Stolen Art? Yes Big Picture? No

Sotheby’s: The Inside Story , by Peter Watson. Random House, 324 pages, $25.

In February 1997, Peter Watson orchestrated a media event that has caused a great deal of embarrassment at Sotheby’s, the 253-year-old auction house. Before millions of viewers on Britain’s Channel 4, and in a version that was later aired on 60 Minutes here in the United States, Mr. Watson captured Roeland Kollewijn, a Sotheby’s specialist in the old master paintings department in Milan, on tape offering to smuggle a painting by a minor 18th-century Italian artist out of Italy and into Britain. Mr. Watson, author of several books set in the art world and a well-known figure in Britain, did not do the actual sting himself. He hired an actress to play the part of an addlebrained heir of an estate that she claimed contained some valuable paintings. Mr. Kollewijn, who resigned from Sotheby’s in the wake of the scandal, awaits trial in Italy. Sotheby’s has shelled out millions of dollars trying to undo the damage to its reputation.

Too bad the American edition of Sotheby’s: The Inside Story -which was originally published in Britain last February in conjunction with the television programs-appears after all the action has already taken place. Drained of its media moment, the book, which also exposes art smuggling on the part of the august firm in other parts of Italy and India, has to stand on its own merits as a serious piece of nonfiction. This, unfortunately, it is not. What it is is yet another example of the deplorable trend of cobbling together books to run parallel to television programs. After a briskly narrated beginning detailing the sting operation, Mr. Watson goes on to recount, in mind-numbing detail, a series of relatively minor transactions that have taken place in the Sotheby’s antiquities department, based largely on suspicious information supplied by a former Sotheby’s clerk with a big bone to pick.

“[T]he biggest scandal the art world had seen for many years,” as Mr. Watson promises to deliver, is seriously undermined by the character of James Hodges, a former Sotheby’s employee who supplied Mr. Watson with hundreds of documents, many marked “Highly Confidential,” which he stole while working for the auction house. In fact, in the course of the book, Mr. Hodges, who was also later accused of forging the documents, fails every question on a lie-detector test put to him by Random House, the book’s American publisher. He is also convicted of stealing antiquities from Sotheby’s. Mr. Watson nonetheless continues to stand by his man, whom he views as central to his thesis that at Sotheby’s “dishonesty and misrepresentation were widespread.”

Anyone who has ever worked as a journalist will be able to grasp that good tips can come from sources who are not reliable as characters. Mr. Watson has found some valuable-and damaging-information about Sotheby’s from Mr. Hodges that he is able to make stick. He is able to show that Sotheby’s colluded with a major crook to sell Apulian vases that were stolen from grave sites in Italy, and temple deities from India. But he doesn’t have to defend Mr. Hodges in order to support the validity of his tips. At one point, he even admits to his own misgivings about Mr. Hodges. “I was not sure I entirely believed his version of events,” he writes. But if he doesn’t believe them, why should we?

In the American edition, Mr. Watson piles it on even higher when he addresses some of the detractors of the British edition. Sotheby’s has accused him of entrapping Mr. Kollewijn with a secret camera. To this, he replies that entrapment is causing “someone to do something wrong that he or she wouldn’t otherwise do.” How many men have been willing to do something for a beautiful woman that they wouldn’t otherwise do?

There is a lot about Sotheby’s: The Inside Story that makes you actually feel sorry for Sotheby’s, which is not the type of organization that normally engenders sympathy. Sotheby’s, after all, is not the only place art and antiques are sold; it’s just the largest. Like most old businesses, Sotheby’s is also a victim of its own past. Although democratized since it was purchased by A. Alfred Taubman, a Detroit shopping mall developer, it has a shady history of having employed a number of possible spies, such as the late Peter Wilson, the firm’s chairman during most of the great art collecting boom of the 1960’s and 1970’s. As Mr. Watson deftly points out, Wilson left the firm abruptly after Sir Anthony Blunt, the surveyor of the Queen’s art collection, was revealed to have been a spy for the Soviets. The rumor was that Wilson, who was a member of the British intelligence organization MI5 during World War II, was also a Soviet spy.

What Mr. Watson has failed to do is to expand his story of chicanery at Sotheby’s lower levels. He presents a convincing case that Sotheby’s expert staff has turned a blind eye to smuggled art in the antiquities department, even participated in it. But anyone who has dealt in the antiquities field can tell you that it is rife with fakes and claims by the governments of Third World countries. Yes, Sotheby’s is in a position to create a market in Apulian vases that have been dug out of graves in Italy and taken from the country illegally, and it is an awful thing. But how much did the climate that Wilson engendered when he was chairman lead to this kind of activity?

Responsibility starts at the top, but Mr. Watson has failed to find his way to the top. He is never able to link either Mr. Taubman, the current chairman and largest shareholder, or Diana D. Brooks, the chief executive officer, to the scandals. Without their involvement, we are apt to believe Ms. Brooks’ defense, which is that these practices are holdovers from an earlier regime. (Indeed, when I was working on Holly Unacceptable: The Bitter Battle for Sotheby’s , a nonfiction account of the takeover battle for the firm that led to the Taubman buyout, there was a great deal of talk about smuggled art.)

Unfortunately, Mr. Watson is never able to bring the story around to the bigger picture. He even reveals the editorial problem with his book himself when he reports that unnamed figures at Random House warned him about the book’s shortcomings after he submitted the first draft. On page 169, he says that the “publishers in New York” pointed out that “a book is not like a TV program or a newspaper article. It was not enough to produce an indictment; a book needed to go further, examine the allegations-however well documented-in detail.” Even though the American edition was edited down from the British edition, and an epilogue covering Sotheby’s point of view was added to the book, Sotheby’s: The Inside Story still reads like a series of rambling and disconnected investigative newspaper stories that might have appeared in The Sunday Times of London, where this book was originally excerpted and Mr. Watson was once employed. Pity.