In witty, well-researched previous books, London author Robert Lacey infiltrated the closed societies of megabusiness (Ford: The Man and the Machine) and the underworld (Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life). Now, he has also found another choice subject: Sotheby's auction house, which "has spent a profitable 250 years cultivating the paradox that rich people, at heart, are the neediest people of all." The book opens with a bizarre prologue, recounting the glitz, greed, and glamour of Sotheby's auction of the estate of Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis 5,914 items ranging from her cigarette lighter to her BMW. The ego-feeding frenzy was off and running with a nondescript wooden footstool, value estimated in the catalogue at $100 to $150.

The auctioneer, the firm's statuesque blond president and CEO, Dede Brooks, sold the item for a total of $33,500. On the underside was a label in Jackie's handwriting: "Footstool JBK bedroom in White House for Caroline to climb onto window seat." Other prices made even less sense: $574,500 for the dead President's small walnut cigar box, $387,500 for his golfing irons, $772,500 for the woods (bought by Arnold Schwarzenegger), and Jackie's $100 necklace of fake pearls for $211,500. She customarily wore replicas of her best jewelry, Lacey writes, "considering this a huge joke." Just as mind-boggling is the epilogue describing the sale of the effects of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, with Woody Allen, Whoopie Goldberg, and Barbara Walters among those seeking objects with the letter "W" surmounted on a coronet. Loudest applause went to a young Asian-American couple who paid $29,900 for a small ribbon-tied box inscribed by the Duchess: "A piece of our wedding cake." The next day Seinfeld called for permission to use the incident on the show. Jerry would buy the piece of cake at Sotheby's, put it in the fridge, and a famished Elaine would come home late, looking for a snack. You can guess the rest.

The bulk of the book is an intriguing history of Sotheby's from its first auction, held in 1744, through recent times when the Japanese drove art prices through the roof and some of their corporations into bankruptcy. Locked for centuries in a rivalry with Christie's, Sotheby's expansion into America wins the day. The book is also a cultural history of England, with its ingrained distinction of class and gender. In 1916, the company employed its company's first females, insisting they dress plainly so as not to distract male customers. When the American entrepreneur Alfred Taubman bought control of Sotheby's in 1983, he walked into a meeting where Dede Brooks, the present CEO, was the only female, and asked her for a cup of coffee. "ÔWith pleasure,' she replied, handing him a sheaf of documents. ÔAnd could you photocopy these for me?'" Robert Lacey interviewed hundreds of people before writing this remarkable book, collecting amusing stories, especially about the longtime CEO Peter Wilson, a friend of Ian Fleming and reportedly a model for James Bond. This is a lively tale, richly entertaining and full of surprises.

Reviewed by Benjamin Griffith.

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