Jennifer Howard reviews 'Sotheby's: The Inside Story' by Peter Watson

By Jennifer Howard
February 27, 1998 1:00AM (UTC)
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1998 isn't even two months old and already it's been a lousy year for the art world. In January, Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau slapped the Museum of Modern Art with a subpoena -- the legal equivalent of shouting obscenities at a black-tie fund-raiser. At issue: two paintings by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele, on loan to MOMA from Austria's Leopold Museum. Morganthau is holding the paintings in New York while he decides whether they should go back to the heirs of the original owners, Viennese Jews who lost them to the Nazis.

Though it stands out for sheer drama and its greater implications for museums, Morgenthau's action is just the latest in a series of assaults on the art business. Last year in Britain, journalist Peter Watson lobbed a grenade at a pillar of the art establishment when he published "Sotheby's: The Inside Story." The book, played up in the British press, makes the eminent auction house out to be a den of pimps and thieves, willing to subvert the laws and jeopardize the cultural heritage of other countries in order to smuggle valuable objects into London and onto the sales block. Watson also aired his allegations in a series of TV programs he did for Britain's Channel 4; in the U.S., "60 Minutes" picked up the story.


The American edition of "Sotheby's: The Inside Story" doesn't have all the dirt the British edition did -- material on arcane schemes involving Iran, Japan and the British Rail Pension Fund didn't make the transatlantic jump -- but it still slings enough mud to keep Sotheby's in dirty laundry for a long time. For Sotheby's, Watson suggests, money is the only object. Are you in the market for some rare Apulian vases, illegally excavated from graves in southern Italy? Easy. Have a hankering for sacred carvings swiped from villagers in India? No problem. Or maybe you want to get your Old Master painting out of Italy, which, along with India, has some of the most stringent export laws in the world. Laws, apparently, were meant to be broken. Want to make sure that Old Master goes for a tidy sum? Let the auctioneer do a little "chandelier bidding" -- accepting fictitious bids to drive the price up.

Although the sins he describes are many, plausible and infuriating, Watson's no angel. He's a little too pleased with himself for uncovering all this sliminess. And he likes to forget he's writing nonfiction, slipping eagerly into spy-novel mode to describe the undercover operations -- complete with surveillance vans, cameras hidden in jewelry, even a sting involving an Italian Old Master painting -- that he and his team used to collect proof of wrongdoing. And when it comes to ethics, Watson doesn't bother to classify different magnitudes of transgression. (Is chandelier bidding really as heinous as grave robbing?)

Rarely does a book topple an institution, and the Sotheby's that Watson describes, hepped up on money and aristocratic arrogance, isn't about to crumble. Though much of his evidence seems sound -- the team secretly taped a Sotheby's employee practically begging a client to let him smuggle a painting to London -- no legal prosecution followed. (Sotheby's did make the requisite noises of protest and conducted an "internal investigation" that resulted in a few personnel changes.) Still, as an article in Art and Antiques pointed out last year, Sotheby's top brass now run the show out of New York, and in New York there's a feeling that the old ways of doing business are as antique as anything in a Sotheby's catalog. Revelations like those in "Sotheby's: The Inside Story" make you think it's past time museums and auction houses were held accountable for what they do.


And they are being held accountable. Not every case of contested art offers the seedy thrill of catching Sotheby's with its pants down, or the drama of the district attorney and the disputed Schieles. But this year will see a boom of such cases, as the victims of cultural property crimes -- from Holocaust victims' heirs to countries tired of watching their heritage auctioned off -- learn to point fingers and bring suit. No wonder the art world is nervous. The tussles over who owns what are likely to get more and more bruising, as those seeking reparation find the nerve and the cultural support to challenge those whose business depends on hanging on for dear life to what they've got.

Jennifer Howard

Jennifer Howard's fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review. She lives in Charlottesville, Va.

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