Established with a Books Auction in London on 11 March 1744, Today Marks 275 Years of Art Market 'Firsts' and Connecting Collectors with the World's Greatest Treasures.
Sotheby's Commemorates Its Anniversary By Ringing the Opening Bell of the New York Stock Exchange, Where It Is the Oldest Traded Company.
Today, March 11, 2019, Sotheby’s turns 275. Sotheby’s history is marked by a number of pioneering firsts and innovations that have not only transformed the company, but the industry along with it. Pictured here is the first ever evening “event” auction - now a mainstay of the art market - presented by Sotheby’s London in 1958.
Sotheby's first sale was held on 11 March 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) - where we are honored to ring the Opening Bell this morning.
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:
BEGINNINGS AS A BOOKSELLER
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. A literary thread has run through Sotheby's history ever since with legendary sales of treasures ranging from the original autograph manuscript of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground (1928) and the unpublished papers of Sir Isaac Newton (1936), to the collection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (2006), and Magna Carta (2007).
MOVE TO BOND STREET
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 the young 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.
THE RISE OF THE HOUSE SALE
One of the most memorable pre-WWII house sales happened over four days in April 1937 in the ballroom at 148 Piccadilly, one of the palatial residences of the Rothschild family. Held in the same year as the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, London was bustling with distinguished visitors from all over the world and the auction was a national event. Supposedly among the first of its kind to be broadcast by the BBC, the glittering contents achieved the then staggering sum of £125,000. And for centuries to come, many of the most notable collections have been handled by Sotheby's – from Thurn und Taxis (1993), Baden-Baden (1995) and Chateau de Groussay (1999), to Brook Astor (2012), Mrs. Paul Mellon (2014), the Duchess of Devonshire (2016), and the last residences of Pierre Bergé (2018).
FIRST INTERNATIONAL AUCTION HOUSE
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.
THE BIRTH OF THE "EVENING AUCTION"
Just one 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 an ingenious 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.
BOOM FOR OLD MASTERS
Sotheby's closed out the 1950s with a series of important sales and records prices including Sir Peter Paul Rubens'Adoration of the Magi from the collection of the Duke of Westminster, which sold for £275,000, a record for any Old Master painting at the time, and is now on view in Kings College Chapel, at Cambridge University. That record was soon eclipsed with the sale of Rembrandt van Rijn's Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, which was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1961 for $2.3 million, at the time, the most expensive painting ever sold at auction. Other treasured Old Masters handled by Sotheby's have made their way into the collections of the world's great museums, including Joseph Mallord William Turner's Modern Rome - Campo Vaccino (2011), and Orazio Gentileschi's Danaë and the Shower of Gold (2016), both of which now reside in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
In addition to record-breaking sales, the 1960s ushered in a decade of physical expansions – with Sotheby's opening offices in Los Angeles (1967), France (1967), Italy (1968) and Germany (1969) – as well as virtual developments, with the advent of telephone bidding and satellite transmission to allow for global participation in the company's New York and London salesroom.
"HERALDING THE BEGINNING OF A NEW ERA IN THE ART WORLD"*
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. That tradition of pushing the boundaries of the market has continued throughout Sotheby's history, most notably in 2008 with Sotheby's radical sale, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, which brought directly to market 200 new works by Damien Hirst that totaled $200.8 million.
EXPANDING TO ASIA
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.
LAUNCH OF THE CELEBRITY AUCTION
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).
Sotheby's made auction and political history in 1988 with the first international art auction held in Moscow since the Bolshevik Revolution. Held in collaboration with the Soviet Culture Ministry, the groundbreaking sale of 100 works of Russian Avant-Garde and Soviet Contemporary Art made headlines around the world. Sotheby's commitment to Russia continued with sales on behalf of the Russian Space Program in the 1990s, and the opening of an office in Moscow in 2007, which followed many years of unprecedented growth in the Russian art market and landmark sales including The Forbes Collection of Imperial Fabergé eggs and the private collection of Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya.
BILLION DOLLAR SALES
Sotheby's ended the 1980s with global sales of Impressionist & Modern Art that crossed the billion dollar threshold for the first time. Prices would only continue to rise in the 1990s with record-breaking sales, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette for $78 million. Sotheby's was the first auction house to break the $100 million barrier for a single work of art at auction with the sale of Pablo Picasso's rose period Garçon à la pipe, which sold for $104.2 million (2004), and was followed by Edvard Munch's iconic masterpiece, The Scream, which commanded $120 million(2012).
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS
American businessman A. Alfred Taubman bought Sotheby's in 1983 and took the company private (it has been publicly listed in the United Kingdom since 1977). A self-made man, A. Alfred Taubman launched The Taubman Company – dedicated to designing and building retail projects – in 1950. He revolutionized the retail experience, creating many of the design innovations that are considered standard in the industry today. The central focus of Mr. Taubman's business philosophy was the customer and he considered the auction process too inaccessible for most. For close to two decades, he set about changing the way Sotheby's did business, opening it up far beyond the dealers who were its historic mainstays, and helping to create the stunning growth of the international art market. Mr. Taubman took the company again in 1988 with a listing on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol BID.
Today, Sotheby's remains synonymous with innovation. Online bidding has become the preferred method of engagement in our salesrooms, and Sotheby's has recently rolled out a new online auction engine with mobile bidding and other features to make it easy and fun to engage with us. The house sales pioneered by Sotheby's in 1920s can now also come to life online through the company's retail website, Sotheby's Home. In 2018, sales to online buyers – which include items from live auctions purchased online, all online-only sales, as well as purchases made on our retail websites, Sotheby's Home and Sotheby's Wine – totaled $220.4 million, a 24% increase compared to 2017.
Beyond auction, Sotheby's now offers collectors the resources of Sotheby's Financial Services, the world's only full-service art financing company, as well as the collection, artist, estate & foundation advisory services of its subsidiary, Art Agency, Partners. Sotheby's also presents private sale opportunities in more than 70 categories and in 2018, private sales totaled more than $1 billion, a five-year high.
In 2016, Sotheby's brought scientific research in-house with the acquisition of Orion Analytical and the appointment of renowned scientist James Martin, mirroring a trend seen in the world's great museums and placing Sotheby's in a position to provide even greater service to collectors. Also in an effort to better serve clients and meet a growing demand for data, Sotheby's acquired the Mei Moses Art Indices, widely recognized as the preeminent measure of the state of the art market. Now known as Sotheby's Mei Moses, the indices provide Sotheby's with unique access to an analytic tool that provides objective and verifiable information to complement the world-class expertise of the Company's specialists.
And in keeping with the spirit that led Sotheby's to look beyond books in the 19th century and beyond England's shores in the 1950s, Sotheby's acquired Thread Genius in 2018, a startup specializing in taste-based image recognition and recommendation technologies. Founded by two software and machine learning engineers, the acquisition continues focus on data and technology to drive innovation and improve both internal processes and client service and experience, and positions the company well for future innovations.
2019 will also mark the most significant transformation of Sotheby's physical premises in many years: in May, we will unveil new galleries at our Manhattan headquarters, which will be the premiere commercial gallery space in the world; in October, we will unveil spectacular upgrades to our New Bond Street property in London; and in December, we will complete the refresh of our beautiful gallery space opposite the Elysée Palace in Paris.
*Doug Woodham, Art Collecting Today (New York: Allworth Press, 2017).