I don’t know much about the art or auction worlds, so I thought perhaps our new book “Breakfast at Sotheby’s: An A-Z of the Art World” by Philip Hook might enlighten me. Mr. Hook is a Director at Sotheby’s and has also been a Director at their only real competitor, Christie’s, as well as having been an independent art dealer.

The book is not, strictly speaking, an “A-Z.” Each of the five chapters is broken down into sections alphabetically, but that seems more of a conceit than an actual design. For example, the first chapter “The Artist and His Hinterland” contains sections labelled “Bohemianism,” “Branding,” “Brueghel,” “Creative Block,” “Degas,” and so on in alphabetical order, but it’s hardly dictionary-like. It strikes me as odd that the subtitle would then be “An A-Z of the Art World,” but, that quibble aside, the organization of the book is fine and it was enlightening and interesting.

The first chapter concerns why specific artists are (or aren’t) in demand. Quality of work aside, values are strongly influenced by the artist’s history, personality, output, and so on. Van Gogh’s tragic life and early death highly impact the value of his paintings. Hook writes with tongue firmly in cheek throughout the book, commenting in a later chapter “The cruel retrospective verdict of today’s art market is that most of these artists would have left more satisfactory imprints on the sands of artistic time had they died in the First World War than they did by surviving. To be callous about it, perhaps more of them should have been deployed in the front line of the trenches, literally an avant-garde. On the German side, two great Expressionists, August Macke and Franz Marc, were killed in action. Sad, of course, but in terms of ensuring a strong market for their consequently rare work, these last two may have got it right. In general, the younger an artist dies the better.”

The second chapter looks at styles and subjects that are in demand. Or, in the case of still lifes of dead animals, aren’t. Looking to buy a Mondrian painting? Don’t pay much if there’s no red. Seems there just has to be some red in a Mondrian for it to be work anything. Miro? Look for blue. Earth tones aren’t popular, especially in a Miro.

Chapter three covers why people like certain paintings better than others, including color and emotional impact. There’s a really interesting bit here about framing, including the tidbit that in the past, the auction houses were frequently surprised at the prices being paid for some old masters. Turns out, they were anticipating prices based on the paintings they carefully appraised, but didn’t take into account the old (and pricey!) frames the painting were in. Those, in fact, were what people were bidding on!

The fourth chapter covers the provenance, or history, of artworks. There is some really interesting information here about the art that was stolen, in one way or another, in Nazi-controlled or Soviet-overrun Europe and what is still going on with that issue as well as other “missing” or stolen art. The last chapter, “Market Weather,” discusses what affects the art market in general, aside from the particulars of any given piece of art.

One last thing—Hook was one of the experts on the original (British) “Antiques Roadshow” and there are some entertaining bits about that, as well. I found the book to be interesting and very readable for someone without much background in art.

Advertisements