Piles of money, international power plays, cutthroat business tactics, unique personalities, and the politics of social class--that should be enough for a really juicy read, don't you think? But why stop there when you can also have smuggling, Swiss bank accounts, espionage, royal families, and mansions on the Riviera? Did anyone mention art? This riveting history of Sotheby's, the world's richest auction house, has that too, of course, but mainly as a lifestyle accessory.
With impeccable style, a deft touch with the telling detail, and an elegant way of delivering gossip with the proper journalistic distance, Robert Lacey has plotted a company history that reads like a thriller. There are unbusinesslike gems on nearly every page: "The tasty young ladies of 'Client Advisory' [a new Sotheby's department] were the next step in the process--the conversion of the rich and curious into solid bidders and buyers." Business and pleasure sometimes mingle: "Puzzled as to why the accounts department, which incurred regular bills for weekend overtime, was taking so long to produce figures, [the new corporate manager] asked John Cann, the director of administration, to investigate. 'They are having orgies,' Cann reported. 'They are coming in on Sundays and having sex.'"
But such stories are just the baubles on Lacey's minutely detailed history of Sotheby's rise from its humble origins in the rare-books trade of 1744 to the public company of today. Lacey is good on the art part, which, although essential to the story, is also somewhat ephemeral. He provides thoughtful cameos of the eccentric connoisseurs of old masters, Italian glass, Georgian silver, or Oriental furniture whose brilliance and sensitivity gave the auction business its special cachet. Of the highborn Peter Wilson, Sotheby's longtime chairman and a legend in every corner of the art world, for example, Lacey writes: "He would roll a carved ivory netsuke worth a few pounds between his fingers with the same delight with which he greeted an old master worth tens of thousands, for the secret of PCW's eye was his ability to be genuinely interested in almost anything." In Lacey's capable hands, the reader finds every facet of this story equally spellbinding. --Margaret Moorman