The Astounding Life of Auctioneering Legend David Redden

The Astounding Life of Auctioneering Legend David Redden

D avid Redden, a towering figure in Sotheby’s history – and in the lore of auctioneering more broadly – has died at age 75 of viral pneumonia. But what a life he lived.

He joined Sotheby’s in the mid-1970s and, in a career spanning more than 40 years, rose to the rank of vice chairman and became one of the house’s longest-serving auctioneers. He sold a staggering variety of objects, both at auction and by private sales.

He sold the Magna Carta. He sold Earth’s first spaceship. He sold James Naismith’s founding rules of basketball. Three copies of the Declaration of Independence. Sue the dinosaur. Gilbert Stuart's lifesize portrait of George Washington. The collection of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. At one point, the vault next to his office contained both Faberge Imperial Eggs from the legendary Forbes Collection and the papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“David was a great auction impresario,” said Richard Austin, the Global Head of Books and Manuscripts, who worked with Redden. “He was the one who really understood that an auction can be more than a financial transaction. It can be a moment in time. There was a sense of theater to it.” For instance, in 2006, Redden brought drummers into the sale room for a sale of four flags captured in 1779 and 1780 during the American Revolution.

David Redden was born in China, the son of a diplomat, and led a cosmopolitan childhood across Rome, Haifa and London. He received his art-history degree from Wesleyan University before joining Sotheby’s, where by his own estimation he sold nearly one million lots including works from the collection of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to the world’s most expensive book, stamp, coin and medal.

David Redden at the Rostrum

“The great question that David would ask is: ‘Why isn’t it worth more?’” Austin recalled. “And it was his job to prove that it was worth more.”

In turn, he was more than an auctioneer. Redden was largely responsible for launching, signaling his insatiable curiosity. Here was a man who moved effortlessly between the latest technology and a Hebrew Bible dating back to the Middle Ages. “He touched so many categories,” said Ella Hall, who worked as Redden’s assistant and has ascended to become a specialist. “Even as a junior person, he would bring you in on brainstorming. He took people’s opinions and ideas seriously.”

David Redden showcases the Declaration of Independence - Photo by Matthew West

David lived with his wife, environmentalist Jeannette Redden, in the New York apartment once occupied by Roy Chapman Andrews, who inspired the Indiana Jones series.

Toward the end of his life, he was diagnosed with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. “For someone like David to suffer from ALS was the worst,” said current Sotheby’s chairman Benjamin Doller, “because he was an orator. He loved to speak.” Still, Redden maintained an active life of mind. In 2022, he donated his archive – including a diary of more than 1 million words – to the Getty Research Institute.

Photo by Kate Callas/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

He wrote movingly about his final years: “Living is so much more than science and medicine. But science and medicine have allocated the living a little more time. To use life well and fruitfully is our duty.” His family created a fund at Columbia University to support research into ALS and neuron diseases. “We ask you to consider a gift to this Fund which we will ensure is used wisely,” he concluded. “With love and appreciation to all whose lives have intersected with mine.”

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