Founded in 1744, Sotheby’s is the oldest and largest auctioneer of fine art in the world.
With many of its record-breaking auctions constantly making international headlines, one can’t help but wonder how this 270-year-old firm has managed to sustain such a reputation and just how it ascended to the summit of fine art?
Well to answer this question, we have to break down Sotheby’s current monopoly in fine art and hone in on the one area that helped to sow the seeds of Sotheby’s – Literature. Its founder was a bookseller named Samuel Baker who straight away, began dealing with some of the finest personal book collections of the period, such as the Earls of Sunderland, Hopetoun and Pembroke as well as the Dukes of Devonshire, York and Buckingham. He even sold the books Napoleon Bonaparte had taken when he was exiled to St Helena. When Baker died in 1778, his estate was taken over by his nephew John Sotheby and his family, who expanded its role from literature into prints, coins, medals and antiques.
When the last of the Sotheby family died in 1861 the firm’s accountant, John Wilkson took over and rebranded the company Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge. It held this moniker til 1924 when Hodge, a partner of the business passed away and was succeeded by his son, who decided to introduce new associates and from here, the business had a breakthrough when they moved from the Strand to Mayfair essentially moving from the book world into the art world.
Sotheby’s roared into the 20th century, throughout the interwar and into the postwar years, the firm consistently traded successfully. This peaked at the successful auction of the Weinberg Collection in 1957, which was even attended by Queen Elizabeth II. The peak was surpassed the following year by the Goldschmidt Collection in which it set a new world record for a fine art sale. Buoyed by this revolutionary success, Sotheby’s went on to become a byword for art auctioneering throughout the late 50’s and 1960’s.
Sotheby’s branched out into a period of fruitful expansion throughout the late 20th and early 21st century by becoming the first international auctioneer to register sales in Russia, France, India, Hong Kong and China. This list of ‘firsts’ came with more groundbreaking sales. In London, the sale of Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents in 2002 sold for £49.5 million, which still stands as the record selling price for an Old Master painting. It became emblematic of Sotheby’s supremacy in the fine art world. This supremacy is typified by its unorthodox innovation, such as when they teamed up with Korean Pop icon T.O.P who helped curate a record-breaking auction in Hong Kong by attracting millennials thanks to his stardom. The sale produced $17.4 million, a record for a sale of Western art in Hong Kong.
Sotheby’s has always innovated, right from its formative and expressive advertisements by Samuel Baker through to the modern day art presentations. It shows no signs of losing its edge, such as it’s recent David Bowie exhibition and we look forward to seeing how it will continue to create groundbreaking exhibitions in the future.