A Trip Around The Art World: Sothebys to Wildensteins

The Sale of Sezanne's 'Fils Au Gilet Rouge'

One didn’t think about it at the time but this could have been the finest hour for the salerooms and the dealers. In those days the auction houses were basically a go-between for the public to the trade. There were not many private buyers at auction then, the majority of the lots  went to the dealers who would restore them, if necessary, and sell them on to their clients.  This kept an equilibrium which continued until the introduction of the (buyer’s premium ) which I will explain later.

Today of course, it would be impossible to have sales every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, there simply are not enough goods available. Not that everything was of the highest quality, such as the lovely Gainsborough of the Andrews family which is now in the National Gallery.  In fact in some of the lesser picture sales Peter Wilson would be taking the sale and the dialogue go something like this.  Lot 30, £20 anywhere? 10 pounds? 5 pounds, dent. “I wasn’t bidding Mr Wilson “  “its yours Dent”  “oh very well Mr Wilson” .   Mr Dent was an unusual dealer, the like of which we will never see again. He used to view every single picture sale in London wearing a rather greasy trilby and carrying a briefcase. Besides his catalogues the briefcase contained an apparently inexhaustible supply of Mars bars which he would hand out to the porters. Mr Dent had a unique way of selling pictures, you would go to his flat by appointment and find Rows of paintings stacked against the wall. The first would be a £200 stack going up in increments to a £1500 stack. If you want to buy a particular picture you had to buy the whole stack, you could not just pick and choose.

Considering the amount of goods which pass through the rooms the amount of pilferage was relatively small. There was one brazen case.  On a Thursday afternoon, just before closing time two  men came up the stairs with a ladder and a letter from the leading tapestry dealer in London stating that they were to pick up two very important Brussels tapestries for minor repairs and return them before nine next morning. They proceeded to take the tapestries down, roll them up , take them down to their van , come back for their ladder and neither ladder, tapestries, or van were ever seen again.

Sothebys was an interesting place to work in those days , there was no educational  or training schemes and so one found oneself working alongside such people as Bruce Chatwin who became the youngest director of Sothebys at 23 years old, but then threw it all up to go travelling and follow a literary career. Which fortunately for the rest of us produced some fantastic books such as,  “on the Black Hill,” “  in Patagonia “ “song lines’  “Utz” etc

The one month in which there were no sales was August,  so often the gallery would let itself be used as an exhibition hall and I’ll never forget one year we had a loan exhibition of some of the most memorable jewels designed by Dali. They were owned by an American lady from the deep South. Some of the jewels were mechanical, such as a beating heart made of rubies, which pulsated, I did find that a trifle worrying. There were several watches draped over tree branches but for me the most memorable was a necklace made up in gold.  The necklace consisted of a fine Gold chain which dropped to the outline of a pair of eyes and then a small chain dropped to a solid gold nose and then again to the outline of a pair of lips. Although it was one of the least important pieces in the show , its exquisite delicacy and balance made it for me one of the most memorable.  It was a hugely successful exhibition and amongst very many visitors was her Royal Highness the Princess Margaret.

As I mentioned before that when a vacancy opened up in one of the departments I might be considered to fill it. So it was that I found myself in the porcelain department under Jim Kadell and Tim Clark. Mr Kadell dealt with the Chinese and far Eastern wares, Mr Clark with the European and English. Although I appreciated the delicacy of the figures by the great factories like Meissen in Germany and Chelsea in England what I really wanted to do was to work with paintings. The picture department in Sothebys was always the most glamorous, but one needed friends in high places to get in. So is time to think of a move. Wildenstein’s was at that time at 147 new Bond Street, almost opposite Sothebys front door. One lunchtime I wandered in and met Leonard Foster the manager. I told him I was working at Sotheby’s but wanted to work with Pictures. His response was that they did not have 20 year old salesman in any of their galleries in either London, Paris , Buenos Aires  or New York.  To which I gave my standard stock reply I see no reason why not and a month later began my time with Wildensteins.

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