When the local antiquarian and rare bookseller Samuel Baker held his first auction of 247 lots on “Books in all branches of Polite Literature” in 1744 , he could not have foreseen that his venture onto the podium would lead to the creation of the most prestigious auction house in the world.
After his first sale totalling £826, Baker became popular with wealthy bibliophiles like Louis XV of France as a seller of fine books and after passing away in 1778, his now thriving business was left to his beloved nephew, John Sotheby. As the years went by, the auction house became more and more successful, passing from one generation to another and expanding its range of items for sale to include works of art, precious artefacts and unique properties.
In the early days, the firm handled the auctioning of great private libraries owned by gentry and royalty, including that of Napoleon and his personal tortoiseshell & gold walking stick. Later, Sotheby’s was to take on the sale of prints, medals and antiquities as its premises relocated to the hub of the London art world in Bond Street, Mayfair. As the First World War ensued, female specialists were recruited into the company while works of art took centre stage, many finding their way to auction from the grand country houses of once wealthy landowners.
Its New York branch opened in 1955 while the then Chairman Peter Wilson attracted private buyers by opening an Impressionist and Modern art department, culminating in a new world record for a fine art sale in 1957 for the seven impressionist masterpieces in the Goldschmidt Collection. Further milestones included the sale of Rubens’ The Adoration of the Magi and Somerset Maugham’s Impressionist collection. Hundreds of 20th century masterpieces by artists such as Picasso and Warhol have passed through Sotheby’s doors, making it the centre of the world art market, while items belonging to private collections of personalities like David Bowie continue to break records in terms of sales.
In terms of Greek Art, Sotheby’s has been dealing in Greek paintings and sculpture since 1800, with specialised sales in London since 2001. Works by over 40 internationally acclaimed Greek artists such as Theodoros Ralli, Constantinos Parthenis, Constantinos Volanakis, Nikolaos Gysis, Nikos Hadjikiriakos-Ghika, Nikiforos Lytras, Yannis Tsarouchis and Yannis Spyropoulos have brought world-record prices, with works coming under the hammer generating a combined total of £60 million in sales. “The Arrival of Karaiskakis at Faliro” by Constantinos Volanakis went for £1,609,250 in November 2008, setting a world record for the highest auction price for work in this category.
From its humble beginnings just off the Strand, 275 years later Sotheby’s has an impressive network of 80 offices in 40 countries and an annual global sales turnover of more than $4 billion. Buyers can bid online from anywhere in the world for items in over 70 categories, including investment-quality automobiles, while Sotheby’s International Realty Affiliates LLC reported more than $112 billion USD in global sales volume in 2018.
Innovative online initiatives, such as the Sotheby’s Museum Network, featuring video content from prestigious institutions like the Tate Gallery, are all part of the world of Sotheby’s, which continues to be synonymous with beautiful objects of desire, from precious jewels to rare wines, just as its founder Samuel Baker would have wished it to be.