In the 19th century, the Great Room at Christie’s operated as a quasi-national gallery. For the educated public, the works that passed through the doors of the auction house offered a rare opportunity to come face to face with old masters. The perfume of snobbery and money that seems such a bar to entry to auction houses today (though in fact they welcome every-one) is a relatively recent development. How this came about is, in some senses, the subject of both Simon de Pury’s The Auctioneer and Charles Hindlip’s An Auctioneer’s Lot. Both purport to be autobiographies, but the stories they tell is also the story of the art market.
In the 1980s, newspaper editors got excited about £1 million being spent at auction. Now it’s a hundred times that. If you believe de Pury, the way this came to pass is down to Peter Wilson, head of Sotheby’s from 1957 to 1979, though de Pury, naturally, had a