Souvenir of Michel Strauss, impressionist supremo at Sotheby’s for four decades

When Michel Strauss joined the Impressionist and Modern Art Department at Sotheby’s in London in the summer of 1961, the French esthete in his twenties could hardly know what central role he would play in creating a market in passionate and lucrative auction for Impressionist and Modern art. . With his colleagues, he created sales which then made the headlines as are the prices reached today for Banksys and NFT.

His interview at Sotheby’s was from his day: a lunch at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, a short walk from the Bond Street auction houses, and a quick chat with the enigmatic chairman of the company, Peter Wilson, a former officer of the intelligence known as PCW, and Carmen Gronau. , head of the old paintings department. “PCW liked my degree in art history, my Rothschilds and other French relations, and the fact that I spoke French,” Strauss recalls. Halfway through lunch, however, Wilson left, leaving him with Carmen, his consigliere. “She was a nightmare. She always looked in a bad mood, ”Strauss noted. Still, he got the job.

Sotheby’s fledgling Impressionist and Modern art department, the first of its kind in the world, was made up of Strauss, David Nash, and Bruce Chatwin, later a famous travel writer and novelist. Strauss and Chatwin were a well-rounded, if at times choppy, combination. “I got the impression when I got there that first morning that he was not at all happy to see me there,” Strauss remarked. “The first sale that took place after I arrived was the Somerset Maugham sale, and we agreed to catalog it together in the morning. When I got there at 9:30 a.m. I found out he had been there since 5:30 or 6 a.m. and had everything cataloged. That’s when I realized it had become very competitive. But … we were trying to do our best. We complemented each other very well. “

While Maugham’s 1962 shipment – which included a mural by Gauguin painted on a Tahitian hut door – was won, in part, thanks to Chatwin’s charm with the cantankerous author, Strauss made sure that he cataloged the sale later in the same year of the collection formed by film producer Sir Alexander Korda. The group included Vincent van Gogh Still Life with Lemons and Blue Gloves (1889): “It was the first image I had cataloged,” said Strauss, “that I really fell in love with. “

Another early success was his writing of an annual corporate book: The ivory hammer: the year at Sotheby’s. For its first issue, examining sales from 1962-63, Strauss asked Ian Fleming to write a James Bond story set in the auction house: the tale, “A Lady’s Property”, has saw 007 winking at a Soviet agent during the sale. of a Fabergé egg.

In the 1960s, the art world changed rapidly, in large part thanks to Wilson’s verve. The era of the gala sale, heralded by the famous Goldschmidt auction of 1958, had come; Public relations got involved and TV cameras turned to sales. Strauss saw the market flourish in his estate and in 1965 he was appointed director of Sotheby’s. Following the departures of Nash, New York, and Chatwin, in the world of literature, he takes control of “The Imps”.

Great opportunities followed. In 1969 Strauss traveled to Tokyo to take offers on Impressionist works sold in a department store, with the help of a team of performers (one of whom was the Olympic diving champion of Japan). It was a slight precursor to the Japanese buying frenzy two decades later. Back in London, there were innovations and escapades: he introduced the transatlantic telephone auctions and on one occasion was forced to manhandle a dealer in fake Dufys outside the doors of Sotheby’s.

A family of connoisseurs

Coming from no less than three dynasties of collectors, Strauss had the connoisseur in his DNA. He was born in Paris in 1936, to André and Aline Strauss. His paternal grandfather was the Parisian collector Jules Strauss, great champion of the Impressionists, while on the maternal side there was the Franco-Russian family from Gunzbourg and the French family Deutsch from Meurthe. He grew up in a bubble of great art, with a life shared between Paris and the Château de Brécourt in Normandy.

Strauss’s father died of cancer in 1939. In May of the following year, faced with the German invasion and the threat it posed to an important Jewish family, Aline Strauss, intelligent and resourceful woman and golfer championship, drives Michel de Brécourt to Biarritz in his convertible Bentley in the hope of obtaining visas for Spain. After being refused these, she, Michel and her parents began a frightening period of life in Vichy, France. They were in Cannes when the first anti-Jewish laws were proclaimed in October 1940 and Aline obtained American visas and exit visas for herself and for three-year-old Michel. They crossed Spain and Portugal, then on the SS Excursion refuge in New York, where they arrived on January 20, 1941, followed three months later by Aline’s parents. In New York, the young Michel learned about the work of the Impressionists – in particular those of the Havemeyer bequest at the Metropolitan Museum in New York – and of Van Gogh through an exhibition of 80 paintings at the Wildenstein dealers.

In 1943, Aline married Hans Halban, a prominent French nuclear physicist who worked for the nascent Manhattan Project in Montreal. In 1946, Michel, his mother and his stepfather and his half-brother Peter Halban moved to Oxford, where they settled in Headington, and Hans worked for the Clarendon Laboratory (a second son, Philippe Halban, was born in 1950). Aline later fell in love with the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who in 1956 became Michel’s second stepfather.

A calm and studious boy, Michel endured the ordeals of an English preparatory school in Montreal – where he was bullied for being both French and Jewish – and of an education in English, first in Bryanston and then at Oxford, where he spent a year reading PPE at Christ Church College and socializing with the intelligent ensemble, before being sent off for failing his end-of-year exams. At the suggestion of his stepfather Isaiah, he asked to read art history at Harvard, where he spent three happy years and was superbly taught, notably by Rembrandt’s expert Jakob Rosenberg. “He was an inspiration,” Strauss wrote of Rosenberg in his 2010 memoir, Images, Passions and Eyes, “To teach not only academic interpretations and dry analyzes but, and much more important to me, knowledge and appreciation”.

At the end of his stay at Harvard, Strauss was married to Margery Tongway, another Harvard student, and, after their honeymoon, in 1959 began a doctorate at the Courtauld Institute in London, and began writing reviews for the Burlington Magazine. Anthony Blunt, director of Courtauld, was not amused when Strauss informed him that he was leaving in 1961 to take a job as a cataloguer at Sotheby’s.

During the 1970s Strauss played a central role in Sotheby’s work helping British Rail build a large collection of Impressionist works which was later converted into a hugely lucrative auction in 1989, sold for the benefit of the fund. pension plan. It was perhaps his biggest sale. With clients, he was more likely to provide historical details about the art than sales models, although he understood the importance of taking risks in creating a well-organized auction. “In climbing as in skiing, I was able to push my limits in a reckless way and this same trait was imposed at Sotheby’s”, he wrote in Images, Passions and Eyes.

Along with his colleagues he was known as a generous tutor for emerging talent, advising a new generation of experts in the 1980s, including Melanie Clore, later President of Sotheby’s Europe, and Philip Hook, the bestselling author of Breakfast at Sotheby’s. Strauss stepped back from the rostrum, however, noting that “to be a successful auctioneer you need some of the qualities of an actor.” He was much more adept at orchestrating sophisticated sales, which he did, expertly, for about four decades.

In 2000, Strauss left Sotheby’s and worked the following year as artistic advisor to Bernard Arnault and the LVMH retail group, then owners of the Phillips auctioneers, and as a consultant to museums.

He and Margery had a son, Andrew, who followed his father in a career at Sotheby’s, and a daughter, Julia. Michel was married second, later in life, to Sally Lloyd Pearson.

Michel Strauss, born in Paris on September 23, 1936, died on October 18, 2021


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