P ivotal to Sotheby’s transformation from a book auctioneer to an auction house offering works from across all collecting fields was its move from the centre of London’s book world – the antiquarian shops that peppered the streets surrounding The Strand – to Bond Street in the heart of Mayfair. Here, Sotheby’s took over the Doré Galleries – the largest private galleries in London at the time.
The move, in the summer of 1917, was a leap into the heady arena of art, fashion and society. “Though we still lived and worked with history, the panorama of the twentieth century passed by our windows,” one expert observed. The change came, however, at the height of the First World War – the moving vans had to dodge a Zeppelin attack – and many of the male members of staff had joined up. But business continued. One of the firm’s partners, Major Felix Warre, would take antiquities sales during his leave from the front.
To replace the men in service, there was a sudden influx of women into the company, both in support and specialist roles. One of the first to arrive was book cataloguer E. Millicent Sowerby, who joined Sotheby’s in 1916 and later chronicled her time at the company in her charming memoir Rare People and Rare Books (1967). “Sotheby’s was a most remarkable firm,” she observed. “I take my hat off to it with a low bow whenever I think of it.”
Immediately following the move, sales were temporarily suspended and “a magnificent house-warming” was staged. This house-warming took the form of a grand exhibition of works by wounded servicemen. Queen Mary was the guest of honour at the opening, which provided a rare opportunity for staff to shelve the wartime hardships. “I was to discard the unbecoming blue overall, wear one of my very best Paris dresses, make eyes at the men if I wished (though that was not included in my instructions), and station myself at the head of the stairs,” Sowerby writes.
Another of the new intake was Edith Bourne, who also worked in the Books Department. “Naturally our advent created a little stir in that man-made world. It was run like a ship of the fleet,” she noted. One of the porters, who were responsible for the cleaning and dusting, had to be kept working in the basement because his language was too picturesque for ladies. The women soon settled in, however. Bourne recalled: “When we found our tables and typewriters immaculately dusted and office shoes warming by the fire on winter mornings we felt we were accepted.”