Wall Street Journal Eastern Edition

An Auction Life, Self-Appraised

Present at the revolution when the prices of paintings skyrocketed.

Shortly after Michel Strauss joined Sotheby's in 1961 as a junior cataloger, the British auction house won the sale of Somerset Maugham's art collection. Assignment to cataloging was an indication of a young staff member's rising importance, and a senior cataloger, who had climbed up from a porter's job, was furious that a newcomer had been given the plum position.

As Mr. Strauss relates in "Pictures, Passions and Eye," an account of his long career at Sotheby's, the angry colleague was Bruce Chatwin, who would go on to fame as the author of the 1977 travel book "In Patagonia." Chatwin casually proposed that Mr. Strauss meet him in the picture vault to examine the Maugham collection, which included an early Picasso, at 9:30 the following morning. Relishing the opportunity, Mr. Strauss arrived punctually, only to find the cataloging already done. Chatwin had rather unkindly stolen a first march, turning up at 5:30. In time the two men developed an amicable working relationship, before Chatwin left to try his hand at archaeology in the mid-1960s.

Mr. Strauss stayed with the firm for four decades, chiefly as head of the Impressionist and Modern art department. In that time he was present at the creation of the auction-house business as we know it today and witnessed the dizzying escalation in value of work by artists from Monet to Warhol.

But "Pictures, Passions and Eye" is as much about people and places as about paintings and prices. Mr. Strauss has never wanted for proximity to the famous and wonderfully unlikely. He recalls, for instance, an unfortunate dinner-party meeting of his stepfather, philosopher Isaiah Berlin, and Pablo Picasso. (The artist, Berlin discovered to his dismay, abhorred the mention of death.) When Mr. Strauss studied art history at the Courtauld Institute in London beginning in 1959, it was under the tutelage of Anthony Blunt, later revealed as one of the Soviet spies in the Cambridge Five. The author was hired at Sotheby's in 1961 by Peter Wilson, who proclaimed himself the model for James Bond—having served alongside Ian Fleming in wartime intelligence as agent No. 007.

Born in 1936 into an affluent Parisian Jewish family, Mr. Strauss had an unhappy and disjointed childhood. His much worshiped father died when he was 2, and his mother fled with him to America when the Germans invaded the following year. Shuffled from school to school, Mr. Strauss says, he felt lonely and adrift. He would eventually come into his own at Oxford, where he skied for the varsity, drank and gambled, not necessarily in that order, and was suspended for failing his first-year exams.Faced with the alarming prospect of holiday cramming, Mr. Strauss shortly transferred to Harvard. In the intervening summer, he had an affair with William Faulkner's mistress and traveled around Europe in an old convertible.

His early memories and family history, recounted at some length, are leavened by such episodes and interesting inasmuch as their telling bears the unmistakable mark of his working life, namely the auction-catalog entry. He often relates to people through provenance—his favorite schoolmaster was Wordsworth's grandson; his mother studied Russian with Boris Pasternak's sister; his family was granted its timely exit visas by Gen. Douglas MacArthur's nephew. Mr. Strauss is also given to superlatives: His mother was "one of the most beautiful women of her time"; his stepfather, "the greatest conversationalist of his time"; Peter Wilson, "the greatest auctioneer of his generation."

Wilson figures prominently in "Pictures, Passions and Eye," from his genteel aesthetic judgment (poor-quality pictures were "unprepossessing") to his landing the celebrated Goldschmidt collection in 1958, beating out Christie's. Wilson was renowned for his florid charm as much as for his boundless egotism, which the author for the most part graciously elides.

Mr. Strauss captures the exciting, if somewhat provincial, flavor of midcentury sales, and the peaks and occasional valleys of the auction market since then, including billionaire real-estate developer Alfred Taubman's purchase of Sotheby's in 1983 and the 1990s commission-fixing scandal involving Sotheby's and Christie's. Mr. Strauss is no stylist, however, and his narrative can be disorienting at times, jumping from heading ("Collectors") to heading ("Valuations") with little regard for chronology or audience. (His chapter on "Memorable Colleagues in London" reads like office-party valedictory.) Yet his memoir is suffused with warmth and unspoiled enthusiasm.

He is at his best with the vivid characters he has known, auction-house idiosyncrasies and, above all, exceptional pictures. One of the book's most compelling sections weaves together the varied auction history of Claude Monet's "Le Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil," an exemplary Impressionist landscape. The tale encapsulates overlapping cultural and commercial trends as the painting passes from an eccentric Scottish recluse to Los Angeles collectors in 1963 (for £77,000, or about $1.6 million in 2011 dollars), to shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos in 1977 (for $2.7 million today), to the influential Nahmad family—far-flung heirs of an old Syrian banking fortune—in 1988 ($21 million), and finally to an anonymous and deep-pocketed collector in 2008 ($37 million, briefly the world record at auction for the artist).

The auction world Mr. Strauss left on his retirement in 2000 is an altogether different place from the one he entered. The markets are truly global, the stakes accordingly higher. If much of the old-world charm has been lost, the auctions have become more democratic along the way. Collectors come from wildly disparate backgrounds, and the generation of specialists who followed Mr. Strauss no longer need be cut from the British public-school cloth. Yet if the key players have changed, the song remains much the same. Fifty years on, Mr. Strauss recalls cheerfully leaving his first sale—where an impressive Cézanne still life fetched the then staggering sum of £67,500, or $1.4 million in today's dollars—only to be met with that incredulous and well-worn refrain: "These prices are crazy and we will never see them again!"

Review by Maxwell Carter
Maxwell Carter is an associate vice president and specialist in Impressionist and Modern art at Christie's.

© 2011 Wall Street Journal Eastern Edition