“Vice-President Rockefeller is here and would like to look at our porcelain collection,” the receptionist on the other end of the line whispered, thrilled.
I swallowed a panic attack. Then choked on another.
I was the extremely junior member of New York’s Parke Bernet’s Porcelain Department, a secretary majoring in “white-out.” My porcelain expertise to date? “Oops” was not ok, and “made in China” didn’t cut it.
It was the Friday afternoon of Thanksgiving weekend so I was left alone to man the department while the senior members indulged in a four-day weekend. Friday was expected to be quiet and uneventful, not Rockefeller-charged.
Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was charming, magnetic and a porcelain aficionado. What to do? I explained that I was hardly an expert in porcelain. He reassured me that that was not an issue.
Bookended by two exceptionally unsubtle Secret Service men, we walked into the elevator. When we reached the showroom, we wandered towards the porcelain exhibit. With great ease and impressive knowledge, Rockefeller examined each piece, marveled at a few, and then delved into the allure of fine porcelain in general.
This was Parke Bernet in the 1970’s, housed in the magnificent 980 Madison Avenue building. Experts were young, poised and unrivaled. Christie’s had yet to descend on American shores.
Roxana Robinson, author of Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, remembers the time. “I worked in the American Painting Department, first as the Secretary, then as a cataloguer, and then as Assistant Head. Lots of the Heads of Departments were in their thirties or forties, and lots of them were from England. It was an enormously vital environment, it seemed that everyone was young and smart and interesting and international.”
Sotheby’s really had a monopoly since Christie’s hadn’t yet arrived. It gave us an enormous sense of power: We were the only game in town. Also, it was a time when the art market was exploding, and people were beginning to use art as a cultural tool—a way to climb the social ladder.
The evening auctions were Black Tie, and especially grand. People called us up to beg for tickets, and we would turn them down. Once, someone called a friend of mine who worked in Old Masters to ask for a ticket to the Scull Auction.
“I’m a friend of the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art,” they said.
“I don’t care if you’re a friend of the Queen of England, I can’t get you a ticket,” replied my friend.
“It all felt very exciting: It was a power rush. Everyone who came there was dealing on a grand scale in some way. They were great and deeply knowledgeable collectors, or they were malefactors of great wealth who wanted social respectability and acclaim, or they had inherited great art from a distinguished forebear. It felt as though we were living at the apex of a cultural pyramid.”
Warhol, French Impressionists and Old Masters, all impeccably manicured at the starting gate of record auction prices-to-be.
“The biggest difference between the auction world now and in the old days was that in the old days Sotheby’s was owned and managed by experts. Higher salaries were based on expertise,” reminisces Armin Allen, who began his apprenticeship as a porter in Sotheby’s London training program. Initially, Allen was not knowledgeable about porcelain but he was head of the Fine Porcelain Department in New York by his early twenties.
“They preferred a blank slate,” mused Allen.
“It was a more innocent time” adds Peter Rathbone, who rose from cataloguer to the Head of the American Painting Department.”
Outside of Sotheby’s, we socialized together—shared dinners and played bridge, even if we didn’t know the rules of the game. When our auctions hit surprising highs, we celebrated with champagne and hot dogs served by vendors that rode up in the elevators. Everyone was invited.
Bill Latimer, one of New York’s most famous doormen, stood at the entrance and greeted customers. They stopped to chat with him. No one was impolite enough to seem in a hurry.
A New York time to be touched on with the delicacy and reverence reserved for a rare Meissen treasure.
Then, treasured again.