Auctioneer who lifted art to new heights

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The Independent Online
THE DOMINANCE of London as an international art market owes a great deal to the influence of the two big auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's. And they owe their unrivalled position largely to the genius of one man, Peter Wilson, who built Sotheby's over three decades into an unprecedented world force.

In that time, he transformed expectations of the prices that objets d'art could fetch and gave the market a popular appeal it had never had before. He also transformed Sotheby's itself. When he took over as chairman in 1957, turnover was pounds 3m; when he left 21 years later, it had climbed to pounds 186m.

Peter Wilson was an improbable figure, the son of a baronet, 'Scatters' Wilson, who spent most of his life seducing leading ladies in London society. Wilson himself, charming but ruthless, joined Sotheby's in 1937 after an undistinguished career at Eton and Oxford. He spent the war in postal censorship and then MI5 before becoming chairman of Sotheby's in 1957.

He was not only able to attract desirable objects (mostly paintings) and sell them at ever-increasing prices at auction, but, himself a hustler, was able to democratise the natural desire to value a widening range of objects in terms of cash rather than mere beauty or sentiment. The universality of the nerve he touched is shown by the 13 million audience for BBC 1's The Antiques Road Show.

Wilson's first great triumph came in October 1958, with the sale of seven 'highly important' pictures owned by Jakob Goldschmidt, the son of a German refugee banker. The progress in developing the art market since then can be measured by the hundred-fold jump in the turnover of Sotheby's and Christie's to around pounds 700m each and by the rise in the value of individual items. One of the Goldschmidt pictures, Cezanne's Nature Morte: les grosses pommes, was sold in 1958 for pounds 90,000. It fetched a cool pounds 17m when it was resold last month.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Wilson attracted large numbers of young would- be experts and auctioneers to create the most formidable outfit the art world had ever seen. Once Sotheby's had taken over its New York rival Parke Burnet in 1964, it emerged as a dominant world force.

In 1973 Wilson successfully lobbied the British government to ensure that VAT was imposed only on the difference between the purchase and sale value of a work of art and not on the total value. This means the tax levied on art sales in Britain is much lower than in many other countries, underscoring London's importance as an art market.

Wilson, a brilliant auctioneer with all the poker-playing instincts of a dealer, lacked managerial expertise, preferring instead an elaborate system of divide and rule. He left Sotheby's suddenly in 1979 to live in France, four days after another homosexual Old Etonian, Sir Anthony Blunt, had been exposed. The coincidence led to rumours that Wilson too had been a Russian spy. In fact his tax lawyer had warned him to leave the country immediately to avoid tax.

Civil war soon broke out in Sotheby's and within four years his beloved firm had been sold to Alfred Taubman.