture auction together, and a picture he’d sold years before for very little money was sold for quite a few thousand pounds. He was asked how he felt, and he said, ‘like the horse must feel when they give the jockey the prize for the winning race’.”
Whether seen as a horse race, a ping-pong tournament or an online sensation, experienced in black tie or flat cap, auctions are likely to remain a thrilling spectacle for years to come.