Sotheby’s Isn’t Microsoft, So Lay Off My Old Buddies

Recently, I finally got the last of the books out of cartons and onto the shelves in my Brooklyn loft: well over 200 boxes of books, some 700 running feet of shelves. I really don’t want to move again for quite a while.

Among the books I unpacked, sorted and shelved was a slender volume bound in distinctive greenery-yallery boards familiar to anyone with any time in the art world. The cover reads, from top to bottom: “Sotheby & Co./ 34 & 35 New Bond St., London, W.1/ Catalogue of SEVEN PAINTINGS by Cezanne, Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh/ The Property of the late Jakob Goldschmidt of New York City/ Day of Sale: Wednesday, October 15, 1958 at 9:30 P.M. precisely .” Inside, all seven of the great paintings on offer are illustrated in full color.

How I came by this I’m not quite sure (in the autumn of 1958 I was initiating a bemused class of Yale freshmen in the mysteries of art history de l’antiquité à nos jours ), but it must have been via my late mother, who in those days was living in London, since a note in her handwriting identifies the buyer of a Manet self-portrait as “young Johnny Loeb,” presumably the same who was lately this country’s ambassador to Denmark and is now a fine-wine vintner to be reckoned with.

This is an intellectually valuable document, the Dead Sea Scrolls of the postmodernist art trade, you might say. The reason why is explained by a yellowed newspaper clipping from London’s Daily Telegraph , dated 10/16/58-the morning after the sale-which begins: “A Cézanne portrait of a boy entitled Garçon au Gilet Rouge sold last night for £220,000 at Sotheby’s. This is the highest price ever paid at auction.”

Thus, with a knock from the ivory gavel of the late Peter Wilson, Sotheby’s chairman at the time and inventor of the postmodern style of art buying, was the monster born whose slouch down the ensuing half-century ended a month ago with the resignations of the venerable auction firm’s chairman, Alfred Taubman, and its chief executive officer, Diana (Dede) Brooks in the wake of charges of collusive price (that is, commission)-fixing.

How much has changed since then, and yet how little. In some respects, the Daily Telegraph account might have been written yesterday: “Television Link Demand on Seats” is the lead to one paragraph, and as much note is taken of the famous faces in the sale room as the quality of the works: “Lady Churchill and Somerset Maugham, the Maharanee of Baroda and Lady Violet Bonham Carter.” Lest these names strike you as inferior, as boldface celebrity goes to such luminaries of today as Snoop Doggy Dogg and Skeet Ulrich, be reminded that those were the days when all but the very grandest personages of stage and screen went in by what today has probably been renamed “the tradespersons’ entrance.” At one point, the Telegraph ‘s reporter, Terence Mullaly, does allow himself a thin-lipped comment on the goings-on: “One wondered what the pensive girl in (Renoir’s La Pensée ) would have thought of the massed television cameras facing her down the hallway.”

The price the Cézanne brought-from, as would shortly become known, the late and much missed Paul Mellon (the painting is now in the National Gallery, Washington)-was equivalent to $600,000 and change. Chickenfeed in terms of the sums in which we conjugate the New Finance, but what you get when the old maxim “the art isn’t worth the money” is inverted by “the Greenspan Effect” and scarcity into “the money isn’t worth the art.”

The day after I finished with my books, the mail brought another Sotheby’s document of equal if unintended historical interest: the April 2000 issue of the house come-on magazine, Sotheby’s Preview , presumably the last issue to be put to bed under the Taubman-Brooks regime. It’s a fat book, in style and in physical if not intellectual thickness not unlike a normal issue of Vanity Fair (although, unlike the latter, it is read cover to cover by its subscribers, but don’t get me started on that, since it is best to let pass without comment the savagery with which Graydon Carter has been afflicted with the dreaded Zuckerman- News syndrome. This is the dire condition, a kind of psoriatic self-pity, brought about by the realization that no one in New York whose respect you crave reads, let alone takes seriously, the publication you edit. The only cure is to go live among those who actually read -as opposed to merely receive -the magazine. In Graydon’s case, to judge from VF ‘s Letters pages, this would require him to take up residence in an airhead capital like Corona del Mar, where I doubt he’d be happy. Corona del Mar is for when you’re not yet 40-or over 80. But then maybe VF is, too.)

Like Vanity Fair , SP includes a lot (five pages’ worth) of party pictures (assuming that “a reception and discussion on art and estate planning with the law firm Tenzer Greenblatt” strikes you as a party) mainly featuring a great many people one wouldn’t particularly wish to be seen in public with holding glasses of white wine. Indeed, a Martian picking up a copy of SP would have to plow through a wine column, the party pictures, and advertisements for a jeweler, a hotel, a yacht broker, two Swiss private banks and Neiman Marcus before stumbling upon any real evidence (page 18) that this all has something to do with art.

The motto of this column has always been “Kick ‘em when they’re up!” and my purpose isn’t to beat up on my old friend Alfred Taubman or on Dede Brooks, whom I know to be a classy person: a tough customer perhaps, but fair withal and capable of many an uncommon kindness. I have read as much as I could find on this business and I frankly remain puzzled. Nothing reported so far indicates sins so grave as to require Mr. Taubman and Ms. Brooks to fall on their swords, with Ms. Brooks, in the bargain, and in what anyone remotely familiar with Wall Street must regard as a summit of applied hypocrisy, being forced to leave the board of Dean Witter Morgan Stanley. Of course, personal experience long ago taught me that if you really want to see what chickenshit looks like, take a board of big-name or prestigious directors and apply a little regulatory flame to their backsides.

How Christie’s-the Sammy the Bull of this messy affair-has emerged so relatively unscarred baffles me, especially having read the long investigative piece on Christie’s owner François Pinault that The Economist published a month ago; this is definitely a guy whose figures you want to double-check.

The art world is full of Caesar’s Wives who under their gowns of purest white wear strictly Frederick’s of Hollywood or the Pleasure Chest. The auction game, moreover, is like any retail business: innately low-margin, which means the arithmetic needs all the nudging-ethical as well as operational-you can give it to supply the results a public market wants to see. From the outset, I have told anyone who would listen that this had to be about business-splitting, not commission-fixing, more or less as The Times ‘ Ralph Blumenthal and Carol Vogel reported recently. You lay off Jayne Wrightsman and we’ll stay away from Betsy Whitney.

A wise man once observed to me that two kinds of businesses should never be publicly owned: banks and motion picture studios. It may be that Sotheby’s and Christie’s fall into that category.

But what really bothers me-hell, scares me!-about this business is a sense I have that we’re seeing an unholy extension into new domains of private-sector interference of an alliance that began when the Government started hiring top private lawyers like David Boies to go after Microsoft, an alliance that took on monstrous new life and power in the tobacco industry settlements.

I refer to Uncle Sam making what looks to me to be common cause vs. Sotheby’s with the “strike suit” fraternity of class action litigators. Like an icebreaker clearing a path for a passenger liner, the Feds here seem to be working for the strike-suiters who represent disgruntled auction participants. Class action lawyers are the scum of the profession, next to whom marital attorneys look like Daniel Webster. For the U.S. Government to put itself in league with such vermin, using them as hired guns to wreak financial punishment in cases where its regulatory evidence is scant or unconvincing, is a development that ought to chill the ideological spine of anyone who gives a damn about the future of this country. It ought to be illegal!