Tom Fleming

Painting by Letters

Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A–Z of the Art World


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Not long ago a Japanese man decided to consign to auction his substantial collection of Impressionist and Modern art. Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the world’s two major auction houses, were consulted; each put together a sumptuous proposal detailing their expertise, their marketing plans and their generous terms of business. They were so similar, however, that the man couldn’t decide between them. So he called the head of each company’s Japanese branch into his office and asked that they settle the matter with a game of Paper, Scissors, Stone. Christie’s won.

It’s scarcely believable. But then, so much of what happens in the ghastly, fragrant, perfidious, endlessly compelling place known as the art world leaves one feeling incredulous (not least the sums of money involved). Philip Hook’s new book, an ‘A–Z of the art world’, is full of such stories, all gleaned from Hook’s many years in the business: he has been a director of both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as well as an independent art dealer and, until 2003, a regular on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. He writes self-deprecatingly about his experiences – one punter on the Roadshow tricked him with a fake Dutch landscape by ‘Hertz van Rental’ – and conveys his deep knowledge companionably. The book offers both an insight into a complex industry and a glance at the history of art from the perspective of the auctioneer.

Hook is fascinated by what sells and what doesn’t. Paintings with even a dash of red in them will be more valuable than those without; everyone wants a blue Chagall; the same colour works for Miró (‘the colour of my dreams,’ said the artist). A smile is better than a scowl, especially with the Impressionists (Hook recalls a fine Matisse interior, the value of which was, in his opinion, 75 per cent lower than it might have been simply because it featured a lady with a downturned mouth). But while anger is bad, angst is highly saleable: it’s the ‘trademark emotion of twentieth-century man’ and the ‘imprimatur of artistic sincerity’. Hook tells us all this with tongue partly in cheek. An entry on Alfred Sisley reads:

The ideal Impressionist landscape by Sisley is easily prescribed. It should feature: 1. blue skies; 2. water in which the blue sky is reflected; 3. foliage through which plays dappled light; and 4. it should measure at least 60 x 73 cm. The absence of any one of these elements will reduce the value.

The word most beloved of the art world is ‘iconic’. Buyers want a painting that will be instantly recognisable to their guests. Why on earth would you spend millions of pounds on a non-Pointillist Seurat? This is art as a ‘strongly branded product’ and Hook is aware of the consequences. With living artists, the danger is that ‘branding encourages sameness and discourages radical experiment’; with the art of the past, works that are not seen to be typical fall by the wayside. Hook traces the branding of artists back to 19th-century Paris and the Impressionist dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, who popularised single-artist exhibitions as a way of commodifying and selling those who had been excluded from the annual Salon, where paintings were traditionally exhibited.

There are entries in Breakfast at Sotheby’s on everything you might need to know about the art world, from forgeries and the practice of restoration to postwar restitution and theft (art is stolen mostly for the insurance money). Alongside all this are various potted biographies of artists, guides to particular styles or subject matters, and some entertaining lists – middlebrow artists, artists in fiction, spoof artists and so on. A glossary at the end contains some tasty examples of contemporary art speak: ‘evidence’ (‘often used as a verb, I’m afraid’); ‘passionately deployed capital’; ‘thematization’; and that horrible pair ‘gnosis’ and ‘praxis’.

It’s not a deep book. The A–Z format lends itself to dipping, not reading through; Hook does not give himself room for more than a cursory exploration of any particular subject. There is a sense of toothlessness, too: Hook is a company man (he’s still a director of Sotheby’s). He goes easy on the Christie’s–Sotheby’s price-fixing scandal of the 1990s (‘a classic case of Anglo-American misunderstanding’). His anecdotes can be rather inconsequential, as if he has trained himself not to risk endangering a sale or offending anyone: you can imagine him leading you gently by the elbow through the saleroom, from picture to picture, with a harmless story about each. Nonetheless this is an accessible, authoritative, often very funny guide to the art world.

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