In reading the Sotheby’s published commentaries of the life and career of Peter Wilson (Sotheby’s Maestro), there is no denying his creativity and methodology to change an industry. It was also the start of a time with endless possibilities for a stodgy way of doing business. The Post-World War II landscape of Europe vs America for taste and money, was wiped clean. His opportunities were in delivering a better product, in a better way with a good bit of PR, which never hurt.
With all the accolades and anecdotes about his life by the many colleagues and professional acquaintance I found it stunning that no one mentioned his role in the implementation of the buyer’s premium in the mid-1970s. With all the showmanship attributed to his demeanor and control of an auction room, it all came down to money, and Sotheby’s not going broke or be overextended. It seemed that he had no shame spending money to do what he wanted. However, Peter Wilson was complicit as anybody in the premium’s creation and operation, having a willing partner with their competitor, Christie’s. Why wasn’t this titanic sea change in the auction revenue stream commented and recognize as an achievement in any of these commentaries?
The buyer’s premium was created to separate the dealers from the retail trade and it has worked magnificently. It had a build in price increase mechanism that worked flawlessly for over 40 years. It became the auction industry standard of non-negotiable revenue paid by a buyer, and today, auctioneers wouldn’t have it any other way. Honestly, the reason I bought the book was to learn more about the intrigue and thinking of when the premium was first implemented in London. From my perspective, the best version of the whole episode was from an incredible account by Peter Spira, in his insightful autobiography, Ladders and Snakes. As the Chief Financial Officer for Sotheby’s in London, he was careful not to implicate his boss in any collusion with Christie’s; not so for Mr. Taubman unfortunately.
As an anecdote to the book, I would like to give my one and only meeting of Mr. Wilson. It must have been in the late 70’s and we were just starting to establish a relationship with Sotheby’s through Robert Woolley, who was the head of Sotheby’s decorative arts division in New York. Robert was enamored by Newel’s immense size, quality, and diversity of decorative arts and he knew it might be something that Wilson should keep on his radar. I believe Robert also brought Gerald Bland who ran the English department too. As Wilson walked around our warehouse he remarked, “how did all this incredible stuff end up in New York.” One piece in particular that caught his attention was a chaise in the form of a crocodile that was vintage Brighton Pavilion; his eyes lit up. I got the sense that he loved nothing more than to be in his element, decorative and fine arts items.
To bring the Peter Wilson story to a close, Sotheby’s has continued to advance and reshape the auction house role. Today, irrevocable bidding would be like introducing a secret reserve price. In the end, the book is very entertaining and a last gasp of how the industry operated, with only a telephone or face to face. The Internet has now taken on a dominant role as pricing continues to get more transparent. How things were done, with a purpose, and where they morph has and will kept this industry evolving quite dramatically. In fact, Sotheby’s recently announced that they were getting rid of the buyer’s premium for online sale only; what comes around goes around!