Sotheby’s Breuer Purchase Brings the Auction House Back to Its Madison Ave Roots

The modernist masterpiece is great for showing art, but flow might be a problem.

Last week, the New York art world finally learned, with certainty, the fate of the Marcel Breuer-designed building on the Upper East Side that had for years served as the home of the Whitney Museum of American Art: it had been sold for some $100 million to Sotheby’s, which plans to use it as its headquarters by 2025. 

New Sotheby’s HQ. Bettmann Archive

“For Sotheby’s, the Breuer represents an opportunity to improve on its York Avenue location, moving closer to the heart of the Upper East Side art world, an area that includes large galleries like Gagosian, Mnuchin and Acquavella, and where smaller galleries are proliferating,” wrote Robin Pogrebin in The New York Times. Indeed, she went on, “The move represents a return to Sotheby’s roots, given that the auction house once occupied the Parke-Bernet Galleries across Madison Avenue, where Gagosian is now. “

Those roots at 980 Madison are worth examining because they do seem indicative of an auction house, and perhaps an art market, that’s shifting directions. Or at least a final and definitive break with the legacy of its influential one-time owner A. Alfred Taubman.

Like Christie’s, Sotheby’s was founded in 18th century London. The house made its name selling rare books, and didn’t have its first real success with art until 1913, though art was its target when the company purchased a 75 percent stake in the Parke-Bernet Galleries auction house in 1964 for $1.5 million. Sotheby’s New York manager even told the Times in 1964 that the reason the company wanted to move into the U.S. market was that “a generation of great American collectors is dying,” and that their art was up for grabs.

Alfred Taubman. Ron Galella Collection via Getty

With the purchase, Sotheby’s became the first international auction house, though they weren’t limited to art, as noted by the company’s own history of its time at 980 Madison:

One of Sotheby’s early successes in New York was the 1967 sale of treasure salvaged from the wreck of a Spanish ship which sank off the Florida coast in 1715. Sotheby’s mounted an exuberant exhibition and auction. “There was even a live macaw in a reconstruction of the captain’s cabin,” recalls Hugh Hildersley, who had moved from the London office to assist… For one of the sale sessions – in the spirit of a treasure hunt – only children could bid. The auctioneer addressed every boy and girl as “Sir” or “Madam”.

By 1980 Sotheby’s New York had surpassed London in art sales, a major milestone. This was the same year that the auction house moved to its present home, an old cigar factory and Kodak warehouse way out at 1334 York Avenue, a move that caused “many wags” to “predict its downfall,” per the Observer. In fact, business boomed, not least of all because it’s actually a little easier to get to Westchester and Connecticut from York Avenue.

In 1983 Taubman bought the house then known as Sotheby’s Parke Bernet. Known for his work building shopping malls and selling A&W root beer, Don Thompson’s chapter on the auction houses in The $12 Million Stuffed Shark begins with a quote by Taubman: “There is more similarity in the marketing challenge of selling a precious painting by Degas and a frosted mug of root beer than you ever thought possible.”

A Sotheby’s auction. Getty Images

Though Taubman left the company for reasons in 2005, he left his mark on Sotheby’s. To quote Robert Lacey’s, Sotheby’s: Bidding for Class

“Graham Llewellyn [Sotheby’s UK CEO], knew that Alfred Taubman had taken control of Sotheby’s when he glanced out of his office window one day and saw the considerable bulk of his new American boss teetering precariously on the roof. Taubman was looking down at the jumble of chimneys and roof extensions that reflected the auction house’s growth over the years. Flow had been the secret of his success in the mall business, and he made the redesign and reordering of New Bond Street’s rabbit warrens one of his first priorities.”

Taubman felt such a redesign was prudent on York Avenue as well. To quote from his own memoir, Threshold Resistance:

“…we added six floors to our converted Kodak warehouse on York Avenue to create a ten-story, 400,000-square-foot complex where our experts could work in close proximity to the artwork, and where clients could easily view whatever was coming up for sale. Building a new headquarters also helped create synergies. Once the renovation was completed, in spring 2000, a client visiting to meet with the jewelry expert might pass by the furniture department and see the perfect side table for her living room. We opened up the interior space to put essentially everything on view.”

Needless to say, this could not be a greater contrast to the Breuer building, a modernist masterpiece that is great for showing art but more than a little cave-like, definitely lacking when it comes to shopping mall-style synergy. Flow isn’t really a consideration when it comes to brutalism.

So the return to Madison Avenue may be one of just a few blocks, but it’s significant. In New York anyway, the company has taken this opportunity to signal that it seeks to be a little more artistic and a little more personal. We look forward to seeing their first sales there.

Sotheby’s Breuer Purchase Brings the Auction House Back to Its Madison Ave Roots