LONDON – Sotheby’s (NYSE: BID) turns 275 today. The auction company’s first sale was held on March 11, 1744, in London at Exeter Exchange on The Strand – an auction of “several Hundred scarce and valuable Books in all branches of Polite Literature” that fetched a grand total of £826.
Founded as an auctioneer of books – predating both the American and French Revolutions – the firm soon added fine art, house sales, jewelry and more, and expanded from London to America, Asia, and beyond. Today, Sotheby’s has 80 offices in 40 countries and is the oldest company traded on the New York Stock Exchange, almost 50 years older than the exchange itself.
Sotheby’s was the first auction house to set sail across the Atlantic and open offices in America (1955) and the first to hold auctions in Asia (1973). Sotheby’s pioneered the format of the evening “event” auctions that are a mainstay of today’s art market (1958) and were the first to use satellite transmission to allow for simultaneous bidding in London and New York (1960s). A Sotheby’s auction in the 1970s is credited with transforming the modern art market with the first auctions of works by living artists including Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, the first to sell a work for more than $100 million (2004), pioneers in the field of e-commerce (2000), and we recently brought scientific research (2017) and artificial intelligence (2018) in-house.
Along the way, some of the world’s most precious objects and collections have passed through Sotheby’s: Napoleon’s Library (1823), the original manuscript for Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, presented by Lewis Carroll to the original Alice, Alice Liddell (1928); the 68-carat diamond bought by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor (1969); Einstein’s Theory of Relativity (1987); the Jewels of the Duchess of Windsor (1987); the Andy Warhol Collection (1988), the Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1996); Sue the T Rex, now the star of the Field Museum in Chicago (1997); the collection of the Duke & Duchess of Windsor (1998); the Forbes Collection of Fabergé, including nine Fabergé Imperial Easter Eggs (2004); Martin Luther King’s Library (2006); the Magna Carta (2007); Edvard Munch’s The Scream (2012); and property from the Collection of Mrs. Paul Mellon (2014).
“Sotheby’s has thrived for 275 years precisely because it has dared to reinvent itself again and again, and in so doing has continually redefined the business of trading art on a global basis,” said Tad Smith, Sotheby’s CEO. “The company’s history is marked by a series of innovations that have not just continually changed Sotheby’s but transformed the wider industry along with it. We are thrilled to share this important milestone with our clients, colleagues and shareholders around the world.”
Below is a look at some of the key moments and innovations that helped drive the art market and sustain Sotheby’s business over the better part of three centuries:
A tradition of innovation has defined Sotheby’s from the beginning. With that first auction in 1744, the company’s founder, Samuel Baker, kick-started his small book-selling business with the presentation of the library of a British nobleman, Sir John Stanley, as a single auction event. Soon, Baker’s company had transformed into the leading auctioneer of aristocratic libraries, culminating in the 1823 auction of the books Napoleon brought with him into exile to St. Helena.
By 1883, Sotheby’s had begun to offer works of art and, recognizing the significant opportunity in the market, the company made the bold move to fashionable Bond Street in the West End of London in 1917. The post-WWI restructuring of British society presented a unique opportunity for Sotheby’s and the concept of the house sale – in which the auction was conducted at the residence where the collection was housed – was reinvented on a massive scale beginning with Sotheby’s 1929 sale of the contents of Kinmel Park in Wales.
In 1955, Sotheby’s became the world’s first international auction house with the opening of a New York office to directly serve American clients. The pioneering move almost immediately bore fruit in 1957 when Sotheby’s secured the American-based collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings belonging to William Weinberg, which was sold in London that summer. Sotheby’s had only recently opened a department of Impressionist & Modern Art and the auction was the first ever dedicated entirely to the category. Viewed by Queen Elizabeth II, the sale was a sensation and heralded a new era for the art market. Sotheby’s further enhanced their foothold in the United States in 1964 with the purchase of a majority stake in Parke-Bernet, America’s largest fine art auction house. At the helm of Parke-Bernet was Louis J. Marion, whose son, John L. Marion, would go on to be the Chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America, a legendary auctioneer, and honorary chairman of the company to this day.
A year later – in 1958 – Sotheby’s staged a legendary event whose impact is still felt today. Following the successful handling of the Weinberg Collection, Sotheby’s won the collection of Jakob Goldschmidt – seven important paintings by Édouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent Van Gogh and Pierre-August Renoir. To mark the occasion, Sotheby’s chairman, Peter Wilson, devised a strategy to offer the works in a stand-alone, glamorous evening auction. The black-tie event – with Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn and Lady Churchill in the audience – set a new benchmark for a fine art sale and the “Evening Sale” – a mainstay of today’s art market – was born.
A Sotheby’s auction in 1973 marked a turning point for the modern art market – A Selection of Fifty Works from the Collection of Robert C. Scull featured, for the first time, works by living artists including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. The final total was an astonishing $2.2 million and individual prices were, in many cases, multiples of the original purchase prices, shining a new light on the contemporary art market and launching a debate about the resale of the work of living artists that continues today.
In 1973, Sotheby’s became the first international auction house to open an office and hold auctions in Asia, leading to the legendary sales of the collection of Edward T. Chow in 1980. The finest assembly of Ming and Qing porcelain to have ever come to market, the sale broke numerous records. Sotheby’s operation in Asia now boasts more than 200 employees across nine locations, including a gallery in Hong Kong, leading to sales of more than $1 billion in 2018.
In 1988, Sotheby’s presented the Andy Warhol Collection in New York, drawing 60,000 visitors over the 18-day exhibition period and raising $25.3 million. The sale was the largest auction in the 20th century – 2,500 lots in over 27 different collection categories – and launched the “celebrity auction.” Sotheby’s would successfully mount dozens of events of similar scale over the next several decades, including the Estate of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1996), the Collection of The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (1998), and the Collection of David Bowie (2016).