The Wall Street Jounal

History is all about who you sit next to at lunch. Or, in the case of Michel Strauss, who your mother sits next to. Back in 1960, Strauss was a Courtauld Institute grad student writing reviews for Burlington Magazine in his spare time (the degree shows of a pair of artists named Peter Blake and David Hockney are among those that caught his eye). At the fateful luncheon, his mother was seated next to Sotheby’s chairman Peter C. Wilson, who suggested in no time that her talented son might want to join the firm as a cataloguer.

Strauss took the job in 1961 at age 25, at a salary of £850 per annum, eventually rising to become head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern department in London, a post he held until his retirement in 2000.

Of course, who you sit next to depends a lot on where you come from. Strauss’ charmingly rambling memoir, Pictures, Passions and Eye: A Life at Sotheby’s (Halban Publishers, 2011), provides evidence in its casual way that social position -- who you know -- has an important if often hidden part in shaping the art market.  

Strauss comes from one of those cosmopolitan Jewish families that played such an important role in 19th- and early-20th-century Europe. His paternal grandfather was Jules Strauss, an art collector who lived on the Avenue Foch in Paris, buying Old Masters as well as Monet, Degas and Cezanne, and who is said to have found the perfect 16th-century Florentine frame for Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and donated it to the Louvre.

On his mother’s side, his grandfather was a Russian baron whose fortune was launched when he won a rare concession from the Tsar to sell vodka to the Russian army during the Crimean war. His mother herself was a champion French skier in the 1930s, who managed to escape France with her young son in 1941, eventually ending up in an apartment at the Carlyle Hotel.

Strauss joined Sotheby’s at the right time to be part of history, as the centuries-old but local firm evolved into the global art-market behemoth that it is today. He was there when Sotheby’s held its first specialist sale -- typically, everything was sold all at once -- and in 1967, responding to the demand of a publicity-shy U.S. collector, he came up with the now commonplace idea of telephone bidding. He helped take Sotheby’s into the Japanese market, the Russian market and the French market, each with its own peculiar difficulties.

And he was involved in the formation and the subsequent sale of the British Rail Pension Fund Collection, which was the first large-scale experiment in viewing art as an “alternative asset.” Launched following the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, which had crashed the world economy (in the auction firm, too, where Strauss’ section was called the "depressionist department"), the British Rail scheme was an apparent triumph for Sotheby’s. Its evening sale in 1989 totaled £34.9 million, roughly 10 times the £3.4 million spent on purchasing the works.

One example: Renoir’s La Promenade, bought from the Spingold Collection in the U.S. for £620,000 in 1976 and sold to the Getty Museum for £9.4 million in 1989. To Strauss’ credit, he testifies that the fund benefited enormously from good luck, buying at the oil-crisis low point and selling at the top of the Japanese bubble-economy boom. In the end, the fund represented the first and last experiment of its kind.

The book is filled with one story after another. A few are about artists, as when Renoir supposedly complains about the title given to his 1876 portrait of a girl (owned by Jules Strauss), La Pensee, now at the Museum of Wales in Cardiff, protesting that the suggested state of mind was all wrong, saying "that girl never thought, she lived like a bird and nothing more."

Others are about clients and their eccentricities, as when Somerset Maugham had second thoughts about going through with a 1962 auction. To the rescue was sent the young Sotheby’s specialist Bruce Chatwin, known for his charm with "collectors of a certain persuasion" (and later to become a novelist and travel writer, dying of AIDS in 1989). Chatwin visited Maugham in Dorset, where he somehow calmed the great writer by allowing him to run his fingers through his hair, which had been specially washed for the occasion.

But most often, A Life at Sotheby’s offers telling glimpses into the mysterious psychology of art and money. In one anecdote, Strauss is bidding for a collector against the great German Expressionist expert Serge Sabarsky in a contest for a work by Egon Schiele. Both get so caught up in "auction fever" that they bid way past the presale high estimate of $250,000, with Sabarsky finally winning the work at $620,000 (to Strauss’ relief). What happened? Each kept bidding because the other did, convinced of the superior taste and insight of their opponent.

Examples of great increases in value are the currency of Strauss’ book. Just a single example here, the mere three pages involving the Nahmad family, which includes three brothers and their sons, with bases in London and New York (and Paris and Monte Carlo). At the New York sales, taking the lead is David Nahmad, described by Strauss as nervous, gregarious and "a backgammon champion who has won and lost millions in the casinos." The Nahmads are celebrated for their eye for "the finest pictures on the market" -- as well as for holding onto them until the time "is just right to produce a substantial profit."

Here, Strauss points to Monet’s Pont du Chemin de Fer a Argenteuil from 1973. This picture, he says, was bought by the Nahmads for £6.2 million in 1988 and sold 20 years later for $37 million. Strauss’ tale is not without its discretion -- both sales were made at Christie’s, not Sotheby’s.

Review by Walter Robinson
© 2011 The Wall Street Journal