“Picasso was the most famous painter in the art world, but Peter Wilson (1913-1984) was its most influential figure,” says Peregrine Pollen, a senior figure at Sotheby’s in London and New York from the late 1950s to the 80s.
If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this. Wilson, the chairman of Sotheby’s from 1958 until 1980, introduced currency converter boards and satellite links during auctions, public presale estimates, telephone bidding, glitzy evening sales, guarantees, art sales statistics and ruthless business-getting that included buying works outright.
He also pioneered the PR stunt: In New York, when selling the treasure from Spanish ships sunk off Florida in 1715, Wilson mounted an exhibition with a live macaw in a reconstruction of the captain’s cabin, and only children were allowed to bid, addressed as “sir” and “madam” by Wilson, who took the auction himself.
Above all, he understood art and had a keen eye for its saleability. Richard Day, of the prints and drawings department from 1957 to 1990, remembers asking him whether prints were worth selling. Wilson replied that people tend to sell their less important possessions first, which are often prints, and so you gain access to their main collection of drawings and paintings.
His style of management was, at the very least, unorthodox. Marc Blondeau, on the staff from 1969 to 1987, remembers one meeting at Wilson’s house in the south of France with “Sotheby’s European representatives standing in the large, irregular-shaped pool with water up to our necks. Wilson dominated everyone with his height and the water only came up to his waist. There we were discussing the future of Sotheby’s Europe.” Read more