Art & Collectibles Market

Sotheby's celebrates its 275 years: a retrospective

Bérénice Robaglia

6 min

Sotheby's main gallery

Introduction

From an autographed manuscript of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures raising £15,400 in 1928, a £2.1m autographed manuscript for Beethoven’s Ninth in 2003, a £21m Magna Carta in 2007 or even the famous Scream of Edvard Munch which raised $120m in 2012, Sotheby’s has been uniting collectors with world-class works of art since 1744.

To honour its 275th anniversary this year, the auction house is setting a wonderful exhibition based on archives of many record-breaking auctions. With 80 offices all around the world generating annual sales exceeding $4 billion each year, the British firm is the second largest auction house after Christie’s. This was also an important year for them, since it slipped into wealthy private hands with a $3.7 billion deal that reshaped the global art market. 

The History of Sotheby’s

The beginnings

Samuel Baker, a British bookseller and publisher, founded Sotheby’s in 1744 with a successful sale of valuable books amounting to £826 in total. An entrepreneur at heart, Baker quickly began publishing and advertising authoritative catalogs to promote his sales. He and his successors handled great libraries sold at auction. For instance, Sotheby’s sold the books Napoleon took to Ste Helene island during his exile.

Baker associated himself with the established auctioneer George Leigh. When he died in 1778, his estate was divided between Leigh and his nephew John Sotheby, whose family remained involved in the business for more than 80 years. During that time the company expanded to the sale of prints, coins, medals, and antiquities. In 1861, the company’s senior accountant and partner, John Wilkinson, took over the business and partnered with Edward Grose Hodge until his death in 1907. Hodge’s son then associated himself with Montague Barlow, a Barrister, Felix Warre, a banker, and Geoffrey Hobson, a young Foreign Office official. Together they orchestrated the sale of the Huth Library from 1911 to 1922, and relocated to New Bond Street in Mayfair, signaling a definitive shift from the book sector to the art world. 

From the 20’s to WWII

The 1917 relocation from Wellington Street, the heart of the book world, to New Bond Street in Mayfair, the hub of the art world, was a strategic move and a real triumph. Moreover, in what was a progressive move for the time - or perhaps simply due to the lack of men in the wartime workforce - they recruited women as both experts and support staff. Thereafter, the company rapidly extended their art categories to sales of pictures and decorative works which proved to be very popular during the inter- and post-war period. In 1937, the most memorable auction sales were recorded, with many visitors hailing from all around the world- even the BBC attended to broadcast in the palatial residence of the Rothschild family and raised a mighty £125,000. Sotheby’s popularity did not stop during WWII, a time in which the auction house famously converted their basement in an air raid shelter to make sure buyers would not miss a bid.

Post-WWII and onwards

In the mid 1950s, Peter Wilson, a pre-war trainee, initiated the Impressionist and Modern art Department. Meanwhile, the auction house was developing connections with the London high society. This strategic positioning led them to source important collections and to sell them successfully - for example the Weinberg collection in 1957 or the landmark Goldschmidt sale in 1958 where seven paintings, including works by Manet, Cézanne and Van Gogh were sold in just seven minutes. The 1958 sale created a true momentum for the industry and was followed by further high-profile consignments, including Rubens’ The Adoration of the Magi and Somerset Maugham’s Impressionist collection (including a Tahitian shack door decorated by Gauguin). 

The 1980s through the 2000s saw record prices at Sotheby’s for 20th century masterpieces, including Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe, which sold in New York for $104.2 million in 2004 and Warhol’s Silver Car Crash for $108.4 million in 2013. Early 2000’s they also broke a record within Old Master paintings with Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents sold for £49.5 million in 2002.

Thanks to their exponential fame they quickly managed to sell personalities’ collections such as Andy Warhol’s in 1988, Greta Garbo’s in 1990, Jacqueline Kennedy’s in 1996 and Gianni Versace’s in 2001. In 2008, the Damien Hirst’s auction, “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever”, was a milestone for Sotheby’s setting a world record in the contemporary art category.

A series of celebrated auctions in recent years have secured the company’s reputation for staging groundbreaking events. For instance, in 2012 the sale of Edvard Munch’s Scream – described by The New York Times as an “irresistible trophy”– made headlines around the world. Similarly in 2016, the hugely anticipated single-owner sales of the Duchess of Devonshire’s private collection of her David Bowie album drew unprecedented auction participation and unique media coverage!

Geographical Expansion

Geographical expansion began and accelerated in the years to come. First in New York with the acquisition of Parke-Bernet in 1955, America’s largest fine art auction house, followed by the move to Hong Kong in 1973, a Russian office in 1988, an Indian one in 1992, a French one in 2001, and one in mainland China in 2012. 

During these years, the company was changing ownership from one wealthy hand to another. In 1977, the year of Wilson’s death, the company went public. The same year it was bought by Alfred Taubman, who opened new offices in New York. In 1988 the company went public again and was listed on the New York stock exchange. And this year, in 2019, the British auction house was snapped up by the French tycoon Drahi for a whooping $3.7 billion.

Going Digital in the 21st century

Today, Sotheby’s has widely diversified its business by taking a number of initiatives. To name a few, there is S|2, Sotheby's gallery arm, its two retail businesses, Sotheby’s Diamonds and Sotheby’s Wine, its real estate services under Sotheby’s International Realty, its art financing service for companies under Sotheby’s Financial Services and its collection advisory subsidiary with Art Agency, Partners. The auction house has also focused massively on digital initiatives; in 2018, 60% of new bidders at Sotheby’s were online. 

Seeking more technological leadership, Sotheby’s is increasing its presence online; for instance, they launched the Sotheby’s Museum Network, a collection of video content from the world’s most renowned institutions, including Tate and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 2016, driven to attain the finest technical and statistical knowledge on the art market, Sotheby’s acquired two internationally renowned businesses: Orion Analytical, a materials analysis and consulting firm in the art world, and The Mei Moses Art Indices, an analytic tool which collects price information for objects that have come to auction.

Conclusion 

It seems clear that Sotheby’s is expanding virtually as well as physically. Just the past May, the art market giant unveiled a dramatic expansion of the flagship site in NYC and re-imagined the space with 40 galleries dividing an ensemble of more than 90,000 square feet. Although we cannot predict what the future of Sotheby’s will look like… From all of us here at Convelio, we wish Sotheby’s 275 more years of success! 

December 4, 2019

Bérénice Robaglia