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Bidding for Class
By Robert Lacey
Little, Brown & Co. 354pp $27.95

The 1996 sale of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' possessions by Sotheby's Holdings created a media frenzy. Headlines shouted when President Kennedy's humidor went for $574,500 and his golf woods for $772,500. Even so, some details went unreported, as author Robert Lacey reveals. Lying loose in the former First Lady's jewel boxes, the auction house found 11 small diamonds worth no more than $50 each. Sotheby's arranged the stones in a ''J'' on black velvet. They fetched $17,250.

This little story is Sotheby's: Bidding for Class in microcosm. A British writer known for his portraits of royalty, Lacey is in his element here. He spins a fascinating tale of the evolution of the auction business over the past 250 years. During that time, Sotheby's and its archrival, Christie's International PLC, have put on lavish airs. They employ staffs of scholarly experts to certify their wares, and they assign ''high-gloss and lissome young creatures'' to flatter the clients. But, Lacey contends, when you strip away the fine veneer, the duo aren't much different from folks who sell rugs or used cars. ''Auctioneers are the high-end hucksters of the consumer culture, wizards who can turn the remnants of death into a celebration,'' he writes.

If you enjoy buying at Sotheby's and Christie's, Lacey's book may irritate you. His view of the relationship between auction houses and their patrons is deeply cynical. The houses are highly skilled at lending an aura of history and distinction to what are essentially rummage sales, he argues. In their sights are the new rich--who are insecure about their origins and identities and are ''bidding for class.''

As Lacey shows, attempts to buy a piece of some dead celebrity are contemporary versions of a very old ritual. Both houses have their origins in 18th century London. If anyone invented the high-end auction business, it was James Christie, whose firm made a fortune selling the goods of deceased or down-on-their-luck dukes to the new class of industrialists hungry for prestige. Sotheby's, a second-hand bookseller also named for an owner, was not in a league with Christie's for decades.

But it has closed the gap in the past century or so thanks to some strong characters of its own. The most important was Peter Wilson, who ran the company from 1958 to 1980 and pioneered the techniques of today's extravaganzas. He spent heavily on marketing and advertising, and he won the rights to the best Picassos and van Goghs by cutting risky deals that guaranteed clients high prices. He also began shifting Sotheby's center of gravity to New York.

In 1983, Sotheby's fell into the hands of A. Alfred Taubman, a Michigan shopping-mall developer. Some could see this as the revenge of the nouveaux riches. Taubman and his hand-picked CEO, Diana D. Brooks, are testing the limits of the franchise, selling new jewelry and made-for-sale Walt Disney cartoon celluloids. Lacey implies that such practices could hurt Sotheby's reputation. But with the U.S. economy hot, customers, it seems, are ready to snap up anything with a Sotheby's label.



PHOTO: Cover, ``Sotheby's''


Updated June 11, 1998 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1998, Bloomberg L.P.
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