Sunday, November 17, 2013

Breakfast at Sotheby's - Philip Hook

As far as November and books goes it's the month that keeps on giving, so many good things have hit the shelves in the last couple of weeks and Philip Hook's 'Breakfast at Sotheby's' is most definitely one of them. 'Breakfast at Sotheby's An A-Z of the Art World'  is part dictionary in that the main chapters are broken down into alphabetical subheadings, part memoir, Hook has been an Antiques Roadshow expert, a director for Christie's, and is currently a director at Sotheby's where he's also the senior specialist in impressionism and modern art so is well qualified to guide the reader around the art world, and more especially the bits where money changes hands.

As Hook himself puts it this is 'a book that investigates in prurient detail the guilty but ever fascinating relationship between art and money'. Given that without money to pay for it most of the canon of Art History as we know it wouldn't exist it's curious that we don't always like to acknowledge the relationship. This years excellent Reith lectures delivered by Grayson Perry coincidentally covers some of the same ground that Hook does in 'Breakfast at Sotheby's', Perry came across as a man quite comfortable with his commercial success, his audience somewhat less so - the idea that you might become an artist specifically to make money clearly isn't romantic or high minded enough. Conversely everybody's favourite bit of the Antiques Roadshow is finding out how much something is worth. We're a strange lot.

The first thing that struck me here was how very, very, good a salesman Hook must be, he's utterly charming, knows the importance of a good story and how to make it just a little bit racy from time to time, and absolutely knows how to make the reader laugh (I laughed a lot throughout this book) these are gifts which deserve to be celebrated. The bonus of it being a very amusing book aside there are other excellent reasons for reading, I have a lot of books about art - shelves of them even - but this is the only one that concerns itself with market forces. They would all be snotty about 'Middlebrow' artists like Jack Vettriano, but as long as people are prepared to pay good money for his work - and they are - then auction houses and commercial galleries have to take him seriously.

Looking at art in terms of money raises all sorts of questions about public taste and tastemakers. Auction houses get to see things that students generally don't - as a student you get shown only the good stuff, not the things that great artists did on off days, or that competent but not great artists spent a lifetime making a living out of. Art history (in my day at least) was taught as a succession of movements and isms all neatly following each other in a nice chronological order and each underlining the last, we didn't spend a lot of time on genre paintings of winsome looking children and animals, and none at all on humorous depictions of cardinals. The first time I saw really second rate painting in a gallery context was in Leicester where they have a lumpy looking Victorian nude - at least she was meant to be nude but for modesty's sake someone had stuck a piece of painted net around her middle, the gallery displayed it as an amusing curiosity. It isn't always obvious that precisely that sort of thing is far more common than relative masterpieces because who seeks out what they consider to be rubbish?

I don't know why I find it so hard to write about books that I think are this brilliant and useful but so it is - it's taken me 5 hours so far to write this post and I'm far from happy with it. Basically this is a very funny thought provoking read that anybody with an interest in art should look out for. It would make a fantastic Christmas present for anybody you know with a vague interest in art (and is likely to make several people I know just such Christmas presents). It will easily make my top ten books of the year list and should you happen to see a copy do please at least read a page or two.    


  1. Do you only buy people books that you like for presents? A 'novel' idea but perhaps not the ideal gift for everybody? Presents are meant to be a personal thought for an individual - not forcing your love of something onto someone else? Just a thought D.R

  2. I only buy books as presents for people who like books as presents, I base my choices on the common interests and shared sense of humour I have with my friends so can't imagine why I would give somebody something I didn't think was very good. You must have had some rotten presents bought for you in the past to take this so personally.

  3. The joy of receiving books as presents is the same as browsing in an actual bookshop. You will receive/happen upon a book that you may not normally consider. Why limit oneself to a dull and entrenched routine of subject mater? Joy to the world and particularly to all book buyers and readers who revel in the diverse and wonderful exploration of literary and subject matter!

  4. I couldn't agree more with last comment. I'm a golf addict but would I want everybody to buy me golf clubs/golf books or would I buy them golf related gifts? You mentioned in another post that 'everybody' is getting a copy of 'booze' - just making a point that we all have personal tastes and what we love is individual. Perish the thought - some might not appreciate a book at all!

  5. Methinks you might enjoy reading Duveen by S.N. Behrman. Duveen was an art dealer who convinced US robber barons in the early 20th c. that they just had to own old masters or they would never amount to anything. His manipulation of the art market for his own profit was legend. And in the end he convinced all the robber barons to donate their art to museums. Thanks to him the National Gallery in DC is a giant treasure chest. I think there are several books written about him, but the one I enjoyed can be viewed here:

    1. I can't believe I didn't know about Duveen before, and happily there are a few cheap copies available on amazon (the 1st one I saw was £60). The Mellon collection is at the top of my American wishlist of places to see. My favourite art collector has until now been Vivant Denon who had the happy job of following Napoleon around Europe choosing what he wanted for the Louvre. Much of it had to be given back in the end but you can't win them all and what was left is still a significant part of the Louvre's collection.