The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade
by Simon de Pury, William Stadiem
Available May 3, 2016 from St. Martin’s Press
Just as William Goldman, the ultimate screenwriter, took us inside Hollywood, Simon de Pury, the ultimate art player, will take us inside an even more secretive business, whose staggering prices, famous collectors, and high crimes are front page news almost every day. The former Chairman of Sotheby’s Europe, the former owner of Sotheby’s rival Phillips de Pury, and currently a London-based dealer and advisor to great collectors around the world, Simon has one of the highest profiles of any non-artist in the art world. Even though he has an ancient title and the aura of an elegant Swiss banker, Simon is famous as an iconoclast and is known as “The Mick Jagger of Auctions” for his showmanship and exuberance. His whole life in art has been devoted to bringing art to the public and to the juxtaposition of high and low. Movie stars, musicians, and athletes compete with hedge funders and billionaires for the great art, and Simon is their pied piper; he wants to turn the world onto art and this book will be his message.
The author always had a physical, rather than intellectual, approach to art. Pure joy was just seeing and being around great art. De Pury, who is assisted by co-author Stadiem (Jet Set: The People, The Planes, The Glamour and the Romance in Aviation’s Glory Years, 2014, etc.), makes no secret of the fact that he has always been an ambitious snob and elitist, required assets for an auctioneer to those with large, expensive collections to sell. His first job was with art dealer and “total genius” Ernst Beyeler, a hometown friend of his mother in Basel, Switzerland. In 1971, Beyeler created Art Basel, and he laid out a five-year plan for the boy who still thought he wanted to be an artist. He showed him that buying and selling can be just as rewarding. The author moved on to Sotheby’s and met Peter Cecil Wilson, “the seemingly mythical chairman” and auctioneer extraordinaire. In Wilson, de Pury discovered the techniques to copy in hopes of being as great as his role model. Occasionally, the book is a true ego trip, with the author recalling his record-breaking sales as “the gallery swooned” or “the crowd breathed a collective ‘wow.’ ” De Pury engages in unabashed name-dropping and delivers plenty of juicy tidbits about some of the world’s 1 percent. However, this is also the story of a man wholly dedicated to his profession, a jet-setter before the jet age. He served as curator for one of the world’s greatest art collectors, Baron Heini Thyssen, and was also the owner of the acclaimed auction house Phillips.
At times, the narrative reads like a gossip rag for the fabulously wealthy, but it’s an enjoyable book that lets us live vicariously in the haut monde.